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Looking back on the biggest week in UFC history

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
The most ambitious week in UFC history ended with new champions, two of the biggest drug test issues in history,  new stars, new records, and even new owners.

With four shows planned in a seven-day period, one of them being UFC 200, it figured to be a newsworthy and exhausting week to be a fan. But whatever one might have expected going in, it didn't even scratch the surface.

There was the self-destruction of the career of Jon Jones, the resurrection, and then possible ending of the career of Brock Lesnar, the departure of Lorenzo Fertitta and shakeups in multiple weight classes.

There were highlights that you could have predicted, like the Joanna Jedrzejczyk vs. Claudia Gadelha fight, and others far more surprising. There was Don Frye's Hall of Fame acceptance speech, saying that if he got paid what Conor McGregor did, he'd do press conferences between rounds. With all the big names on different shows, the week's best fight involved an undersized unknown fighter, Lando Vanatta. He had the intimidating nickname of "Groovy," perhaps the first time that word has been used in pop culture in three decades. Vanatta, coming in on short notice and ranked somewhere around No. 140 in the world, nearly beat a genuine top title contender in Tony Ferguson.

In the end, it felt every fighter who won at featherweight or lightweight then challenged McGregor.

We learned a few things. One, no matter what the quality, four shows is too many in one week. Just days after what was undoubtedly one of the largest audiences ever to watch a UFC event on July 9, the next show, on July 13, tied for the least number of viewers for any show in prime time since the advent of FS 1.

Three nights seemed okay. The first two shows in Las Vegas drew 8,000 fans each, extremely healthy considering Saturday night was the big show. The $10.7 million gate for UFC 200 was the largest ever in the U.S., and second largest in UFC history, trailing only the Georges St-Pierre vs. Jake Shields in 2011 ($12,075,000 at Rogers Centre in Toronto for UFC 129).  Friday ratings were good, and Saturday ratings were great. In the U.S., even with the prelims starting 32 minutes late, they did the third best pay-per-view prelims number ever on FS 1.

In Canada, the numbers were shocking. The show did 514,000 viewers on TSN and another 66,000 in Quebec on RDS 2 in French. Because of the difference in population, Canadian numbers would normally be one-ninth that of U.S. numbers. So this would be equivalent to more than 5.2 million viewers, nearly triple what the show ended up doing, in the U.S. Canada had been gigantic for UFC through 2013, but had faded since Georges St-Pierre stopped fighting. But this was the most-watched televised UFC show in history in that country, and more than 1.1 million Canadians watched at least one fight.

Former champion Cain Velasquez revitalized his standing as one of the best fighters in the sport, as did Jose Aldo. Johny Hendricks, another former champion, did anything but that. With the probable departure of Jones for a long period of time, Daniel Cormier is now clearly the deserving best light heavyweight in the UFC, but he still can't get the fans to accept him as such. And MMA math proved terrible in predicting fights, given that Rafael dos Anjos destroyed Donald Cerrone, Cerrone made Eddie Alvarez look like he wasn't in his league, and then Alvarez finished dos Anjos in the first round to become the first person in history to hold both a Bellator and UFC world title.

There were shakeups in a number of divisions, so let's take a look at them.

HEAVYWEIGHT - There has never been a question of the talents of Cain Velasquez (14-2), but there's been nothing but questions regarding his durability because of how frequently he's been injured . But the way Velasquez ran through Travis Browne on Saturday immediately made one think he should be getting a title shot at the winner of the Sept. 10 fight with champion Stipe Miocic (15-2) and Alistair Overeem (41-14).

Then came Brock Lesnar (6-3). A few days before his 39th birthday and four-and-a-half years since stepping foot in the Octagon, the enormous professional wrestler whittled his way down to 266 pounds for weigh-ins, and beat top 10 heavyweight Mark Hunt.

That led to nothing but questions. Would Lesnar want to fight again? Would Vince McMahon, who had him under contract until the spring of 2018, allow him to fight again?: And if so, when?

But those questions may be moot. A possible two-year Lesnar suspension, at his age, would have a good chance at ending his career. While he's still got pro wrestling, the steroid stigma is strong in that business from two public trials. Also, the possible embarrassment that he's been in WWE, which publicly claims stringent testing, for more than four years without a failed test, yet failed a test in another company in three weeks.

Lesnar's name on the marquee means more money and more publicity. There would probably be no bigger money fight right now in the heavyweight division than Lesnar challenging for the title, particularly if Overeem beats Miocic. But like with Jones, that looks out of the picture today.

LIGHT HEAVYWEIGHT - What was UFC's marquee weight class, from the days of Frank Shamrock, Tito Ortiz, Randy Couture, Chuck Liddell, Rampage Jackson, Forrest Griffin and Jon Jones, suddenly has a big hole if Jones is out of the picture.

Cormier (18-1) is champion, but still has the stigma of never beating Jones. Fans booed him for beating Anderson Silva, as he went with the percentages and continually took down one of the most dangerous strikers in the sport's history down to the ground.

His next contender should be the winner of the Aug. 20 fight with Anthony "Rumble" Johnson (21-5) and Glover Teixeira (25-4). The problem is Johnson, right now the clear No. 2, already lost once to Cormier. Johnson has one thing going for him, which is that he may be pound-for-pound the hardest hitter in the sport. In the blink of an eye, he can finish anyone. But past he and Teixeira, there isn't another clear title contender right now in the weight class.

LIGHTWEIGHT - The title win by Alvarez (28-4) changes things around in arguably the deepest division in the company. Ferguson (21-3), having won 14 of his last 15 fights, and eight in a row, is both deserving of a fight, and such a fight could be potentially a fight of the year.

But there are other more lucrative options for Alvarez. The money fight is with the winner of the Aug. 20 bout with McGregor (19-3) vs. Nate Diaz (20-10). The problem is, if McGregor wins, he'll have to either defend his featherweight title, or vacate it. And for McGregor, a rematch with Aldo would probably be more lucrative than Alvarez.

Also in the picture is Donald Cerrone (30-7, 1 no contest), who has been fighting at welterweight but could easily make lightweight, and has a win over Alvarez. Will Brooks (18-1) has an impressive won/loss record, was a Bellator champion who never lost the title. Brooks twice beat Michael Chandler, who beat Alvarez once and some think he beat him a second time in a close fight that went to Alvarez. But Brooks didn't look impressive enough in beating Ross Pearson in his UFC debut on July 8 to be considered just yet.

FEATHERWEIGHT - If not for one punch, we'd probably be talking about Aldo as the top all-around fighter in the sport today. Aldo (26-2), has only lost once, the 13 second knockout to McGregor, since 2005.

If McGregor wins or loses against Diaz, he's either going to have to defend against Aldo, or vacate the title. If McGregor won't cut back down, Aldo's next opponent should be Max Holloway (16-3), with a nine-fight winning streak.

WOMEN'S BANTAMWEIGHT - The title win by Amanda Nunes (13-3) was a disaster for UFC business. With Ronda Rousey, Holly Holm and Miesha Tate, there were a number of huge money fights possible with any mixing and matching of the three. With Nunes as champion, it changes completely.

Rousey (12-1) could walk in and get the title shot on the day of her choosing. And just because it's Rousey going after the title, it will be a big money fight. But there is no indication Rousey will fight any time soon.

Holm (10-1) should get the next title shot provided she beats Valentina Shevchenko (12-2) on UFC's next show on July 23 in Chicago. Nunes has already beaten Shevchenko, so if Holm doesn't win, the logical next contender should be Julianna Pena (8-2). But neither of those fights would be able to headline a huge money pay-per-view show like the fights that seemed inevitable just one week ago.

WOMEN'S STRAWWEIGHT - Joanna Jedrzejczyk's (12-0) win over Claudia Gadelha (13-2) seemed to only confirm the two as the class of the division.

While there was a real question over the result of their first fight, Jedrzejczyk made it clear in rounds three through five who the champion deserved to be.

The problem is, Gadelha may have been her only competition in the division, since the gap between the top two and the rest of the pack looked to be significant.

The next title shot likely will go to the winner of Rose Namajunas (5-2) and Karolina Kowalkiewicz (9-0) on July 30 in Atlanta. But from there, when it comes to title contenders, it's slim pickings. Joanne Calderwood (11-1) would be the only real alternative to the Namajunas-Kowalkiewicz winner getting the shot. Carla Esparza (11-3) looked out of her league with Jedrzejczyk. Tatiana Suarez (5-0), the winner of the Ultimate Fighter, looked like she could be one of the best in the division right now, but she's still unproven against name competition. To her credit, in her big stage debut on July 8, she not only won handily, but showed top star charisma that is the difference often between fighters who win a lot, and those who the fans remember.

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