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Giving thanks for the many wonderful things in MMA: 2017

UFC 217: Jedrzejczyk v Namajunas
Rose Namajunas is one of several major stories to emerge in 2017.
Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

This has been the biggest year in UFC history “by a long shot,” UFC president Dana White told a room full of skeptics earlier this month in New York. How big? Very big. The biggest. A tower of BIG so menacingly skyward that you can’t see the top of it from the ground looking up, for the spire doth pierce the clouds. For those of us who’ve had our heads up our asses (read: all of us), Dana was there to let us know.

Of course, if we’ve learned to sprinkle salt over White’s words like the old-timers used to salt their beer, it’s because Dana is nothing if not a fanciful man. The year 2017 has been a little deadening to the senses, in part because almost nothing is as it seems. It’s been a smoke-and-mirrors affair, with fights falling out, and PPVs being stuffed with make-believe belts, and USADA red flags flapping in the wind, and the wind usually turning out to be flatulence, and Germaine de Randamie. This past weekend’s card in Sydney broke records for total in-cage fighting time, reaching over three total hours in length. Perhaps six minutes of that were compelling.

That wasn’t fun.

But what is this? It’s Thanksgiving, and we should be looking at the bright side! The first thing to be thankful for at this late stage of 2017 is that the fibs coming from the overlords still means they care. When somebody pointed out to White that indications were that this was a “down year” for the UFC in the pay-per-view sense, White turned a familiar shade of red.

“Whose indications are [those]?” White said. “People who don’t know what the f*ck they’re talking about. If you don’t know what’s going on in our business, how can you speculate that we’re having a bad year? This is the best year, by a long shot, in the company’s history. Boom.”

He did. He said “boom.” It was as if Dana (thought he) dropped a bomb on our every misconception and was standing back watching the mushroom cloud bloom over our heads. It was glorious. It was ridiculous. It was so Dana White, the one we thought we lost in the Big Sell — the one that lived to throw a monkey wrench into perception, and snatch the narrative.

Boom indeed, Dana! Nobody’s teeth look as puritanical and white when the fibs travel through them…boom, boom, boom!

And here are some other things to be thankful for in MMA this year…

Floyd Mayweather-Conor McGregor is in the past

Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor Esther Lin, Showtime

In prospect, it was a big deal for reasons that were hard to center on. MMA had always been a kind of ornery stepbrother to boxing, the sport’s world’s original (and most lovable) problem child. So to see an MMA star rise up and challenge one of boxing’s legends, it smacked of more than a carnival — for some, it felt like boxing’s relevance going head-to-head with MMA’s. There were inferiority complexes around every corner, especially with the curmudgeonly boxing media being forced to — at least momentarily — put up with a lesser species.

Still, it was a carnival. The world tour was like nothing we’d ever seen at first, and like nothing anybody should ever want to see again by its end. The fight was competitive for a few rounds, then a flush of cold reality. It was McGregor holding his own, or Mayweather carrying him. It was fact and fiction duking it out, with the not-so-subtle subtext being both fighters holding up cash saying, “Look at all this money you fools gave us!” We were essentially losing our heads over an extravagant fight game splurge.

It was like we overate at the buffet, combining too many rich foods with the chocolate bar. Though it’s only been a few months, it hasn’t aged all that well. Given the magnitude of its happening, the fight kind of killed off six weeks in either direction any of the other MMA events. Boxing purists got to hold up Canelo-GGG as a real boxing match just a few weeks later (foiled though they were by judge Adalaide Byrd), but MMA got hollowed out a bit — it had nothing to show for, other than the uncertainly of McGregor’s next move. Subsequent “events” in MMA sagged like flowers in their vases.

Was it worth it? Maybe. If anything, the fight was destinational. There was always the vibe of a “hoodwink,” for sure, but McGregor entered the superstar stratum, a place he has always been heading towards. That kind of thing is gratifying for people who, A) root for the success of MMA, even as it ventures down side streets, B) root for wealth like it’s the sport within the sport, or C) have some kind of vicarious emotional stake in it.

But in all the “boxing purist” stuff that made the fight debatable to taste, here’s an unexpected silver lining on the other side: MMA purism is a real thing, too. Watching McGregor try against Floyd was fun (and bold, and fearless), but plenty of the attention spans that floated over from the MMA side wanted to get back to the cage. That’s all it took was 10 rounds of extravagance abroad in a boxing ring to define all that’s to love in MMA. For some, the bigger gloves made the four-ounce variety feel sacred.

“Thug” Rose Namajunas

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Every now and then you get a story like Rose Namajunas’ in the fight game, where some personality that you learn to treat on her own terms over the course of time realizes a pinch-me moment that’s almost too insane to be real. Rose’s came at UFC 217 against the longtime strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk. We all knew Rose from her appearance on TUF 20, and by the time she lost to Carla Esparza for the inaugural title, we all knew it was best to leave Namajunas to her own timetable. She didn’t lose her star potential; she just carried it in her gym bag for a while.

That’s how it’s been as she made her way back. If anything, given how emotionally affected she was the first time through, people were wondering how Namajunas would handle herself should she get another title shot. When Jedrzejczyk needled her for being too mentally weak to handle being a champion, Namajunas presented an unnerving dead-eyed stare that was disconnected from the live wire that faced Esparza. Still, she was meant to lose because everyone lost to Jedrzejczyk. What she was up against wasn’t just her own psychology, but perhaps the best female mixed martial artist of all time.

So what did Rose do? She beat Jedrzejczyk at her own game, scoring a TKO at the 3:03 mark of the first round. The original “next Ronda Rousey” took out the “far better than Ronda Rousey” with her hands, making one thing crystal clear to everyone who has played along: She’s the next Rose Namajunas. She downplayed her title, and spoke like someone whose real goal was to make the world a better place.

Timely stuff, Rose Namajunas. The UFC could use just such a star right about now.

UFC gets GSP at MSG

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Listen, coming back after four years away from fighting and finishing a sturdy champion like Michael Bisping at Madison Square Garden is some kooky 30 for 30 stuff, but what it really does is blow the dust off the cover of a neglected old book: Who’s The Best Pound-For-Pound Fighter of All Time?

With Jon Jones having come back to strengthen his case and then once again blowing it with a lit USADA test…and Anderson Silva having been flagged again in an out-of-competition test, that may well tarnish and end his career…GSP emerges once again from the shadows to reclaim the (theoretical) throne of best P4P.


Whether he fights Robert Whittaker to unify the middleweight title or whoever, as of the time of this writing — at 4:36 on Nov, 21, 2017 — GSP is the P4P king.

(*Of course I’m not right; nobody is ever right in a P4P debate, that’s what makes those debates such asshole tomfoolery. Besides, what about Demetrious Johnson, who broke the goddamn record for most successful title defenses against Ray Borg this year? Oh yeah, about him...)

Mighty Mouse is still on top

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

I wrote this last year at Thanksgiving, and it still stands: The sport changes, and “Mighty Mouse” remains the constant. We take him for granted, like we do the moon, and million-year-old rocks. But he is a marvel just like any of those, if you really think about it. He’s got just as much astonishment packed in there to have a pretty good daydream about how small we all really are.

(Now, will he fight T.J. Dillashaw next and give 2018 a fight to be instantaneously thankful for? I hope so, dear reader. I hope so).

The rise of Darren Till, Colby Covington and Mike Perry

Getty Images

Each time there’s a deficit of attention being paid the UFC, a common chorus breaks out that goes like this: Who will be the next star? That’s tough to predict, because we used to think of a star in MMA as one of those plastic things that glow in the dark and stick on the ceiling. These days, with Rousey and McGregor having twinkled like Rigel and Arcturus, our standards for stardom a little different.

Three names that have emerged this year are Darren Till, Colby Covington and Mike Perry — a welterweight relish tray that have soared in popularity for very different reasons.

For the scouser Till, it’s the combination of audacious confidence (he keeps saying he’s the best ever) and deliverable action (he just starched “Cowboy” Cerrone in Gdansk). For Covington, it’s because he’s readily hateable (there’s a choose your own adventure of incidents to choose from) and also a winner (he just beat Demian Maia to make it five in a row). For Perry, it’s because he’s willing to fight anybody (he regularly talks sh*t), and everybody wants to fight him (Till was the latest to call him out). Perry also has a tattoo on his face, and an unsteady way of going about business.

In any case, you can gauge a potential star by the amount of people queuing up to fight them. There are plenty of people that want to punch Covington and Perry right now. Till — as a regular 170-pound Gargantuan — is perhaps too scary for people to line up for. However, a Till fight heading out of 2017 gets people stoked.

The welterweight division is alive and well and full of characters.

The Bellator Heavyweight Grand Prix has been drafted

Bellator 170 Media Day Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Technically this isn’t kicking off until the “first quarter of 2018,” which is Scott Coker language through and through. But what distinguishes this from the Strikeforce heavyweight grand prix that Coker did is that…well, some of them are middleweights? Or light heavyweights? Let’s just say people who wouldn’t mind letting themselves go a bit and still get paid.

Enter Chael Sonnen, the formidable barksman who generates interest just by being there. Enter Ryan Bader, who is already the light heavyweight champion, but not afraid to pound on the slabs. Enter King Mo Lawal, who is willing to fight at any weight you can imagine (above 205). And Rampage Jackson, ditto ditto. The others are Matt Mitrione, Fedor Emelianenko, Frank Mir (!) and Roy Nelson, regular heavyweights in varying degrees of twilight. That’s an assemblage of fighters nobody could have ever imagined coming together to fight it out for the Bellator heavyweight title.

Yet, as with all tournaments — and especially given the volatility of the personalities, the injuries that happen so frequently, and the commissions the mettle so freely — nothing is a given that it will play out in the current form. Just like Daniel Cormier snuck into the Strikeforce tourney as an alternate and won the damn thing, for all we know Shane Carwin will be having a belt wrapped around his waist at the end. Or Rory MacDonald. Or Linton Vassell.

(Here’s the official line-up, as it stands now: Rampage vs. Sonnen, Mitrione vs. Nelson, Bader vs. Mo, Mir vs. Fedor).

Just the thought of the madness in all of the above makes this worth the ride. Can’t wait.

MMA commentators are killing it

UFC 182: Castillo v Felder Photo by Steve Marcus/Getty Images

Brian Stann left his gig as a UFC commentator, which hurt, and Sean Grande is no longer calling Bellator fights, which kind of sucks. But the voices of MMA have shined this year like no other. There’s the technical demigod Dominick Cruz, who isn’t afraid to argue with Joe Rogan. There’s Paul Felder, who slid in there like it was a weekend theater gig and has thus far stole the show. You’ve got Mike Goldberg over there calling Conor McGregor’s first ever action in the Bellator cage. The familiar voices of Mauro Ranallo can be heard again. Jon Anik is a human pronunciation guide, capable of ridiculous feats. He can mutter mah-go-med-shah-REE-pov in his sleep (or taunt you with it during yours).

The action has waned at times in MMA this year, there has been disaster after disaster for so many of the cards, but the voices have been constantly upping the game. I’m personally thankful for that, and particularly for the man who was reduced to muttering “Thug Rose” a dozen times after Namajunas upset Jedrzejczyk, knowing damn well that there was nothing else that needed to be said. That is…

Daniel Cormier

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Not sure how it happened exactly, it’s almost impossible to fathom, but Cormier emerged this year in a new light. He defeated Anthony Johnson way back in April and heard his share of boos, and he lost to Jon Jones in the unification bout in July. Not exactly a great year. But right after that Jones loss — literally right after — he started winning. His tears in the cage made it clear what the fight meant to him, and how much of himself he had left in there. His humanity in the face of Jones’ subsequent drug test was both upright and genuine. His clearheaded articulation of everything that happens to him in this crazy world of MMA is second to none.

And now that he wears the belt again, there’s less of an imposter vibe than there was before. He lost, yet he won. He won in ways he didn’t want to. And he’s winning. That pesky asterisk that stuck on his name just sort of fell off. He’s a testament to perseverance, but he’s also — corny as it sounds — a kind of real champion. One of those that defines the word in more ways than what’s considered literal. Through his flaws and his genius, he somehow embodies it.

For that, the UFC — and really anybody who loves fighting — should be thankful for Daniel Cormier.

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