The second fight between Stephen Thompson and Tyron Woodley was counter everything. It was counter to the first fight in terms of actual drama. It was counter to what the principals said it would be, where words like “resolution” and “definitive champion” were being flung around. It was counter to what makes fights exciting, as in both fighters essentially pointed out the eggshells under their feet for 25 minutes. It was full of counters in the carry out, in that there were many feints and dekes and single shot lures to draw the other in for punishment.
Neither was accommodating. Offense was defense, and the defense was offensive. The fight never picked up from its original state of pending.
UFC 209’s main event was like magnetic repulsion. The two didn’t mesh in that they both wanted to feast on the others aggression. A lot of people worried beforehand that the sequel to the UFC 205 majority draw might play out exactly as it did. That, even though both had been killers in previous fights, it had the potential of a stalemate. That’s why the thought of Tony Ferguson and Khabib Nurmagomedov complemented the rematch so well. If the one was a stinker, as feared, the other would cleanse it with a sage smoke ritual in advance. Then Nurmagomedov went and messed with the card’s compensative chi by falling out with weight cut issues.
What we were left with was a majority decision for Woodley, the most non-definitive end to a saga since…well, since Nurmagomedov and Ferguson was cancelled for the third time. Why was it so forgettable? Unfortunately, nobody likes to pay $55 to view an exercise in restraint. The fight game is, for the most part, all about the extravagance of letting go.
Earlier in the night, there were remarkable things going on at UFC 209. David Teymur’s upset of Landa Vannata was crisp, fluid awesomeness, as was Cynthia Calvillo’s slick submission victory over Amanda Cooper.
And then there was Darren Elkins.
Elkins, the biggest underdog on the card, was sliced open early from a Mersad Bektic elbow, and he was doused in blood for the bulk of the fight. He was being taken down and beaten at will. The speed advantage was obvious; Elkins had nothing for Bektic. Yet, just when it seemed like the wits could get no dimmer, he landed a head kick on Bektic, and — in a moment of surreality — was standing over him on the fence in improbable victory.
Now that’s the kind of vicarious hell-ride that a fight spectator can get behind. Elkins, who commonly looks like he’s just been trampled by wildebeest at the end of a fight, didn’t just go for broke. He literally went broke in that fight. He was a goner. He was licked. Then, like the stubbornnest son of a bitch in Las Vegas, he turned the tables. It was impossible to really know what it’s like to be in that position, with your face gnarled and heart swelling, and everybody having left you for dead, only to crash back to life in such a way, and snatch a victory from the jaws of defeat.
Nobody can truly relate to that, and that’s the point. It’s just the kind of extraordinary that separates a fighter from the awe-stricken gawkers who shell out money to see it.
After their five-round respect-filled battle, there was a party line that all the principals — Thompson, Woodley, and even Dana White — used to address the disenchantment being expressed at the T-Mobile Arena. It was some variation of the same thing: That nobody understands what it’s like to be in there fighting with the other.
“It’s easy to sit in your seats, drink some beers and [eat] some popcorn and boo people, but they’re not in the fighting Tyron Woodley or Wonderboy,” White said. “A lot was at stake, and these guys fought the way they needed to fight to win.”
“I want to see Dana get in there and fight Wonderboy,” Woodley said, when hearing White’s overarching criticisms.
“The thing is, you’re the one that’s out there,” Thompson said. “Of course the crowd and everybody is watching you, but they’re not the ones in the Octagon getting punched in the face.”
Of course not. See, that’s the thing. Fans are not the ones in there getting hit in the face. And it doesn’t fall to the fans to suddenly embrace the idea that self-preservationists are squaring off in a cage fight. If anything, everybody can understand self-preservation completely, and that’s why most people don’t fight. The problem as it stands is, everybody gets exactly why Thompson and Woodley didn’t want to get hit by the other. That’s easy. No idea has ever been so translatable.
It’s just that that line of thinking doesn’t jibe. Nobody was in there with Bektic getting pummeled, other than Elkins (who did something about it). Nobody was in there with Tuymer, other than Vannata (who tried to kick his head off his shoulders). Nobody was in there with Calvillo, other than Cooper (and her neck for the taking). In fights, people either go for it and spectators react in kind, or they don’t, and people boo.
So no, fans don’t want to get punched in the face. They pay for the understanding that there are people willing to. That’s the contract between fans and fighter in an entertainment-based UFC, that there are athletes that are crazy enough, driven enough, and willing enough to engage in something as counterintuitive as the laying on of hands for public enjoyment.
Thompson and Woodley got the counter part of things in the rematch. As for the intuitive side of things, there’s work to be done.