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UFC 215 Aftermath: Time to hit reset button on women’s bantamweight division

Women’s bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes heading to the Octagon for the main event of UFC 215.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

EDMONTON, Alberta — It seems like just yesterday, the UFC women’s bantamweight title was one of mixed martial arts’ marquee belts.

That was primarily due to the transcendent star power of Ronda Rousey, who made the world pay attention to the fact that women can fight.

But the belt stayed one of the company’s centerpieces even after it moved from Rousey to Holly Holm to Miesha Tate.

And it was just over nine months ago that Rousey’s return fight against current champion Amanda Nunes was one of last year’s biggest-selling events.

Contrast that to the scene Saturday night at UFC 215. A crowd at Rogers Place which, up until that point, had been like every other fantastic fight crowd that turns out when the UFC sets up shop in the Great White North, turned on what was actually a pretty compelling fight in the main event between Nunes and Valentina Shevchenko. The crowd booed as the bout went on, and by Round 5, were chanting for the hometown’s NHL team, the Oilers.

(As for the decision, in which Nunes got two out of three 48-47 cards, I had rounds 1, 3, and 5 for Nunes; 2 and 4 for Shevchenko. It was a close fight and I’m not going to waste any energy arguing with people who thought Shevchenko won).

So how did we get to this point, where the women’s bantamweight belt went from the penthouse to the outhouse, the main event on what will surely track among the lowest purchased UFC pay-per-views of the modern era?

A substantial portion of the blame falls on the promoters. Nunes was all but invisible in the run-up to the Rousey fight. There was never going to be a better opportunity to introduce her to a bigger audience. Say what you will about Zuffa’s hits and misses, but the old regime would have understood there was a real chance Rousey would lose and they’d have to make money off Nunes going forward, something to which WME seemed oblivious.

Then UFC president Dana White, who couldn’t be bothered to go to UFC 215, came along and torched whatever may have remained of Nunes’ drawing power by trashing her after she pulled out of UFC 213. Guess what? If you run down your champion in front of your fans, you fans might listen, and they’re not going to shell out the price of a PPV the next time he or she fights.

Of course, Nunes herself doesn’t seem overly concerned about becoming a star. Nunes is take-it-or-leave-it on the matter of whether the fans love her. She actually answered the critics of her stamina by fighting a smart bout for five rounds against a killer like Shevchenko, but it still wasn’t the sort of performance that was going to win fans back.

Nunes announced after the fight that she had a foot injury going into Saturday’s show closer and that she’ll have surgery to fix her sinusitis (you know, that thing some tried to claim was just the sniffles).

At this point, maybe a long absence is for the best. Give it some time to erase the stench of the past several months, some time for new faces to emerge, some time to go back to the drawing board and figure out new ways to market the division.

After UFC 215, the only direction the women’s bantamweight division can go from here is up.

UFC 215 quotes

“I really don’t understand why the victory goes to the other side. For two takedowns in five rounds? She didn’t hit me with one punch. Nothing significant. Look at her face. Her nose is red from my punches. Why she is still (champion), I don’t understand.” Shevchenko, not agreeing with the decision.

“I don’t want to hear this girl or anything. I just want this girl to shut up and get her life together.” — Nunes on Shevchenko.

“It looks like you dislocated the arm.” “I hope so.” “I don't think you’re supposed to say that part out loud.” Joe Rogan and Sarah Moras, after Moras finished Ashlee Evans-Smith with a nasty armbar.

“The division is wide open. All of the top five, top six guys in this division have lost to the champion or to the last challenger, which was Demian Maia.”Rafael dos Anjos believes he’s ready for UFC welterweight champ Tyron Woodley.

Stock report

Up: Henry Cejudo When Cejudo entered this game as the brightest of blue-chip prospects in 2013 -- then the youngest U.S. wrestling Olympic gold medalist in history -- this was exactly the type of performance that was envisioned for this stage of his career. Cejudo was a 125-pound dynamo that ran right over a talented opponent in Wilson Reis, with an expert mix of strikes, sharp wrestling, and an aggressive edge on everything he did. While it’s probably too soon to go back to a title shot at Demetrious Johnson’s belt -- Cejudo’s still 1-2 in his past three, after all -- he certainly seems right back on track for another run at the gold, whether it comes sooner or later.

Up: Rafael dos Anjos. Man, did the former UFC lightweight champion look great against Neil Magny on Saturday night. Dos Anjos wasted little time taking the rangy Magny to the mat, then working into position for his ninth career submission victory. Dos Anjos might not be quite next in line for a title shot, but he looks revitalized at 170 pounds, and a shot at becoming the fifth fighter in UFC history to hold titles in two different weight classes certainly isn’t out of the question.

Down: Gilbert Melendez. It gives me no personal pleasure to say it’s getting tough to watch the former Strikeforce lightweight champion’s slow, drawn out decline. He’s always been a standup, likeable guy with the media, fans, and people inside the business. But his performance against Jeremy Stephens on Saturday in his UFC featherweight debut was not great. Melendez would have trucked Stephens in his prime; instead, Stephens picked Melendez apart, brutalizing him with leg kicks. That’s four straight losses and five out of six for Melendez, who hasn’t won since his legendary UFC 166 brawl with Diego Sanchez almost four years ago.

Up: Ketlen Vieira Despite an undefeated record going in, Vieira was almost an afterthought going to the biggest fight of her career -- a matchup with former women’s bantamweight title challenger Sara McMann, who was openly being talked about as next in line for the Nunes-Shevchenko winner. But Vieira shook off a poor start in the opening round against a world-class wrestler to earn her sixth career finish. Vieira’s not ready for a title shot yet, but in a women’s bantamweight division that needs new blood, she’s marked herself as one to keep an eye on.

Down: Tyson Pedro I can’t blame the UFC for wanting to fast track Pedro in the UFC light heavyweight division. He’s got an interesting personality, a good look, he’s Australian, and he’d looked real impressive up until Saturday night. But he also got taught a lesson or two when matched up by a game and plucky veteran in Ilir Latifi. Pedro only had about 16 minutes of total cage time in his first six fights before having 15 rough ones last night. It should be a good learning experience, but the UFC should also put him on a slower track.

Interesting stuff

Twitter reacted in horror to the beating Gavin Tucker was allowed to take in his unanimous decision loss to Rick Glenn, and let me tell you, it was a whole lot worse sitting about 10 feet from this atrocity than it was on TV. Tucker’s corner could have conceivably thrown in the towel after the second round. But he was allowed to go on, and he took an absolutely brutal beating in the third round as referee Kyle Cardinal stood around with his thumb jammed firmly up his backside. In the closing seconds, Tucker got to his feet, careened away from Glenn and crashed into the cage, and Cardinal still let him take more shots until the horn sounded.

The aftermath: A pair of 10-8s and a 10-7 in the third round; Glenn basically apologizing for having to dish out so much unnecessary damage, and the type of beating which has derailed promising careers. But if that’s not bad enough this bout occurred in the same city in which former UFC fighter Tim Hague recently died after a terribly one-sided boxing match, under the watch of the same commission which oversaw UFC 215. This was an absolutely disgraceful episode.

Finally, best wishes to Mitch Clarke, who announced his retirement after his loss to Alex White on the undercard. Clarke’s one of the genuinely good guys in this sport, and has one of the more under-the-radar hilarious Twitter accounts in MMA (@MitchclarkeMMA). A Saskatchewan native who’s based in Edmonton, he got to leave his gloves on the mat to a big ovation. That was Clarke’s third straight loss and he’s 2-5 in the UFC, so good on him for recognizing when it’s time to get out.

Fight I’d like to see next ...

... well, there aren’t a ton of obvious money fights coming out of Saturday night, are there? Shevchenko seems hellbent on wanting another crack at Nunes, but it’s really hard to imagine the UFC wanting to go straight back to a third fight between the duo. Then again, there also isn’t an obvious next challenger for Nunes. Raquel Pennington has won four straight fights and beat Miesha Tate, but she’s been out of sight, out of mind. Holly Holm, if a Cris Cyborg fight doesn’t get made, would be the biggest available fight for Nunes. Nunes’ surgery means this will have time to sort itself out.

As for dos Anjos, he’s made it pretty clear he wants a title shot next. But Woodley is going to be out for awhile due to his injured shoulder. I’d personally rather see Robbie Lawler rematch Woodley, and see dos Anjos take on someone in the top five to bolster his case. That said, Woodley-RDA could be the fight that snaps Woodley out of his defensive shell.

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