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Giving thanks to the many wonderful things in MMA: 2018

Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Conor McGregor
2018 has been wild and wacky year, to say the least.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The two most egregious acts in MMA this year — Conor McGregor’s Dolly Incident and Khabib Nurmangomedov’s timely rebuttal at (and after) UFC 229 — threatened to give this here sport a black eye. Yet we all know that’s impossible. In the sports family, MMA is the kid who ends up in the principal’s office quite a bit, which tends to cause the most prude observers to squirm — but everybody else?

Everybody else is drawn to its rebellious side, because if there’s anything that’s in our DNA more than fighting it’s rubbernecking. People expect rebellious behavior from people who fight in a cage for a living, even if they don’t follow the sport religiously. No sport wears a black eye better than MMA. No sport invites judgments of every kind, and happily goes about rifling through its own pockets — very publicly — to see if there are any f*cks left to give.

When McGregor tossed the dolly, it was exactly like watching a spoiled brat throw a fit with no care or concern for the consequences. Did he ultimately get in trouble? What, for reaching into the casual wallet? For smoke-signaling the rubberneckers? Child, please. That’s why after Khabib submitted him at UFC 229, he jumped the fence and tried to kick Dillon Danis’ teeth down his throat. One bit of lawlessness deserves another.

As the great Gus Johnson once said, these things happen in MMA.

Not that I condone any of it. I certainly do not. I’m only high-fiving them because they have their hand up. That’s all that is. And besides, it’s Thanksgiving. Sometimes being thankful for the darker matter is exhilarating. It’s not that McGregor or Khabib’s antics deserve thankfulness, it’s that our sport posts selfies of the black eyes it gives itself. And people, both insiders and outsiders, eat it up. That is refreshing.

This sport knows exactly who it is. I’m thankful for it.

I’m thankful because, though there are many wonderful things about MMA, its disregard for the sanitized PC world is positively Bukowskian. If anything, this sport keeps us searching our feelings to figure out how much we love something or hate it, or why we love to hate it (or hate secretly loving it). What other sport has you plumbing your own emotional depths on such a regular basis?

That Brooklyn incident, and the subsequent mini-riot? #ChefsKiss. I hated all of it. How great. How complicated and great. Here are some other things I’m grateful for this year.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Israel Adesanya has arrived

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

People want to call him a junior Jon Jones and compare him to the boogaloo version of Anderson Silva (the one that smoked Forrest Griffin), and that’s fine — Israel Adesanya can happily exist with those kinds of expectations. But after what he did to Derek Brunson at UFC 230 at Madison Square Garden, it’s safe to begin looking at Adesanya in a class of his own.

Adesanya is the real deal. He’s now 4-0 in the UFC, and has met each escalation of competition masterfully.

As expected, Brunson came in hot. Being a feast or famine fighter who tries to destroy consciousness quickly, he tried to do that with Adesanya, using his bulk and muscle to make it a little ugly. On the breaks he tried to rip Adesanya’s head off. But then he got stung. And once Brunson got stung, time slowed down for the predator (Adesanya). He dropped his hands as if the picture was sharpening, and now he was in a slow-motion kill mode. He then pieced up Brunson with precision and power, one shot then another — a knee, a fist, a snipe — until Herb Dean waved him off.

Was it as air-bending as Silva’s KO of Griffin? It was in the same atmosphere. Brunson did not sprint out of the cage like he’d just met up with the boogeyman, but he was bewitched to be sure. What’s even better about Adesanya is that he can communicate. He can do that with his punches as well as he can his words. After the fight he talked about seducing Brunson into an altered state during the in-cage staredown before the introductions.

Actually, I’ll let him tell it, because he’s the damn poet:

“I lulled him into a little soft thing, like ‘smize,’” he said. “I just made him look into my eyes and just hypnotized him a little bit, and then just hypnotized him and then he just kind of got shook. Then Bruce Buffer came in and I just did my thing.”

Winning the fight before the fight is half of Conor McGregor’s secret. The other half is having a general “it factor,” which is that magnetic something that only a few possess which makes people want to cry and throw money at you and say hyperbolic things, like, “he’s a combination of Muhammad Ali and Jesus Christ, only better!” Adesanya even talked to me about the “it factor” days before the fight, like he has a thesis written about it lying around his condo in New Zealand.

It can’t be stressed enough that this sport needs stars, and Adesanya is definitely one of them. The UFC should be thankful for “The Last Stylebender”, because I know I am.

Jon Jones is back (again)

Jon Jones cups his hand to his ear
Jon Jones cups his hand to his ear
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Jon Jones is a polarizing topic more than he is a human being at this point. Yet it’s important to remember that he is, indeed, the latter. He’s human. He’s a human who has flubbed up in incalculable ways, has pissed off his fan base, the UFC, the matchmakers, poor Dan Henderson, his coaches, Rashad Evans, Daniel Cormier, Lusty Gusty, the USADA folks, innocent pedestrians in Albuquerque, utility poles in upstate New York, freaking everybody. He has squandered millions of dollars. He has compromised his standing as the #GOAT. He has been called hypocritical, disingenuous, and phony. He is the only fighter on roster that you can mention, “cocaine, dick pills and ‘fleeing the scene of the crime’” in the same sentence, and everyone knows exactly who you’re talked about.

But he is human.

And he is coming back. Again.

This time he’s fighting Alexander Gustafsson at UFC 232, which is the rematch to one of the greatest fights in MMA history at UFC 165. Though both Jones and Gustafsson have long since added their own spin to that first encounter — with Gustafsson insisting he won, and Jones saying he barely took the fight seriously — it remains a classic. Jones was the prohibitive favorite, and ended up getting his ass handed to him. He was dropped, he was battered, he was losing. Then a spinning elbow in the fourth changed his fortune. He dug deep in a fight he didn’t know he’d have to, yet he discovered he had it in him to do so. He dug deep enough to win.

So playing back that fight is not only the smart move, but it brings some resolution to the rivalry. Adding the incentive of the vacant light heavyweight title is a no-brainer, especially since its previous owner, Cormier, is hell-bent on fighting Brock Lesnar at heavyweight in his last fight. The table is set for Jones to once again rule the kingdom he keeps abandoning for the crazy New Mexico nightlife.

It’s not just a fight for Jones. It’s (perhaps) his last chance to solidify himself among the pantheon of greats — indeed, to be the greatest — and to chip away at some of the asterisks that are cemented to his name. Beating Gustafsson returns him to competitive glory, so long as he doesn’t pop hot for any banned substances. But the bigger fight is with himself, to keep out of trouble, and to match his competitive greatness to his character. The fight game is forgiving (as noted up top) and isn’t offended easily. Yet Jones has a sublime way of wearing patience thin, and that’s got to change.

Selfishly speaking? MMA is better with Jones in it. The game is more fun. The daunting task of beating him makes for great interest, great storylines, and an even greater sense of purpose. Jones on the marquee means Big Fight. It often means Historical Fight. In those ways alone, it’s good to have such a feature back.

Ben Askren is in the UFC

ONE Championship

See, the thing is Askren and Dana White never got along. Dana once tweeted that Ambien took Ben Askren to help it sleep. That’s cold-blooded, not exactly untrue, and actually pretty funny. Askren has gone at Dana since back to the days of Bjorn Rebney. He isn’t one to sugarcoat his feelings, or to let injustices (as he perceives them) sneak by. I still don’t think Dana and Askren like each other.

What I’m trying to say is, this should be fun.

If you’ve paid attention at all, you know that Askren is undefeated and therefore has plenty of competitive merit. He should have been in the UFC years ago. Reebok should have been crafting mop-head t-shirts in the vein of its other cult heroes (like the gangster, Olivier Aubin-Mercier). All of this is long overdue, but at least things are rectified.

Robbie Lawler is Askren’s polar opposite in every possible way — he’s reticent, inward, somewhat barbaric, rather than obnoxious, outgoing and doggedly methodical — and that’s who the UFC lined up for his debut. The fun thing about that? Lawler has become a kind of trinket that the UFC rolls out at its events. He appears on more Jumbotrons per year than Anthony Kiedis. To smash Lawler it so smash a UFC family heirloom, which is exactly the kind of thing that Askren covets.

For years people would ask me, who would you like to see in the UFC who isn’t in there already? It was always a toss up between Fedor Emelianenko and Askren, two fabled champions who’ve always butted heads with Dana and his authority. Over time it became easier just to say Askren, because he A) continues to dominate whoever he fights, and B) you knew he would shake up the already teeming welterweight picture just by snapping the straps of his singlet. Can he just annihilate UFC fighters the way he did to all those poor souls in ONE Championship and Bellator?

I’m thankful we get to find out.

Speaking of Fedor, how about his resurrection?

Fedor vs. Henderson Photos Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Was the Bellator heavyweight grand prix tailor-made for a late Fedor run? Maybe. It certainly was set up in the hopes that he could rediscover some of that killer-cold Stary Oskol swagger that makes the hair on your arms stand up.

The great Fedor made light work of Frank Mir in the opening round, and then TKO’d Chael Sonnen in ways that had skeptics screaming “fix!” That’s one hell of a 2018. If he beats Ryan Bader in the final round in January? Cue the opening of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” because it’s about to get wild. Really wild. Or, as wild as a Bellator outcome can be. One could even imagine Fedor actually smiling, and his translator helping out those who aren’t fluent in Russian facial expressions: “He says God is good.”

The thing with Fedor is the same it’s been since 2011. It’s nostalgia. But it’s more than that, too. We had him left for dead back when Dan Henderson knocked him out in Strikeforce. He had lost three in a row, and the eulogies were being filed at every MMA shop in the canon. But here he is, seven years, one retirement, and six victories later, on the verge of winning a heavyweight tournament. It’s actually kind of unbelievable.

The subtle heel turn of Scott Coker

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

I don’t know how it happened, but at some point — when nobody was looking — Scott Coker became a kind of Subtweeting Ninja. Yes he argued with Askren on Twitter, which was edgier than we’re used to… but I’m talking about the other shit. Things like booking a card in Hawaii for December after the UFC said it couldn’t get in there because of the tourist board, and making sure Royce Gracie was in Israel to support his son during the UFC’s 25th Anniversary show in Denver, and stacking a card to compete with the UFC 233 card in January, both happening on the same night in the same market of Los Angeles.

Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems like Coker is out there sticking bananas in the UFC’s tailpipe. (Cue back up “The Immigrant Song.”)

Khabib’s dad didn’t end up smashing him

Gallery Photo: UFC 160 photos Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

In his brief statement to the media after UFC 229, Khabib Nurmagomedov didn’t sincerely apologize for his actions that followed his fourth-round submission of Conor McGregor. But he did worry that his father, Abdulmanap, would “smash” him when he got back home to Dagestan. You incite a mini-riot in Las Vegas? You get your ass warmed up with a paddle.

Actually, what he said was:

“This is a respect sport, not a trash talking sport,” Khabib said at the time. “I don’t want to talk shit about opponents, my father, religion or country, this is very important. My father is going to smash me when I go home.”

It’s now been more than a month, and he remains — somewhat noticeably — unsmashed. In fact, Nurmagomedov showed up in the presence of Russian President Vladimir Putin shortly thereafter, with his father in tow, and later in Nigeria, where he’s been doing goodwill work. Through his manager, Ali Abdelaziz, he’s even tossing figures out there for his next fight to the tune of $50 million. He is still awaiting his punishment from the Nevada Athletic Commission, but it looks like — for time being — Nurmagomedov survived the wrath of his father.

Thank God.

John Kavanagh

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

He loves his fighters, and pens powerful missives when the critics get to chirping. Though of course such things are subjective, some say he has the thickest skin in the game. Kyrie Irving says the world is flat. Get enough beer in me, and I’ll believe just about anything. Cheers!

It was a good run with FOX

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

One of the common groans wafting over social media every time the UFC has a Fight Night on FOX Sports 1 is that the thing drags on and on and ooooon. This is true. On the East Coast, a UFC FN main card kicks off at 10pm Eastern, and the main event always gets started well after the witching hour of midnight. That’s not really conducive to maximum exposure.

The FOX flagship shows? Money. Kicking off at 8pm ET and (usually) done by 10pm, plenty of time still to hit the bar and catch the highlights on the plasmas.

For all the complaints about the product, the FOX deal — which will conclude after seven years on Dec. 31, and give way to a new deal with ESPN — was an interesting chapter in the UFC’s existence. Just like with all things MMA, the network had to learn how to cover the sport. It had to figure out the best way to communicate it, and to get it over to channel surfers happening through. For the most part, I think it was a success. It never got old seeing plugs for a UFC event during the NFL playoffs. The sport perhaps doesn’t fish for legitimacy like it used to, but it there was always a Big Boys relevance to that.

How will the product look in the hands of ESPN? My guess is it will be better, but mostly because FOX went first. ESPN will be able to look at any mistakes the network made and correct them. The UFC likely won’t have as much creative control, which means there will be changes to fit the new philosophy and aesthetic. It will be intriguing to see how things evolve.

Still, here’s a thankful toast to FOX and all the players involved, for leaving their signatures on the UFC. I never visited the Avocado Room, but it feels familiar after seven years, as does the studio in Los Angeles in general. And the faces too, which will continue to show up but perhaps not under the same roof anymore. From the hosts — Karyn Bryant, Megan Olivi, Jimmy Smith and, at one juncture, Todd freaking Grisham, to the trolls (RJ Clifford) and nugget-givers (Ariel Helwani) to the fighters (Yves Edwards, Cormier, Michael Bisping, Rashad Evans, Kenny Florian, et al) and cartoons (Tommy Toehold) and everyone else — it was a fine run.

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