The UFC has as often as not come across as bitter that they have to promote women’s bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes, instead of celebrating a groundbreaking athlete.
After Nunes sent Rousey running to the safety of scripted shows in 48 seconds flat at UFC 207, the UFC didn’t bother with the sort of followup post-fight hype they bestowed on fighters like Rousey and Holly Holm after their big victories. It’s almost as if the company was resentful they had lost their WME-represented golden child, and were willing to cut off their nose in order to spite their face.
Then came what will likely forever mark the public’s turning point against Nunes, when UFC president Dana White went and publicly lambasted his champion after Nunes had to pull out of her UFC 213 bout with Valentina Shevchenko.
Imagine, for a moment, that NBA commissioner Adam Silver came out today and called the Celtics’ Kyrie Irving a coward for not playing in the Eastern Conference finals with the Cavaliers due to his injury, and you’ll have an idea what an ill-advised move this was on the boss’s part.
This time out, the first-ever UFC title fight contested by openly LGBT fighters was a promotional slam dunk the UFC clanged right off the rim. Big, bad Hollywood titan WME/Endeavor couldn’t use their muscle to get Nunes and Raquel Pennington placed on the talk show circuit leading up to this one and draw in buys from outside their usual fan base? Really?
But here’s the thing: It’s quite obvious at this stage of the game, after Nunes mauled Pennington at UFC 224 on Saturday night, that the champ the company doesn’t seem to want isn’t going anywhere any time soon. Nunes employed a game plan that at first seemed like she was following the same boring script as her UFC 215 split decision win against Shevchenko. But as Pennington slowly wore down, Nunes turned up the heat and showed a vicious finisher’s touch. Nunes used to be known as a fighter who emptied her gas tank early; now she shows she can get the job done in the championship rounds.
That’s something which should be celebrated. Instead, the UFC has treated her like a B-side and her title defenses like throwaways, and the fans have picked up on the cues.
But now the bantamweight division is all but cleaned out, and Nunes is still standing, higher and mightier than ever. A superfight with Cris Cyborg looms as the most interesting fight on either the featherweight and bantamweight champions’ horizons. The UFC had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the Cyborg business, too. Maybe this is the chance for the company to make things right by both, once and for all. Or they can just keep going down the same path, and keep leaving millions of dollars on the table.
UFC 224 quotes
“Everyone must be saying a lot of bad things about them on social media, but I think she really needs to surround herself with people that want the best for her, so she can evolve in her next fights. Unfortunately, tonight he failed.” — Nunes, on the Pennington corner controversy.
“I definitely feel like a title shot should be next. I don’t think I’d accept any other fight than the title shot. I’m the most active middleweight there has been. All the guys (I’ve beat) are top-10 and former champions, so I feel like I deserve it.” — Kelvin Gastelum, after a tough win over Ronaldo Souza.
Up: Kelvin Gastelum. The reluctant middleweight just might be on the cusp of a title shot after his coin flip of a split decision in a stirring battle with Jacare Souza. Gastelum, who’s a little too big for welterweight and a bit small for 185, undeniably has his moments where he looks out of sorts, like when he didn’t have an answer for Chris Weidman, and when Souza showed off his world-class jiu-jitsu in the first round last night. But Gastelum is pound-for-pound one of the sport’s hardest hitters; he’s displayed heart in the Octagon time and again; and he’s got a better gas tank than he gets credit for. He displayed all of this in forging the win in a wild, back-and-forth battle. I would have been entirely OK with the bout being ruled a draw. But Gastelum got the nod in a fight that could have gone either way, and the guy who didn’t want to stay at 185 just might be in line for the Robert Whittaker-Yoel Romero winner.
Down: Mackenzie Dern. The plus side of Dern’s victory over Amanda Cooper was she demonstrated in a short period of time why so many are high on her upside: An on-the-button overhand right that suggested maybe she’s staring to pick up the standup game, followed by a bread-and-butter submission. The problem, of course, is she looked a full weight class larger than Cooper after missing the 116-pound limit by a whopping seven pounds. Between the bad weight miss (her third at strawweight) and being asked to leave a gym as respected as the MMA Lab, it doesn’t take a PhD in psychology to detect maturity issues. The UFC has offered their Performance Institute’s services. That’s a smart investment on the UFC’s part and not only should Dern accept, but she should give real consideration to going up to 125.
Up: Jack Hermansson. The people who run Fight Pass should take the video of the Swedish middleweight’s bout with Thales Leites and make it available for free as an advertisement for the type of spectacular finish you might miss if you don’t sign up for their service. Hermansson busted a rib early in the fight, which is a horrifying prospect when you’ve got a jiu-jitsu player of Leites’ caliber on top of you. Not only did Hermansson press on, but he took advantage of his one opportunity when it came and pummeled Leites into just the second stoppage loss of the latter’s 36-fight career. A breathless post-fight interview conducted with Hermansson sitting on a stool only underscored his accomplishment. And now a guy who’s been on the periphery has won three of his past four.
Up: Oleksiy Oliynyk. I’ve been trying to come up with a comparison in other sports to what Oliynik has achieved with his remarkable propensity for submitting opponents via Ezekiel choke, which he accomplished again last night against Junior Albini. A baseball player hitting 50 inside-the-park home runs in his career? A basketball player who leads the league in blocked shots and contributes little else? Nothing quite fits, so let’s just say for now that if Oliynik is a one-trick pony, it’s one hell of a trick. We’ve never seen anything quite like this -- Oliynik now boasts 11 career wins via the rare choke -- and at age 40, it’s not going to last forever. So let’s appreciate the ongoing grappling clinic by this crusty and cagey vet for as long as it lasts.
Hold: Vitor Belfort. Yeah, that should probably be “down,” but we’re not going to be too harsh on a guy whose UFC career started with a one-night tournament who is still competing in 2018. You’ll notice most of the major MMA websites didn’t definitively label Belfort’s post-fight scene after losing via face-kick knockout to Lyoto Machida a retirement. No doubt that’s where his heart was last night, but with Vitor, for all we know he could be fighting Tito Ortiz in Bellator this time next year, or running his own promotion, or who knows what else. But if this is truly it, then take a moment to appreciate Belfort as one of the last throwback symbols to MMA’s Wild West, for all the good, bad, and ugly that encompasses. Vitor Belfort was an MMA original and that’s not a bad legacy to have.
No one questions B.J. Penn’s heart for his corner stoppage in his biggest career fight against Georges St-Pierre. Coach Trevor Wittman rightly earns plaudits for waving things off at UFC 188 when Nate Marquardt said he couldn’t go.
But Raquel Pennington’s corner will forever stand in stark contrast to these decisions, the “how not to” guide to cornering. If someone as tough to her core as Pennington said she’s done, it’s probably for a reason. Sure, there’s the chance Pennington comes out of her corner and gets lucky. Instead, a fighter who already had a broken nose and a broken spirit went out and took an unconscionable beating for no good reason, blood staining the mat as though dumping buckets of red paint, until the fight was finally waved off.
Was this the ultimate second guessing situation? Sure. But it never had to happen. At the bare minimum, Pennington’s coaches should have thrown in the towel early in the fifth when it became clear that a home run wasn’t getting hit.
There’s been a contrarian line of thinking that says if Pennington had won, we’d all be praising her corner. That’s like saying you can’t win the lottery of you don’t play, but with far more horrible consequences if you miss. Pennington should not have been fighting in the fifth round.
Fights I’d like to see next: Lyoto Machida vs. Michael Bisping
We already discussed Nunes vs. Cyborg up top, so let’s get into the other fight that cries out to be made. Machida, following his Machida Classic of a finish against Belfort, asked to be Bisping’s opponent in the latter’s retirement fight. That’s exactly the right fight. Calling out Bisping has become a cottage industry in recent months, as anyone within shouting distance of 185 who wins a fight declares they want “The Count” next. For all the former champs Bisping has on his resume -- Rashad Evans, Dan Henderson, Wanderlei Silva, Belfort, Luke Rockhold, Anderson Silva, and Georges St-Pierre — he’s yet to fight Machida. Bisping represents a similar hole in Machida’s resume. And matching up these two is an easy main event which doesn’t require a title, and doesn’t sacrifice either to a young buck. If Bisping wants one more fight, this is a no-brainer choice.