If Saturday’s fight night in Fortaleza was any indication, the UFC on ESPN era is going to spoil us. Of the 13 bouts, eight of them — including the last five on the main card — ended in finishes. Four of them were so close that the judges couldn’t agree on what they’d just watched. Only one of them was a sustained beatdown, which was Geraldo de Freitas’ victory over Felipe Colares, and even those guys had a fun exchange at the weigh-ins.
It was the perfect blend of parity and disparity, explosive statements and subtle nudges, botched punts and in-cage worm dances. Not once, that I am aware of, was the word “robbery” used. Nor “early stoppage,” or even “late stoppage” for that matter. The referees were happy backdrops.
As if that weren’t enough, the whole event was finished by right around 10:30pm ET. Poor boxing had to wait around until well past midnight for Sergey Kovalev against Eleider Alvarez, while MMA was down at the bar sipping Tito’s and tonic. This is how it’s supposed to be. Suck it boxing. We dealt with the late Saturday night start times for years while over there at FOX Sports, which never ceased turning Twitter into a full scroll of existential gripes.
Better still, the sentimental favorites pulled through on Saturday night. Thiago Alves, finding himself right on the outer rim of relevancy, was able to squeak past Max Griffin to snap a two-fight skid. Demian Maia — the quiet pacifist with the special knack for closing windpipes — tapped out Lyman Good. Remember: Maia is 41 going on eternal. And you knew Jose Aldo had returned to vintage form because shortly after his TKO of Renato Moicano he was body surfing on the arms of his fellow Brazilians in the stands. If he was scarred by the fines he accrued at UFC 142 for bolting the cage after knocking out Chad Mendes, he had a funny way of showing it.
(One could imagine poor Reed Harris clutching at his heart like Fred Sanford).
Then there was Marlon Moraes, the high-pitched power broker that came to the UFC bantamweight division in 2017. He made quick work of Raphael Assunçâo to avenge his only loss in the UFC, and make it four in a row. Moraes emerged as a legitimate threat to T.J. Dillashaw’s title, if/when Dillashaw finishes up his segue series with Henry Cejudo. Moraes even made sure to prod Dillashaw on his way out, reversing the roles of contender and challenger by saying he’d deign to grant Dillashaw a chance.
Good shit talk? Great shit talk. When you want to punch them, downplay their worth. Moraes got through.
Perhaps best of all, there was the hum of the well-oiled machine in the air. The fights moved along crisply, and even the interested spectators who saw the action at its reasonable hour joined in on the party. Brian Ortega, the league’s fastest healer, tweeted out just four words after watching Aldo’s revitalizing performance: “Well let’s start negotiating.” Well, why not?
Fights were making themselves! For a single night — after countless dysfunctional nights over the last few years — everything worked in harmony. There was action within the action, and all the fighters wanted to fight. Take Alexander Volkanovski, who chimed in too, using a thumb’s up emoji to demonstrate his good will: “Well done, [Jose] let me know if you looking for a quick turn around.”
(We all know he wants to ship Aldo off to the glue factory, but the gesture was sweet).
Even Aldo’s old nemesis Conor McGregor got in on the action, opening up the idea of a fight in Brazil — presumably against Aldo. Half an hour before he dusted Moicano, Aldo was being sung out of the game. Half an hour after, everybody wanted to fight him. The fight game is at its best when it communicates such reversals of fortune. And when its best sportsman do the unexpected.
“Not just king of Rio,” Max Holloway tweeted. “King of Brazil. King of defending chaos. Congrats Ze Aldo. Nothing but love for you my bratha.” Holloway celebrating the man he helped demystify? What is going on here? It was that kind of night. There was room for every kind of reaction, and every kind of emotion.
Not just king of Rio. King of Brazil. King of defending champs. Congrats Ze Aldo. Nothing but love for you my bratha https://t.co/6ijEjBnzvn— Max Holloway (@BlessedMMA) February 3, 2019
Yet nobody made as big a splash as the old scotch himself, Johnny Walker. Walker needed just 15 seconds to take out Justin Ledet. It was the swervingest 15 seconds on record, where everyone just kind of said the same thing all at once, “Whoa!...That was freaking...of no, did that connect?...holy shit!” The spinning backfist that dropped Ledet was beautiful. The finishing blows powerful. The attempted kick that whizzed by the ground Ledet’s face as fortunate to have missed.
On another night, that kick would have landed and ruined everything. It would have landed and dredged up Greg Hardy’s disqualification from a couple of weeks back, and felt like a small intervening plague — “why are so many guys booting grounded opponents?” Instead of cementing himself as Must Watch guy, he’d be Asterisk guy. But it missed. It mostly missed. No, it looked like it definitely missed.
It’s the only thing that did in Fortaleza. Everything else, from top to bottom, was a hit.