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Making the Grade: UFC 246: McGregor vs. Cowboy

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The first UFC pay-per-view of 2020 didn’t have any title fights, and it wasn’t stacked from top to bottom with ranked fighters.

Instead it was just one man — “The Notorious” Conor McGregor — who helped make UFC 246 one of the biggest events of the year and we’re just 18 days into 2020.

After sitting out for 15 months and dealing with a litany of legal issues, McGregor finally made his return on Saturday night and he looked like a new man. Still brimming with confidence, this version of McGregor wasn’t intent on tearing down his opponent to build himself up.

Instead, McGregor was just ready for action and it took him just 40 seconds to tear through Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone to get his first official win inside the Octagon since 2016. McGregor definitely brought the star power to this card but he also showed up when it came time to perform — and he looked better than ever doing it.

The undercard at UFC 246 was also filled with jaw-dropping finishes including a pair of surprising upsets with Diego Ferreira submitting former champion Anthony Pettis and Roxanne Modafferi defying the odds by defeating previously undefeated 21-year-old prospect Maycee Barber.

The night was so good in fact that UFC president Dana White decided to hand out five post-fight bonuses to a list of deserving athletes who could almost certainly use the money.

There’s plenty to unpack from Saturday night so let’s look back at the first pay-per-view of 2020 and see what passed and what failed at UFC 246. This is Making the Grade:


He Is Notorious

Conor McGregor had to know in addition to the pressure of winning his fight against “Cowboy” Cerrone that he was also serving double duty in an attempt to rehab his image after a rough stretch where he saw his name in the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

From snatching a cell phone away from a fan trying to take his photo to punching a 50-year-old bar patron in his native Ireland, McGregor started to look like a cautionary tale of what goes wrong when at athlete earns nine-figures and struggles to handle the spotlight of fame — or in his case infamy.

While Cerrone probably wasn’t the toughest test of his career and there were no titles on the line, McGregor knew he needed a statement win to not only declare he was back but also start to rebuild some of the good will he frittered away after falling to Khabib Nurmagomedov in 2018.

Over the course of fight week, McGregor was charming and engaging — and he even showed up on time for a press conference! He wasn’t particularly inflammatory, even when Nurmagomedov’s name came up. McGregor was toned down yet still managed to carry that same big of swagger that made him the biggest star in all of combat sports.

Then came fight night.

McGregor looked like a coiled snake ready to strike and he had no intention of letting Cerrone get his feet under him once the fight started. Knowing that Cerrone has struggled coming out of the gate in the past, McGregor rushed him, went for the knockout blow with his first punch and while that one missed, nearly nothing else he threw came up short.

40 seconds later, McGregor was victorious and while his past sins certainly haven’t been washed away, he started to remind the world why he became appointment viewing every time he set foot in the cage.

Now that McGregor is back and he’s said all the right things and done the same in the Octagon, his next move will be very interesting. Will he engage in a bitter war of words with Nurmagomedov again? Will he decide it’s no more Mr. Nice Guy when he gets matched up with a “bad motherf*cker” like Jorge Masvidal?

Only time will tell but love him or hate him, the UFC is a more interesting place when McGregor is around, especially when we’re talking about his fights and not his boorish behavior outside the sport.

Don’t Tell Me the Odds

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Looking back now it seems kind of ludicrous that Roxanne Modafferi was a 10-to-1 underdog to rising star Maycee Barber. In reality, those betting lines were probably more about the 21-year-old flyweight, who wanted to become the youngest champion in UFC history rather than a knock on a veteran like Modafferi, who has always been a contender but never quite reached championship status.

After 15 minutes in the cage together, Modafferi looked like the dominant veteran who deserved more praise that she received before the fight while Barber was covered in her own blood after tasting defeat for the first time in her young career.

Modafferi wanted to prove that she was more than just a gatekeeper for fighters on their way to a title fight and she took out that aggression on Barber round after round. It was a strong showing from one of the real OG’s of women’s mixed martial arts and a not-so-subtle reminder that she’s still got plenty of fight left in the tank.

On the main card, Diego Ferreira also picked up the biggest win of his career as he dominated former champion Anthony Pettis for the better part of two rounds before wrapping up a rear-naked choke submission. Ferreira has now quietly won six fights in a row in the lightweight division and he’s almost assuredly staring at a top 10 ranked opponent in his next bout.

Ferreira has become a bit of a dark horse in the UFC’s deepest division and there are plenty of interesting matchups awaiting him when he returns later this year.


Speaking of betting odds that didn’t make much sense, Drew Dober was a sizable underdog going into his fight against Nasrat Haqparast but he fought like the favorite after wrapping up a stunning 70-second finish on the preliminary card.

Dober is 14 fights into his UFC career, but it appears he’s just now starting to find his groove in the 155-pound division. He’s won five of his past six fights with his only loss coming to submission specialist Beneil Dariush. Along the way he’s finished three fights by knockout and earned a “Fight of the Night” bonus and a “Performance of the Night” bonus for his troubles.

It’s impossible to say if Dober will ever threaten the top contenders in the UFC’s lightweight division, but judging by his recent performances, he’s capable of giving anybody fits when it comes time to face him.

What Dober has proven lately is that he’s not just an exciting fighter with a crowd-pleasing style because he’s also finding a way to build a consistent record in a very dangerous division. As the UFC looks to book high profile cards for the rest of 2020, Dober would be a perfect addition against virtually anybody in the upper echelon of the lightweight division because he always shows up ready to fight and chances are he’s going to put on show while doing it.


Not All Rematches Are Necessary

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

When Holly Holm made her UFC debut back in 2015 she had a tougher-than-expected fight against Raquel Pennington, who was just two fights removed from her stint on The Ultimate Fighter. The matchup was booked as a showcase to introduce Holm to the UFC after she made the move from professional boxing to mixed martial arts.

The result was a surprising split-decision win for Holm, who would then go onto cement her place in history when she knocked out Ronda Rousey nine months later.

Fast forward nearly five years later and the UFC matchmakers decided to put Holm into the Octagon with Pennington again. Both had done a lot since their first meeting. Holm became champion and then competed in four more title fights while constantly threatening for another shot at gold at both 135 and 145 pounds. Pennington came up short in her lone bid to become champion while amassing a 5-2 record overall since her first clash with Holm.

Nobody was exactly clamoring for the rematch yet that’s the fight the matchmakers decided to put together.

Over three rounds, Holm and Pennington jockeyed for position, constantly stuck in the clinch and combined for a total of 68 significant strikes landed between them. Maybe some of the blame goes on the referee for never separating the fighters, but even in the moments when they managed to break apart on their own, Holm and Pennington seemed to just dive back into the same position again and again.

Perhaps this bit of matchmaking was all about steering Holm and Pennington clear of potential title contenders like Aspen Ladd, Irene Aldana and Julianna Pena, who haven’t had the chance to face Nunes yet. Still, Holm is a big name in the division as a former champion and giving someone like Aldana the chance to face her with a title shot on the line would give the UFC a chance to build a legit contender for Nunes’ next fight.

Instead what we got was a largely forgettable rematch that just got Holm back into the win column without doing much of anything else for the division.


Stephen A. Smith

Stephen A. Smith reportedly makes around $8 million a year, primarily serving as one of ESPN’s most prolific opinion makers while co-hosting the show “First Take” alongside noted boxing analyst Max Kellerman. Smith is best known for his “hot takes” where he’s constantly in a battle with FOX Sports’ Skip Bayless in a race to the bottom to see who can irritate more fan bases over the course of a two-hour show.

Smith constantly skirts controversy and he’s been forced to apologize for past comments including when he suggested that women involved in domestic violence shouldn’t “provoke” their attackers.

On Saturday night, Smith served as an “analyst” — in the loosest sense of the term — for the UFC 246 post fight show. He decided to voice his opinion on the main event by tearing down Cerrone for a lackluster performance.

As a casual observer of mixed martial arts, Smith couldn’t offer any real critical analysis of the performance and he decided instead to just take a dump on Cerrone after probably one of the most heartbreaking nights of his life.

“I’m quite disgusted,” Smith said about Cerrone on the post-fight show. “Let me be very, very clear: I’m honored to be up here with you guys. I’m a spectator watching the sport. I expected to see more than 40 seconds. I predicted McGregor was going to win this fight inside of two rounds. I thought he would take him out.

“Here’s the deal: 15 seconds in, ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone was done. He got hit with those shoulders in the clinch, and he was done. It look like he gave up. It was just an atrocious performance on his part.”

Standing alongside former UFC champion Michael Bisping and multi-time title contender Chael Sonnen, it was Smith who decided to exert his “expertise” when criticizing Cerrone’s performance. In reality, Smith is the antithesis of an expert when it comes to MMA yet he was the loudest voice in the room — like always — and rather than complimenting McGregor on a job well done, he decided the more appropriate comment would be deriding Cerrone for failing to show up and losing in 40 seconds.

Maybe if Smith had covered the sport as more than a spectator, who only shows up for the UFC’s biggest fights, somebody would have taken him seriously. Instead, he was nothing more than a mic’d up Twitter troll, who should have been shut off long before he got to 180 characters.

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