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There is a story behind every journey into the Octagon, and every story invariably includes adversity and heartache -- almost certainly to a much greater degree than triumph. Success is built on a mountain of Ls, and in order to suffer through those losses and keep trudging onward, there must be an aquifer of personal pride somewhere beneath the bedrock of whatever other motivation propels fighters forward. Though nebulous and amorphous, pride is an essential piece of the fight game. There was no shortage of it at UFC 216 on Saturday in Las Vegas, especially at the top of the card.
It was no secret that Ray Borg had an uphill battle against Demetrious Johnson in the main event. At +900 leading up to the fight, he was the biggest underdog on the card -- and deservedly so. Borg is seven years younger than Johnson and likely years away from his prime. He’s also vastly less experienced. “Mighty Mouse” has fought professionally for twice as long as Borg, winning the Ultimate Fighting Championship flyweight belt a month after Borg made his professional debut. Coming into the bout, Johnson had the same amount of championship wins as Borg has total career wins, and while “The Tezmexican Devil” is a fine fighter, Johnson has been fighting Borg-level opponents consistently for the last five or six years.
Given all those obstacles, as insurmountable as they turned out to be, Borg never stopped scrambling for ways to win. Though they never amounted to much, he created several moments of success and continued to look for those moments even when he was several rounds behind on the scorecards. You have to admire that tenacity. To compete against someone of Johnson’s caliber is a revelation; Borg himself said in the post-fight press conference that he had to laugh at some of the things “Mighty Mouse” was able to pull off mid-fight. Borg was outclassed, but this was the type of loss that improves a fighter. He can hold his head high at how he carried himself, and at 24 years of age, it’s likely we’ll see Borg contending for the title again at some point.
Then there’s the man himself: Johnson, flyest of the flyweights. What else is there to say about him? He has now defended his title more than anyone ever, and he’s continued to do so with unparalleled efficiency. He’s an inevitability in the cage. I’m not going to try and convince anyone that he’s the Greatest of All-Time. Any attempt at objectivity in such a discussion ends up at a defensible list more than a single answer, but Johnson is clearly on that shortlist. The big knock against him, of course, is that his dominance is at least partly a result of ruling over a shallow division. That criticism isn’t entirely fair; he has fought a number of tremendous fighters, and every other G.O.A.T. nominee has faced some lackluster opponents in title defenses, too. Regardless, what is perhaps more impressive than his sheer dominance is the way in which he dominates. Even though he was clearly ahead and instead of coasting to the final bell, he decided to finish Borg with a masterful suplex-to-armbar maneuver that is pretty much guaranteed to be the “Submission of the Year” for 2017. Beating an overmatched opponent as a steep favorite doesn’t say much, but doing so with an all-time submission might be more impressive than his title defense record.
The main event delivered, as well. It was a weird fight beforehand -- the interim title made more sense when it was between Tony Ferguson and Khabib Nurmagomedov -- but despite Kevin Lee’s relative newness to the top of the lightweight division, he more than accounted for himself. He took it to Ferguson in the first round, taking down “El Cucuy” and punishing him from full mount. Even as he slowed down, he continued to complete takedowns and land shots. Lee ended up gassing and losing the fight, but it was the type of loss that raised his stock. That he did as well as he did was surprising on its own, but a performance like that after a hard weight cut while suffering from a staph infection -- which, to be sure, is disgusting and dangerous and perplexing that the athletic commission didn’t seem to mind -- was impressive. At 25, he’s 9-3 in the UFC and has felt what it’s like to be in a championship fight. He’s a young veteran with a lot of exciting potential.
That brings us to the new interim lightweight champion. It’s hard to overstate just how insanely difficult it is to amass 10 consecutive wins, especially in the lightweight division. In that run, seven of Ferguson’s wins have been finishes. He is one of the most fun-to-watch fighters in the game on top of being one of the most consistent and hardworking. If anyone deserves to lay claim to the title of lightweight champion, it’s Ferguson. That includes absent king Conor McGregor, who will likely never accomplish as much in the division as Ferguson already has. That isn’t to say McGregor can’t or won’t beat “El Cucuy,” but on a night that honored the sustained dominance of “Mighty Mouse,” it’s fitting that the man with the longest lightweight winning streak in Ultimate Fighting Championship history left with a belt around his waist. Interim titles get a bad rap for not being the real thing, but a 10-fight winning streak is as real as any accomplishment. We can only hope that a unification bout comes sooner than later.
In spite of the four fighters in the main and co-main events, there was something broader and more important that permeated the event. After the tragedy that fell upon Las Vegas on Oct. 1, the UFC went out of its way to pay respect to the victims and first responders of the shooting. It was a meaningful and moving tribute, especially since the UFC is such a large part of life in Las Vegas. Beyond putting on a good card and donating money, the UFC should be proud of its efforts to give back to the individuals involved.
In a lot of ways, UFC 216 was one to remember. The contrast of tough losses and incredible triumphs were on full display, both in the fights and in the atmosphere of the event itself. Coursing through all of it was human resilience and appreciation for something larger, more difficult to describe but felt nonetheless. It was the kind of night where fans of this ridiculous sport could be proud of our involvement with it.
Hailing from Kailua, Hawai’i, Eric Stinton has been contributing to Sherdog since 2014. He received his BFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and graduate degree in Special Education from University of Hawai’i. He is an occasional columnist for Honolulu Civil Beat, and his work has also appeared in The Classical. You can find his writing at ericstinton.com. He currently lives in Seoul with his fiancé and dachshund.