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The Ultimate Fighting Championship’s fourth pay-per-view event of 2017 was without question its best yet. The prelims were mostly exciting, resulting in a rare “Fight of the Night” bonus going to an undercard bout, and the main card was composed entirely of fights relevant to the top of their respective divisions -- an increasingly noteworthy occurrence in this WMG-IME era of ownership. Compare that to any of the previous events, each of which with one or two meaningful fights per main card, and the matchmaking behind UFC 211 becomes a legitimate achievement.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of relevance. To some extent, fans will always show up for gimmicks, like the now thankfully scrapped Georges St. Pierre-Michael Bisping “super fight” or to see CM Punk catch a beatdown against anyone on the roster, but the best-case scenario for that type of matchmaking is one-off success. Fans stick around when they can invest into a meritocratic infrastructure of some sort. The ultimate appeal of this sport, after all, is to know who the best fighters are and to see how they’re the best.
The UFC 211 main card fulfilled those needs on Saturday in Dallas and in doing so extended an outstretched hand to casual observers to welcome them into the world of so-called hardcore fans. Stipe Miocic extended his streak to five straight knockouts -- almost unheard-of in the modern heavyweight division -- and tied the record for UFC heavyweight title defenses, sharing the honors with Cain Velasquez, Brock Lesnar, Tim Sylvia and Randy Couture. Another defense and he will be in a class of his own, worthy of sober “Greatest of All-Time” consideration. He has come a long way since getting knocked out by Stefan Struve.
Then there was Joanna Jedrzejczyk, who, as UFC President Dana White aptly said at the post-fight press conference, “performed surgery” on Jessica Andrade. In hindsight, it was another casually dominant decision from the best striker in MMA, but don’t let that fool you. Andrade was a legitimate threat who posed unique stylistic problems. She is a talented, deserving contender, and Jedrzejczyk ran through her with spectacular ease, notching a fifth title defense along the way. Now one defense shy of Ronda Rousey’s record for women’s MMA and in a much tougher division, “Joanna Champion” is becoming a more serious G.O.A.T. contender in her own right.
Even the non-title fights had all-time implications. Demian Maia single mindedly grappled his way to a seventh straight win, solidifying his claim as the most effective grappler the sport has seen in its modern iteration. His post-fight speeches in the cage and at the dais also cemented his spot on MMA’s Mount Rushmore of gentlemanly giants. Frankie Edgar, already one of the greatest to ever compete in both the lightweight and featherweight divisions, treated Yair Rodriguez -- the top prospect of an up-and-coming generation of new talent -- like he was an Octagon debutante. A common litmus test for all-time greatness is whether or not someone defeats greats from three eras: the one that came before them, their contemporaries and the one coming up behind them. While it’s premature to call Rodriguez a great of his era, he’s by far the best next-generation fighter Edgar has fought, and his dominant TKO puts “The Answer” in rarified company.
These are narratives that resonate with fans, and they are only possible through relevant, meritocratic matchmaking. People want to argue in bars and barbeques about who the real best fighters are, and they want to have a sense of historical context with which to opine. At the very least, they want to be able to call each other idiots on the Internet over disagreements on these topics. These are the metrics used to measure invested fandom, and growing that base is the smartest long-term business strategy. Casual fans will show up for the superstars, but getting them to stick around longer than that will be a matter of investing in further star-building promotion, as well as promoting the tried-and-true angle of “watch the best fighters in the world inflict incredible violence on each other.” UFC 211 was the type of card to do the latter, and with some more targeted and individualized promotion, the former, too.
I’ve written earlier that a lot of hardcore fandom can best be attributed to an irrational sense of nostalgia, and that still holds true. The glory days of the early Zuffa years were new and exciting. Being a fan then felt like being on the cutting edge of sports, like we were in on an epic secret that was either too scary or too mysterious for ESPN to cover. Clearly that has changed. Still, the sport now is in many ways better than ever, and the short history and rapid evolution of MMA endows our nostalgia with a greater degree of legitimacy. That’s a luxury, not a constraint. It allows fans new and old alike to have a historical perspective relatively painlessly, which the older legacy sports simply cannot.
When Shaquille O’Neal retired, his accomplishments were pitted against a century of other players. To say he was the greatest basketball center ever was to say he was better than everyone from George Mikan to David Robinson and all the Bill Russells, Wilt Chamberlains, Kareem Abdul-Jabbars and Hakeem Olajuwons in between. To say Miocic is the greatest heavyweight ever, while probably much too early, is not nearly as difficult to contextualize or justify. Though that’s in some ways an indictment on how shallow the heavyweight division has been, it’s also a lot easier for new fans to appreciate. The more that MMA leaks into everyday conversations, however rational or irrational the takes are, the better it is for the growth of the sport.
There’s a lesson here for the new UFC owners who otherwise seem hell-bent on stapling gimmicks together in hopes for some grand slam pay-per-view buy rates. In reality, it’s smarter to aim for consistent doubles and triples and let the accumulation of success pile up. The big, superstar-anchored events will happen regardless. The purchase of the major organizational outfit of an entire sport is not a pump-and-dump investment, and it shouldn’t be treated as such. UFC 211 was a reminder of just how exciting and entertaining this sport can be without the extra help of promotional contrivances. The more WME-IMG ignores the fundamental allure of the sport, the more it will shoot itself in the foot.
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.