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Ready or not, we’re back. The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday night brought us the first, and by far the most loaded, of three events in the span of eight days from Jacksonville, Florida.
UFC 249 marked the return of major MMA, and in many ways the return of spectator sports in general. That much is obvious from the number of major league athletes from other sports whose tweets about UFC 249 appeared on screen during the broadcast, to say nothing of the fact that the President of the United States introduced the event—certainly, that had something to do with the UFC’s long history and chummy relationship with Mr. Trump, but it also had much to do with the fact that this was the closest sporting thing the country has had to an Opening Day since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
The wisdom and advisability of putting this event on in the first place have been debated back and forth endlessly in the past month, and will continue to be debated in the aftermath of this first trio of UFC cards. I’m sure you’d rather talk about the fights themselves and what we learned from them. So would I, but let’s devote one lesson to the things we learned about putting on combat sports events in the era of coronavirus. Just one out of five, and then we’ll move on to other things, and the rest of this column will be as blessedly COVID-free as we hope all the fighters and support staff are.
IF THERE’S A SAFE WAY TO DO THIS
I’m not even going to argue whether or not a UFC card can be staged safely in May of 2020—by which I mean safely not only for the fighters but also for the corner personnel, UFC, broadcast and venue staff who are present throughout fight week. If you’re reading this, in all likelihood you already have a strongly held opinion on that point, and whichever side you take, the counter-arguments are already out there for you to consider or ignore at your pleasure.
What I will say is this: If there is a safe way to do this, the UFC did not show itself to be prepared to achieve it. The entire week was a disaster from a safety standpoint. Ronaldo Souza’s positive COVID-19 test, and the removal of “Jacare” and his two cornermen who also tested positive, was touted by the Florida commission as an example of their precautions working. That could not be further from the truth, since in spite of disclosing on arrival that his wife had tested positive, Souza’s test results were not made known, and he was not pulled from the card, until after weigh-ins. The live stream of those weigh-ins, which showed UFC President Dana White fist-bumping Souza’s glove with an ungloved hand immediately before touching multiple other people—including hugging Michelle Waterson, who fought Saturday night—illustrates the point eloquently.
The clown show continued on fight night. Precautions regarding distancing, physical contact and protective gear were followed or disregarded, seemingly at random. Joe Rogan, the promotion’s second longest-tenured employee after Bruce Buffer, remarked how strange it was that he, Jon Anik and Daniel Cormier were doing their interstitial standups within easy reach of each other, while they were forced to sit on opposite corners of the cage during the actual fights. In performing his post-fight interviews, Rogan shook some fighters’ hands but not others, apparently at the discretion of the fighter. In spite of working a job that by definition required them to be in close proximity to other people all night, referees Herb Dean and Keith Peterson never wore protective masks, and even more strangely, their colleague Dan Miragliotta started wearing one halfway through the event.
Again, this isn’t to try and convince you one way or the other whether it was possible to put on an event tonight without subjecting the participants to unreasonable risk. However, anyone who espouses the opinion that “This could be done safely as long as…” should probably admit that UFC 249 fell far short of whatever comes after that ellipsis. Given what happened during fight week, weigh-ins and fight night itself—by the way, video of an infected “Jacare” hanging out with large groups of fighters and teammates is out there for the viewing—it is a foregone conclusion that numerous people involved with the event have been exposed to COVID-19. Here’s hoping that the consequences to their health are minimal, and that the promotion and commission get their act together by Tuesday’s weigh-ins.
BAD HARDY MIGHT BE GOOD ENOUGH
Nine fights into his professional career, it might be time to float the idea that Greg Hardy is about as good a fighter as he’s going to become. His main-card tilt with fellow Dana White's Contender Series alum Yorgan De Castro was another weird fight for Hardy; after appearing to lose the first round to the punishing low kicks and occasional punching combinations of De Castro, Hardy took the last two rounds with ease, as De Castro’s offensive output slowed to a trickle. In the end, the “Prince of War” rightfully won the decision, but did not appear any more comfortable on the feet than in his previous few bouts.
Whoever said “practice makes perfect” clearly came from a discipline other than mixed martial arts, where a competitor can cross over from kickboxing and still be a liability on the ground 30 fights later—or vice versa with a wrestler or grappler. Is it the end of the world, though, if Hardy never becomes a better striker than he is now? Brock Lesnar—whose entire career lasted nine fights, by the way—won a UFC title and defended it twice in spite of being a less-skilled striker than every single opponent he ever faced. While Lesnar could always fall back onto amateur wrestling chops that Hardy cannot, they do share one key trait: a level of power, fast-twitch athleticism and sheer physicality that can paper over a plethora of technical shortfalls, especially at heavyweight, where there is no requirement that fighters be anywhere close to the same size. (Think of Randy Couture saying that he had done all the proper game planning, but that nothing could prepare him for the reach and speed that Lesnar brought to bear.)
Note that I’m not calling Hardy the next Lesnar here; just drawing some broad parallels. However, there’s another parallel to be drawn, because both men entered the UFC with a level of hype that gave them a certain air of “championship or bust.” In Lesnar’s case, it was due to his WWE stardom, legitimate wrestling credentials and, of course, his freakish size and athleticism. In the case of Hardy, it is due to his physical tools and his background as a former NFL All-Pro—he is literally the fabled ‘A-list athlete’ from a stick-and-ball sport that MMA fans debate over—who is spending his physical prime as a cage fighter only due to the domestic violence conviction, later vacated, that rendered him persona non grata in his original sport.
The point is that even if Hardy is topping out as a fighter, he’s only a wash if the UFC says he is, and he does not command Lesnar-level paychecks that force a decision in that regard. While his nascent skill set and poor grasp of the rules leave him capable of losing almost any fight—or rendering it a no contest, at the very least—he also remains capable of beating UFC-level fighters, and even hanging with a Top 10 talent like Alexander Volkov. Given the UFC’s love of the big men, and pathological need to put at least two heavyweight slobber-knockers on every card, we might be headed for a strange future where the UFC’s most controversial signing in years ends up being…just another heavyweight.
‘THUG’ LIFE, WE STILL LIVIN’ IT
It is a strange contrast. Bryce Mitchell is a 25-year-old from Arkansas who calls himself “Thug Nasty,” talks with a charmingly unreconstructed twang that makes even this Texan sit up and consider turning on the closed captions, and is continually asking the UFC to let him wear camo fight shorts, yet his grappling acumen evokes an entirely different set of adjectives: elegant. Creative. Classy.
Mitchell’s utter domination of Charles Rosa on Saturday night was a level-up moment in a UFC run that has seen him pass one test after another, and represents easily the most impressive performance of his career to date—which is saying a lot, considering that Mitchell notched Sherdog’s 2019 “Submission of the Year” in his last outing. On the scorecards, it was one of the most lopsided fights in the promotion’s history, and it felt that way by the eye test, which showed Mitchell never brute-forcing anything or even overexerting himself, but simply one step ahead the entire night. It was the kind of one-sided manhandling of one grappling specialist by another—eight of Rosa’s 12 career wins, and two of his three in the UFC, have come by submission—that is reminiscent of the work of Michael Chiesa or even Demian Maia. The sight and sound of Rosa, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, trying to verbally goad Mitchell into letting him up and striking with him in the third round, was shocking. If there’s an inverse of the classic flop and butt scoot, we finally saw it.
None of this is to say that the now 13-0 “Thug Nasty” is a finished product or a contender whose time has arrived. He still labors in one of the two or three deepest and most competitive divisions in the sport, and the 10-15 fighters atop the UFC featherweight division include plenty of people who will test his striking, which appears far less polished and proven than his grappling. Nonetheless, Mitchell deserves a substantial step up in his next outing, which should teach us even more than this one did.
'IT’S QUIET IN HERE. TOO QUIET.'
As it turns out, UFC events feel very different without 25,000 screaming people in the stands. That may seem like stating the obvious, but I have to count it as a lesson learned. I expected that, once the fights actually began, it would be easy to forget about the lack of crowd noise and the empty seats. After all, Dana White's Contender Series, “The Ultimate Fighter” and, let’s face it, the first three prelims of any UFC card, take place in very quiet rooms, where cornermen and fighters can be heard clearly over the non-noise. I figured it would feel little different from any of those environments.
I was wrong. The ambience at UFC 249 was so much quieter than even the most sparsely attended prelim of the pre-COVID era that it was jarring. At every turn, there was something to remind the viewer that it was not business as usual. Fighters’ breathing was clearly audible, almost uncomfortably so, and their in-cage talk was clear as a bell, Rosa and Mitchell being just one notable example. Coaches’ instructions came over the broadcast loud and clear without even needing to raise their voices, and as surprising as all of this was to viewers at home, it was equally so for the participants. One fighter credited Cormier’s commentary for coaching him through an adverse situation. By the third fight, cornermen had taken to practically whispering between rounds. In one of the few actually humorous moments of his try-hard title reign, Cejudo during his walkout removed his hat, thought for a moment and then threw it into the empty stands. Poor Brittney Palmer had to walk in a circle three times as often as she usually does.
However you feel about it, this is the new normal: Even if the UFC is able to continue putting on live cards, it will be quite some time before there are crowds again. It will be interesting to see how the production staff, and the fighters and their corners, continue to adjust.
TAKE THAT, CECIL PEOPLES
It’s almost unfair of me. Longtime MMA referee and judge Peoples once upon a time said that “leg kicks don’t win fights.” He said it a very long time ago, and I have no idea whether he still felt that way by the time he retired in 2013—though as one of the judges in the first Lyoto Machida-Mauricio Rua fight, he was doing his best to devalue leg kicks as late as 2009—but still, every time I see leg kicks winning a fight, I think of the man and the silly-looking karate chop with which he used to open fights. As such, I spent plenty of time being reminded of Peoples on Saturday, since leg kicks figured so prominently in several fights.
First and most obviously, Justin Gaethje’s kicks were the straw that stirred the drink in his interim title fight against Tony Ferguson. They did at least as much as his left-handed counters to blunt the normally vicious assault of “El Cucuy,” and those counters would not have been nearly as frequent or effective without the kicks. More than almost anything else Gaethje did on Saturday, his willingness to lean on his low kicks as a basic building block of his strategy, rather than a simple exclamation point at the end of his punching combinations, made me realize he truly is a changing fighter. The man who arrived in the UFC three years ago with an undefeated record—which he flat-out said he wanted someone to ruin—and a World Series of Fighting belt over his shoulder is no more. That version of Gaethje underused his leg kicks, which have always been some of the hardest and sharpest in the game, because that man fought as if his shorts were on fire. What’s the point in using attrition tactics if you fight like the third round doesn’t exist?
Gaethje wasn’t the only fighter at UFC 249 to make some money by choppin’ wood. In the second successful defense of his bantamweight crown, Henry Cejudo embarked on an immediate strategy of kicking low, hard and often at the legs of Dominick Cruz. Against a fighter as dependent on movement as “The Dominator,” it appeared to pay dividends quickly. Those dividends were physical—Cruz was battered out of his stance several times and his legs quickly began to show the damage—as well as mental, as he grew less bold about darting in and out of range as he bounced laterally. Debate will rage about the stoppage, which is a shame, since it detracts from what was otherwise a consummate performance by Cejudo, but regardless of how you feel about the ending sequence, the fight was trending in one direction, and it was largely due to Cejudo’s investment in low kicks.
Finally, in the exception that illustrates the rule, De Castro’s successful first round against Hardy hinged on his frequent leg kicks, which caught the bigger man flat-footed, caused immediate damage and set up De Castro’s entries to throw punches to the head. From early in the second round, however, the Cape Verdean abandoned them almost completely, to the point that the UFC booth speculated that he must have hurt his foot throwing one of them. Whatever the reason, once the kicks went away, so did De Castro’s best method of navigating Hardy’s superior reach, and all of a sudden it was De Castro on the outside, at the end of Hardy’s punches and kicks with little hope of responding.