The Big Picture: A Night of Returns

By: Eric Stinton
Mar 10, 2020

Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

The ordering process for Ultimate Fighting Championship pay-per-views has changed: UFC 248 is only available on ESPN+ in the U.S.

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Part of the profound appreciation people feel for MMA is its openness to connection on multiple layers. A psychologist, physicist, philosopher, economist and poet could all watch the same night of fights and walk away either hooked or revolted in completely different and idiosyncratic ways. Not that we need to be experts at anything to enjoy the sport—though perhaps we would not enjoy it on as many levels as they do—but as fans, we can dip our hands as much as we’d like into as many of those categories as we’d like. Violence is large; it contains multitudes, and as such, there is something for everyone, from the Just Bleed Bros to the Political Poindexters.

In the same way, UFC 248 on Saturday was a night of returns. If the Ultimate Fighting Championship were still using ominous sounding titles for their events, UFC 248 “The Return” would have been apt before it took place. The way things unfolded during the fights and in their aftermath, however, only solidified that theme.

First, there were two similar returns: fighters returning from United States Anti-Doping Agency-enforced layoffs. Highly touted prospect Sean O’Malley had been on the shelf for two years after hip surgery and a couple failed drug tests that were deemed to be the result of unintentional use due to tainted supplements. Likewise, former all-time active fighter and Top 10 welterweight Neil Magny returned after a 16-month layoff caused by a failed drug test, also believed to be the result of tainted supplements. Not only did O’Malley and Magny make triumphant comebacks, but they both won convincingly and looked better than ever before. O’Malley returned to his reputation as a bantamweight title contender in the making, and Magny returned to his status as a force in the welterweight division.

Alex Oliveira made a return of his own, though not from any extended layoff. His hard-fought split decision nod over Max Griffin marked his first win since 2018 and snapped a three-fight skid. It wasn’t a significant victory as far as rankings are concerned, but at this point, that’s functionally irrelevant. Few people if any see him as a title threat, but he occupies more hallowed ground: a perpetual “Fight of the Night” contender. He’s a perennial fan favorite and reliable action fighter who can bolster any main or undercard on which he competes. Win or lose, there will always be room for someone like him, but it’s good for him to get a win every now and then, not only because it’s a feel-good moment but also because it ensures his stay in the promotion at least a little longer.

From one of the most loved action fighters to one of the most underappreciated, Beneil Dariush returned from the brink of defeat to snatch a thrilling “Performance of the Night”-worthy victory over Drakkar Klose. After a rough-and-tumble first round in which it looked as if Dariush had taxed his leg strength into Hayekian fatigue by holding his weight with a standing body triangle, Klose came out in the second throwing heavy shots. He caught Dariush and pushed him against the fence, as he looked for the kill and appeared as though he may have found it. However, Dariush connected with a shot of his own and put Klose on baby giraffe legs. Dariush then pressed forward and landed a flush left hand that put the lights out on Klose. It was a thrilling mid-fight comeback, reminiscent of the epic 2006 bout between Scott Smith and Pete Sell.

The co-main event saw the return of Joanna Jedrzejczyk to a strawweight title fight, which was exclusively her home for three years and eight appearances. The bout between the American Top Team-trained Pole and Weili Zhang was an instant classic and surely to be on “Fight of the Year” shortlists nine months from now. It was quickly dubbed the greatest women’s fight ever, which may not be the case but is certainly a defensible claim. Though Joanna Contender looked as if she had been punched back a few links on the evolutionary chain by the end of the fight, I had her edging the decision, as did one of the cageside judges. It was close enough to say that Jedrzejczyk is still very much in the title hunt, and though her return to the top was ultimately unsuccessful, in a way, it proved how relevant she remains.

Zhang is an incredible fighter, but prior to this fight, she was still relatively unproven—a strange predicament for the champion of one of the deepest divisions. She only had four fights in the UFC, and the blitzkrieg win over Jessica Andrade that brought her the title could have easily been the result of a stylistic mismatch, as opposed to her truly being the division’s best. The win over Jedrzejczyk proved she has what it takes to become a dominant reigning champion and that she will almost certainly have to prove herself against Jedrzejczyk again to do so.

The main event middleweight title tilt between Israel Adesanya and Yoel Romero was by most accounts a letdown. Granted, it’s difficult to look good against Romero, but this fight was underscored by a particular dynamic that made it hard to enjoy. It did, however, mark the return of a tired question: Just what exactly do fighters owe fans?

Despite his PR campaign after the fight, Romero was mostly to blame for the dullness of the fight. He had a single strategy: wait for Adesanya to move in with an attack and then explode with a counter. When Adesanya solved that puzzle by sticking on the outside and chewing up Romero’s legs with kicks, “The Soldier of God” had no Plan B. Thus, the fight was full of tension but lacked in payoff, as Adesanya was content to collect points across round after round. Meanwhile, Romero went all-in on the hopes he’d catch the defending champ sooner or later.

It would have been cool to see Adesanya get a little reckless and aggressively pursue the finish, but he doesn’t owe it to anyone to take that kind of a risk when he can comfortably win with a less dynamic attack. This is prizefighting, after all, and the prize of being champion—financial and otherwise—is too great and the nature of the sport is too precarious to care about anxious fans. Adesanya woke up as the undefeated, defending champ, and that trumps everything.

There is a commonly accepted idea that anyone who publicly performs for mass entertainment is in some way indebted to the audience. This is reinforced whenever someone wins an award and says something along the lines of “I couldn’t have done this without my fans.” There is some truth to the idea. Fans provide the financial oxygen for sports to exist, and their presence dictates the importance of an event. Remove the football teams from the Super Bowl and you’ll probably have a confused riot, but take the fans out of the picture and you have a philosophical quandary. Can the most important game of the season be the most important game of the season if no one watches it? Are we no more than memes created by the perceptions of others?

Plus, the feeling is mutual. You don’t owe it to the fighters to watch them or fork out cash to support them. You can simply not watch. If your only impression of Adesanya was this fight, then I could understand the willingness to indulge in that liberty, but having seen what he’s capable of, I don’t plan on missing any of his fights anytime soon.

Eric Stinton is a writer from Kailua, Hawaii. His fiction, nonfiction and journalism have appeared in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat, Medium and Vice Sports, among others. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint, or find his work at ericstinton.com. Advertisement

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