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The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday will for the sixth time run an event with three title bouts. As with many promotional gimmicks, it’s something that went from extremely rare to relatively commonplace, with the volume of shows producing an increased need to differentiate individual pay-per-views. The UFC ran an event with three title fights once in its first 23 years and is now about to do it for the fifth time in the last four years and four months. It has become a way to flag shows as particularly important and at times to disguise that the individual title fights wouldn’t mean that much on their own.
It’s understandable that after doing three title fights for the first time it took the UFC 15 years to do it again. That’s because the original three-title-fight card was among the biggest disasters in company history. UFC 33 was supposed to be new ownership group Zuffa’s big announcement that it had arrived. The UFC had finally regained a wide swath of pay-per-view clearances and was running in Las Vegas for the first time. UFC 33 was going to be the card that ushered in a new era for the company, bringing back old no-holds-barred fans and bringing in new MMA fans while drawing top stars back to the United States after years of defections to Japan.
Sadly, this was nothing resembling the legacy of UFC 33. Instead, this was the event most associated with the now long forgotten “Zuffa curse”—the idea that things just kept going wrong for the Fertitta brothers- and Dana White-owned UFC. The Zuffa curse of course ended with a $4 billion windfall, a tidy 200,000% return on investment. We should all be so lucky in our curses, but at the time, there was the genuine sense that everything seemed to go wrong for the UFC. UFC 33 produced a series of dull fights. Worse, all the fights went to decisions, meaning that the show went over its time and the company was forced to issue refunds.
Looking back, that card doesn’t look like much; it was more gimmick than substance. Dave Menne and Gil Castillo fought for the newly created middleweight title. Menne was coming off a loss and Castillo only managed one UFC win. Neither of them stuck around as even contenders. Jens Pulver-Dennis Hallman was a more compelling bout for the lightweight title, even if it didn’t result in fireworks. Meanwhile, Vladimir Matyushenko wasn’t perceived as a strong challenger for Tito Ortiz and never again fought a fight with the same stakes.
While the card doesn’t stand out on paper all these years later, it was supposed to be much more at the time. The planned main event was Tito Ortiz-Vitor Belfort, which was pretty much the biggest fight the UFC could put on at the time. Ortiz was the company’s flagship star, while Belfort was one of the biggest names in the sport. The memories of his early UFC knockout victories still remained fresh. Injuries derailed the bout, but it would have made for a much more compelling card on paper.
When the three-title-fight card returned in 2016, it was under very different circumstances. The UFC was no longer struggling to establish itself but rather was celebrating its Madison Square Garden debut with a card designed to wow fans. UFC 205 didn’t even need the extra title fights. Conor McGregor was headlining, and stars as big as McGregor historically draw for their fights regardless of what’s on the undercard. McGregor’s non-title bout with Donald Cerrone did just about the same business as McGregor’s champion-versus-champion showdown with Eddie Alvarez, despite the former being supported by Holly Holm-Raquel Pennington and Alexey Oleynik-Maurice Greene and the latter being supported by Tyron Woodley-Stephen Thompson for the welterweight title and Joanna Jedrzejczyk-Karolina Kowalkiewicz for the women’s strawweight crown.
UFC 205 was basically just a blowout, while the three-title-fight cards since then have been more strategic. The idea has been that the total adds up to more than the sum of the parts because three title fights can’t be missed even if 2-3 of them wouldn’t be considered can’t-miss fights on their own. The next three efforts (UFC 217, UFC 245 and UFC 251) all fit a very similar pattern: a welterweight title main event supported by two lighter-weight title fights (135/115, 145/135 and 145/135).
The three title bouts at UFC 259 are all very different in nature. The main event—a champion-versus-champion clash—is something of a curiosity. Israel Adesanya is one of the most skilled and prolific fighters in the sport, but he wasn’t particularly big at 185 pounds and now he moves up to 205. Jan Blachowicz is the reigning champion of the division, but many people doubt how good he is relative to previous light heavyweight champions. It’s a bold shot in the dark and arguably the boldest champion-versus-champion bout in UFC history.
B.J. Penn had already been welterweight champion when he challenged Georges St. Pierre. McGregor’s body had grown out of the featherweight division when he moved up to fight Alvarez. Daniel Cormier was more experienced at heavyweight than light heavyweight when he jumped up to challenge Stipe Miocic. T.J. Dillashaw moved down in weight class to challenge for the flyweight title. Amanda Nunes started her career at featherweight, so her challenge of Cristiane Justino wasn’t a total shot in the dark, although that might have been the gutsiest gamble of the bunch given Cyborg’s size and longstanding dominance. No one was stepping into more unfamiliar ground than Adesanya, however.
The UFC 259 co-feature between Nunes and Megan Anderson is perceived to be more of a stay-busy title defense. There was the thought when Anderson moved over from Invicta Fighting Championships with four straight knockout victories that she could be a big threat in the UFC women’s featherweight division. Unfortunately for Anderson, she just hasn’t put it together as expected, going 3-2 against far less imposing competition than an all-time great like Nunes. Perhaps Anderson will surprise, but the 12-to-1 odds in the sportsbook indicate few expect that result.
Petr Yan-Aljamain Sterling is different still than the other two, a phenomenal pick’em fight with two fighters who aren’t yet major stars to the general public but who represent the new guard of a perpetually strong division. Yan has yet to lose in the UFC, while the often-slept-on Sterling has won five in a row, including the division’s most impressive recent victory—a slick first-round choke over the surging Cory Sandhagen. It’s a fight that deserves to have eyeballs on it, and using it in support is one method to accomplish that goal.
Given the growing trend towards stacking cards with title fights, UFC 259 will likely be far from the last time we’ll see a title tripleheader. Still, it’s a particular treat for fans who appreciate the quality of the fights being offered. There are likely to be main events that mean more to the average fan as the year progresses, but it’s not at all unlikely that this ends up being the strongest top-to-bottom card of the year.