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The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday made its way back to familiar haunts, as UFC 239 descended upon T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. With it came some good, some bad and some ugly.
THE GOOD: THE MGM GRAND BUFFET
Jorge Masvidal made it clear that he was going to hurt Ben Askren. While many observers, myself included, picked the decorated wrestler to continue his unbeaten streak, Masvidal delivered on those bold words. He not only added the first L to his opponent’s record but did so with all the style points you could fit into a 170-pound body.
In a record-breaking five seconds, “Gamebred” did exactly what he said he would do. The perfect flying knee and several follow-up shots put the Miami native into the biggest spotlight on the biggest stage he has ever experienced in his 16-year career. After bouncing his way through a long list of promotions with mixed results, Masvidal is poised to make good on the promise and versatility he has shown over the years. With the dangling carrot of Kamaru Usman’s welterweight title belt firmly in his sight, this coming-of-age tale couldn’t have been better timed.
Askren’s presence certainly hasn’t hurt the story of Masvidal’s ascension. When One Championship and Bellator MMA’s former titleholder made his way to the UFC, it came with a tremendous amount of fanfare. Askren’s casual and comic style of trash talking was a breath of fresh air when juxtaposed against the contrived one liners and ice-grill looks many fighters have sported in the post-Conor McGregor era of self-promotion.
It’s rare that defeating a star directly translates into becoming one yourself. Amanda Nunes finishing Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate didn’t instantly catapult her into mainstream recognition. Although he quickly did away with Anderson Silva in enemy territory, Jared Cannonier hasn’t reached any level of meaningful stardom, either. However, Masvidal’s personality, when coupled with the in-cage results, is likely to ensure he can take to becoming a current fan favorite in a seamless transition. Masvidal’s backstage confrontation with Leon Edwards just minutes after he knocked out Darren Till in March and subsequent “three piece and a soda” comment reached a certain level of viral success. His matter-of-fact demeanor when threatening Askren with insane levels of violence was the flipside of the coin to his adversary’s goofier and more passive-aggressive tone.
This level of fan interest in Masvidal is crucial, as the once clear-cut title picture is becoming increasingly complicated. Teammate and friend Colby Covington has been booked to fight former champion Robbie Lawler, putting an obvious obstacle in his way to finally getting the chance to capitalize on his short-lived interim belt. Such a devastating and memorable knockout from Masvidal makes a Covington victory over Lawler less likely to secure his spot in line.
While Covington has found a way to remain relevant during his extended layoff with interviews and promotional stunts, like crashing the UFC 235 open workouts and confronting UFC President Dana White at a high-roller casino table, the act has begun to wear thin. MAGA hats, twerk videos and photo ops pale in comparison to two consecutive “Knockout of the Year” candidates and a more authentic approach to fight hype. Sure, if Covington pulls off a stunning finish in August, he might resuscitate his chances. Unfortunately for Covington, he’ll have to bring a katana blade to New Jersey in order to outdo “Gamebred.”
THE BAD: OLD HABITS DIE HARD
Stop me if you’ve heard this story before. Luke Rockhold is heavily favored to win a pivotal fight in his career. Leading up to the event, Rockhold is noticeably dismissive of his opponent and is obviously looking past the man in directly in front of him. The bell rings, and Rockhold quickly meets an abrupt end to the festivities due to a powerful and well-placed left hook to the chin.
We can sit his performance against Jan Blachowicz on the same shelf that holds his infamous failed title defense against Michael Bisping at UFC 199. With his eyes firmly set on Jon Jones and the light heavyweight belt, Rockhold came up short in his debut in the 205-pound weight class. Those ambitious eyes ignored Blachowicz and were fixed firmly on the presumed next step, as he mocked him during fight week and continually talked to a variety of media outlets about his being an unworthy opponent. Falling victim to the same technique is damning, as well. Against Bisping, holding his right hand so low provided the perfect lane for the punch. It was a case of rinse and repeat against Blachowicz, who actually stunned Rockhold with punches well before the finish.
The former champion is now far away from a shot at the light heavyweight crown, and with his body seemingly uncooperative when it comes to making middleweight, Rockhold’s chances for reclaiming gold have been significantly reduced. With a diminishing ability to absorb punishment and a lucrative modeling career in his back pocket, it’s logical to wonder if MMA is even worth it for Rockhold at this point. While many fighters stick around simply for a paycheck due to a lack of other options, he has an obvious way out of such a destructive profession.
THE UGLY: THE SCENT OF SNAKE OIL
MMA attracts its fair share of weirdos and charlatans. Made-up fight records, scumbags, criminals and malcontents continually find ways to become intertwined with the fight world. Think back to Rafiel Torre’s ridiculous and deviant story or Steven Seagal “teaching” taekwondo and muay Thai expert Anderson Silva a basic front kick that every white belt learns on Day 1 of training. Add Josh Fabia to that list of snake oil salesmen.
As Diego Sanchez revealed in the buildup to UFC 239, he left Jackson-Wink MMA because he wanted more personalized attention. Fabia reportedly offered many hours of one-on-one training to fill this void. However, it’s highly unlikely any of it was applicable to an actual fight. As Sanchez’s lone cornerman, Fabia seemed to offer little in the way of high-level coaching. Instead, “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 1 winner was flanked by someone who seems better suited for choreographing a “John Wick” film than guiding a veteran mixed martial artist in a career crossroads fight with a stylistic nightmare like Michael Chiesa.
After being outmaneuvered and manhandled in the opening round, Fabia leisurely made his way into the Octagon during the brief one-minute intermission between frames. Where a more qualified person would’ve suggested something to help initiate more scrambles or lead him into some sort of counterstrike during the inevitable Chiesa takedown attempt, the closest the self-proclaimed “healer and guide” could get to providing strategic direction was a vague command to “put the Tyson on.” Needless to say, Chiesa continued to ragdoll Sanchez, who survived purely on his legendary heart and determination.
What makes this even more disturbing is the feedback loop of esoteric mumbo jumbo that doesn’t help when locked inside the Octagon. Since doing wall sits and yoga poses during the inaugural season of “The Ultimate Fighter,” Sanchez has always been a little different. Among a roster filled with eccentric personalities, “The Nightmare” managed to always stand out as strange among the strange; and while his epic interviews have become a source of meme-worthy entertainment for the masses, it’s revealing more and more disturbing content and illogical trains of thought that only seem more unsettling when considering his highlight reel of head-rattling bloody battles and a refusal to stay down.
Having anyone without a credible background in some aspect of MMA oversee a man so clearly on the downside of his career is a major liability. If that same scam artist can’t manage to muster a single useful bit of instruction but can effortlessly spew nonsensical quotes about internal energy, there is a huge problem. Should Sanchez decide to continue fighting professionally, he should have the backing of coaches capable of handling the tasks. Quite frankly, Fabia should not have been licensed without someone who actually knew what they were doing keeping a watchful eye and ready to give real advice for a real fight.