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The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday brought UFC 234 to Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne, Australia. With it came some good, some bad and some ugly.
THE GOOD: PETER PARKER MEETS MILES MORALES
Pass the salt and pepper. I’ll take a side of crispy French fries and a cold beer. I can’t just eat crow without something to enhance the flavor. While many, including myself, were ready to sign Anderson Silva’s death certificate, “The Spider” had other plans. It was clear that he is no longer the reality-bending mythical creature that decimated everyone in his path during a historic middleweight title reign, but he still proved himself as a high-level competitor by seeing the final bell against Israel Adesanya in a hotly contested decision in the UFC 234 main event.
He not only survived the three-round encounter when many thought he could not, but he was competitive and arguably stole a round from his younger opponent. This is was probably the best-case scenario for all parties involved. The UFC cemented the place of a budding star, as he rises through the ranks at 185 pounds. Adesanya has the name value of a former champion on his resume. Silva retains not only his place as a proven draw and dangerous wildcard but also his health to do it again as he nears his 44th birthday.
The fight itself was something out of a kung fu movie. It was a gumbo of wild high kicks narrowly missed, flying knees and pinpoint punching mixed in with a healthy dose of theatrics to spice up things for the crowd. The fight world enjoyed a relatively rare treat. A future star was built up without sacrificing a beloved legend at the altar of the MMA Gods. In fact, this actually raised Silva’s stock. Before the event, much of the talk surrounding Silva centered around his United States Anti-Doping Agency-mandated time off and his lackluster results prior to that. Going 1-4-1 in his last six before a two-year hiatus on the wrong side of 40 was not the ideal leadup into a big fight. By showing that even a lesser version of Silva is still a credible and exciting fighter, the legend has a bit more momentum behind him as he nears the end of his career. While retiring now would certainly be a fitting sendoff, his desires to have one fight in his hometown of Curitiba, Brazil, makes even more sense and can be much bigger than it would have been previously.
Adesanya has his ticket firmly punched to the spotlight. While middleweight champion Robert Whittaker was the original headliner, “The Last Stylebender” stole the show in almost every way leading up to the event. His personality poured through the cameras to compliment an impressive highlight reel and fight style worthy of an anime-derived nickname. The showdown with Silva, which looked like a Yuen Woo-ping production, did nothing to harm his brand, even without the devastating finish many had predicted.
The combination of these two men at this time was exactly what both needed. Silva’s fall from grace against Chris Weidman always felt kind of hollow. One taunt too many and everything collapsed. The rematch added a gruesome and unfortunate injury to the mix. The improbable comeback and failed drug tests combined with close decisions against Derek Brunson and Michael Bisping left us without any true punctuation at the end of such an incredible legacy.
Adesanya suddenly stormed through the division and into our consciousness in a yearlong blitz that thrust him into title contention too fast to even contemplate. Between the emotional weigh-ins, the shared admiration, a nail biter of a fight with high stakes and the soon-to-be-iconic dual bow after the final bell, the torch has been passed from one generation to the next in the most appropriate and poetic of ways.
THE BAD: HOW MUCH A DOLLAR COST
No crowd was more deserving a great show than the fans in Australia, as UFC President Dana White has been quite vocal about the loyalty of the fan base and the fact that shows consistently sell out. It’s a shame that on two consecutive occasions Whittaker has been booked to defend his middleweight belt in front of his countrymen, only to be snatched away by an injury at the Eleventh Hour. It’s unfortunate, but in a sport as brutal as MMA we can expect things to go wrong. The injury bug doesn’t care if it’s a main event, a title fight or that fan-friendly matchup for which everybody was waiting. When it’s time to strike and strip us of what we want to see, it simply doesn’t matter. No fight is immune. Looking at the recent offerings in the sport, you’d be hard-pressed to find too many events that were unaffected by this undesirable reality.
However, given the price tag of a pay-per-view, we expect more. When a fight is removed from the event, there should still be enough to justify that price tag. Despite White’s grilling a media member for questioning the “top-heavy” nature of UFC 234, the statement remains true. This was a top-heavy card in its original iteration. As great as the double middleweight headliners were, there was little else to get excited about from a name-value perspective. In his latest piece for Sherdog.com, fellow columnist Todd Martin argued this point effectively, likening this to the traditional big boxing model. Whittaker’s sudden withdrawal only highlighted this even more. What was a thin card bookended by a de facto 185-pound tournament morphed into a much thinner card with only half of the equation. We’ve all heard the public-relations spin about not judging an event before it happens. To an extent, that is a fair statement.
Many events that lack the power of notable names can turn out to be highly enjoyable, with the potential to birth the next contenders and stars. We’ve also seen cards packed with names and bouts of consequence not deliver from an entertainment perspective. There are no guarantees in live sports. However, from a consumer point of view, the promise of what might happen when those lesser-known names clash is not enough to earn that $65. On the other hand, proven names are enough to command hard-earned money.
I was reminded of the original UFC 196. Before Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz met for the first time on that marquee, it was originally a pay-per-view event featuring a heavyweight title fight between Cain Velasquez and Fabricio Werdum. When injuries struck less than two weeks before the opening bell, Johny Hendricks and Stephen Thompson were promoted to the main event, and it became a basic UFC Fight Night offering.
Maybe Whittaker’s medical emergency happened too late, as only hours before the first fight, the champion was undergoing emergency surgery. Perhaps the wheels were already in motion and couldn’t be rerouted to ESPN Plus or UFC Fight Pass so quickly, but it would have been a nice gesture to not tax the already stretched budgets of fans who remain devoted to the product. This was scarily close to becoming the next UFC 151 or being “postponed” alongside UFC 233.
THE UGLY: DIE A CHALLENGER OR BECOME A VILLAIN
Kelvin Gastelum just might be the recipient of one of the rawest deals in recent memory. Imagine going through what he described as the toughest training camp of his career, traveling to the other side of the world, making weight, doing media rounds and fulfilling every obligation in anticipation of the greatest opportunity of his young career, only to not have the payoff of actually competing. What makes this ugly, besides the noticeable staph infection that accompanied him to Melbourne? Due to matters completely out of his control, Gastelum could be losing his spot as a title challenger.
After the fight, White was non-committal about Gastelum remaining the next man in line for Whittaker when he makes what is anticipated to be a relatively speedy recovery. With Adesanya sneaking his way into the main event of what was already believed to be a No. 1 contender fight, it would be easy to forget about Gastelum. As White pointed out after the fight, “the machine keeps moving.” The breakneck pace of the schedule and the need for star power means that the nuances of a situation like Gastelum’s are necessarily the concerns of the promotion. His name and likeness being plastered over promotional posters and UFC Countdown videos mean nothing if anything interferes with that machine.
The fact that Gastelum sported Henry Cejudo’s belt and proclaimed himself champion to every camera and microphone in the arena while the rightful king of the division was having his intestines operated on may have seemed in poor taste and unamusing, but it’s a necessary evil in this fast-paced and forgetful era of the UFC. He could have played the humble guy grateful for the opportunity who was looking forward to finishing business with Whittaker while wishing him a speedy recovery and wearing a nice suit cageside. The camera would have panned over him and the commentary team would have mourned the death of the main event for a few seconds before Adesanya and Silva were back to being the center of attention. With a personality like Adesanya and a legend like Silva in the mix, it’s unlikely that approach would do him any favors when it’s time to decide what’s next for the middleweight belt.
Gastelum has certainly earned his spot, and regardless of the impact Adesanya has made on the division, he should be fighting for the belt next. Of course, if Whittaker can’t make it back in the reasonable amount of time that has been reported, maybe we bring up that dreaded “I” word and add a secondary title to the division. No matter the nature of the next 185-pound championship fight, Gastelum should be in the Octagon. It’s the fair thing to do. Unfortunately, mixed martial arts is far from fair.