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Regardless of whether ESPN+ happened to disappoint you on Saturday, the same cannot be said of UFC 236 in Atlanta, which delivered the best back-to-back fights in history of the Ultimate Fighting Championship and perhaps in all of MMA. Safe to say, we all learned a thing or two … or five.
UFC 236 saw Dustin Poirier finally claim a slice of the lightweight title in a five-round war with featherweight champion Max Holloway, only marginally outdone by the bout that proceeded it, the best fight of 2019 so far, which saw Israel Adesanya validate his hype in a violent, pitched 25-minute battle with Kelvin Gastelum that brought him the UFC interim middleweight title. You really couldn’t ask for more out of 50 consecutive minutes of combat, so there’s a lot to unpack from the events and their consequences.
Recent happenings have really underscored the increasingly international nature of MMA, but to that point, we also need to talk about those aforementioned ESPN+ issues. You might still be buzzing from the title fights, but nonetheless, let’s figure out five lessons we learned from UFC 236:
POIRIER’S POWER PLAY
Like many, I favored Holloway heading into the main event, but no one, not even Hawaiians, is upset Poirier won. He is a thrilling fighter, an incredible ambassador for the sport and an all-around swell guy. More importantly, he is a testament to how a fighter can conquer adversity. It took him 22 bouts to win a UFC title, second only to Michael Bisping’s 26, and along the way, Poirier had setbacks. Remember, it was just two and a half years ago that he got coldcocked by Michael Johnson, but he has never stopped improving and has transformed his overall game. Which part of this evolution played the formative role in beating Holloway? Power.
It was obvious once the bout began that Poirier, who has teased moving to 170 pounds in the future, was vastly bulkier than Holloway in the cage. When combined with his drastically underrated boxing technique, it created a dynamic we’ve simply never seen with Holloway’s opponents. “Blessed” had only been rocked once in his career -- very briefly by a legendary striker in Jose Aldo -- but Poirier set the early tempo for the fight by battering the Hawaiian all over the cage with crushing combinations.
Eventually, Holloway managed to succeed in later rounds by putting in body work and flurrying on “The Diamond,” but at every turn it was obvious that his shots weren’t accumulating in the same way they had at 145 pounds. Meanwhile, all of Poirier’s punches, right down to his piston jab, had serious stopping power against the advancing Holloway.
It’s a miracle that Holloway didn’t hit the canvas, let alone get splattered by Poirier’s punching. When I say power here, I’m accounting for the difference in size and technical mechanics involved in striking. This was the crux of the fight: Even when Holloway started working his famously intricate combinations, just one single Poirier counter would ring his bell and thwart the pressure. Holloway actually outlanded Poirier in each of the final four rounds, but when he backed him to the fence and started working body-head-body-head tactics, Poirier could land a simple, perfect jab and put him on his heels. It would be wrong to characterize Poirier’s win being based on pure size alone; rather, it’s the synergy between his stronger lightweight frame, his incredibly sharp boxing mechanics and real, functional power that brought him to prosper.
HOLLOWAY STILL HAS A HOME
As tends to be the case anytime a fighter, whether mediocre or pound-for-pound material, moves up in weight and loses, people are quick to wish them back down the scale. No surprises, in spite of such a valiant effort in an incredible bout, Holloway’s loss to Poirier -- or perhaps the aforementioned nature of the physical power dynamic that played a formative role in it -- fans, media and even UFC President Dana White are already calling for the “Blessed” one to return to 145 pounds to defend his crown. Typically, I’m ambivalent on these matters, preferring to leave it to the comfort of fighters themselves. In this case, I think Holloway returning to the featherweight throne is the right call.
Even if it is naturally a tougher weight cut for him, Holloway is still incredibly dynamic and not sapped from a performance standpoint when competing at 145 pounds. No one disputes that Holloway is still far and away the best featherweight in the world, so for him to simply move up to 155 would make his successor’s title claim seem illegitimate, which is never a good look. Perhaps most importantly from a promotional standpoint, there’s no shortage of intriguing imminent contenders for Holloway’s featherweight crown. More often than not, part of the push for any champion to move up is the idea that there’s a dearth of challengers for them to the face, but that’s not the case here.
If Alexander Volkanovski manages to top Aldo in May, boom, that’s one exciting challenger. By the time that plays out, the UFC will likely have put Zabit Magomedsharipov in a title eliminator, so you’ll already have a second contender on deck. If Mirsad Bektic can ever get fully healthy and actualize his potential, there’s an easy third would-be successor. No question, there’s plenty of intriguing, exciting and rewarding fights for Holloway, who can continue growing his star as a UFC champion at 145 pounds.
Another important consideration here is that when it comes to moving up in weight and challenging for titles, timing is everything. In Holloway’s case, with future challengers still developing and the chaotic state of the 155-pound division, it was a great time for him to jump up in weight. Two years from now or so, a 29- or 30-year-old Holloway may have thoroughly cleaned out the featherweight division and 155 pounds may require a new, intriguing challenger, which could offer him another chance to be a two-division UFC champion. It’s not exactly a hard situation to envision.
ISRAEL IS REAL
Adesanya already had all the makings of a star heading into Atlanta, but prior to facing Gastelum, the most relevant, prime fighters he had beaten -- with all due respect to a faded, disinterested Anderson Silva -- were Brad Tavares and Derek Brunson. We still had much to learn about “The Last Stylebender” as a fighter, and we learned plenty.
Adesanya’s win showed that he isn’t just a flashy ballerina with some clever techniques and enormous reach. In fact, so much of what he used to topple Gastelum was the opposite; the Nigerian-born Kiwi destroyed Gastelum with laser-guided right cross leads and typically landed them, not from long range but when he stepped just outside “The Ultimate Fighter 17” winner’s own punching range and followed up inside. He showed patience, toughness, strategy and, in the fifth round when he began destroying the American, an unconquerable will and sense of the moment. We even saw that he might have some underrated grappling chops, as his insane guillotine-to-triangle choke transition might have finished the bout in the fifth round, if not for the sweat factor.
At the same time, we also saw that he isn’t perfect, as Gastelum rung him up early with lefts when Adesanya opted to rely on evasive head movement instead of using a proper guard. However, for the most part, he smartly adjusted. We saw he can be hurt with power-punching pressure, and while his defensive wrestling is improved and he’s good at escaping through using the fence, he is still susceptible to being taken down. Nonetheless, taken in full measure, it almost makes the performance better: It gives us a clear picture of exactly what Adesanya offers and a blueprint for his team to improve around.
Best of all, we are now staring at a showdown between Adesanya and New Zealand-born champ Robert Whittaker, MMA’s crown princes of Oceania, in what should be an action-packed fight. The only question is when Whittaker will be healthy and whether the UFC wants to do it in Australia or New Zealand. Naturally, the UFC is already looking toward an Australian stadium show, but Adesanya was adamant that Auckland, New Zealand, would be just as viable. I suspect Adesanya won’t get that wish, but he’ll now have the chance to have his dream come true on the grandest stage.
MMA HAS SOME NEW INTERNATIONAL AMBASSADORS
The globalization of MMA has truly intensified in recent years, to say the least. The UFC is aggressively pursuing cards and business deals in far-flung corners of the earth; the promotion’s next card is its long-awaited Russian debut in conjunction with M-1 Global, which for years seemed like a hell-frozen-over-type scenario. One Championship run cards all over Asia, no matter the population or popularity of MMA in the region. Even Bellator MMA has aggressively expanded into international markets, from England to Israel. In this case though, I’m talking about fighters themselves.
With Adesanya’s win and the recent welterweight title triumph of Kamaru Usman, the UFC all of a sudden has two champions who were born in Nigeria -- a country where MMA is virtually non-existent. However, nothing could be more helpful in changing that than having natives at the top of the sport. If we consider Adesanya raised and based in New Zealand and the fact full champion Whittaker has spent most of his life in Australia after being born in New Zealand, you could even argue the UFC has a pair of Kiwi titleholders, which would have been downright unfathomable a few years ago, given the boxing- and kickboxing-centric nature of Oceania. I mean, if you really want your mind blown, consider that women’s flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko has ties to Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Peru.
Now, as much as the UFC would love one, I don’t think it’s about to find a native Indian champion anytime soon, but what might be the impact be if a fighter like Weili Zhang won a UFC title? How much would she raise the company’s profile in China? If Francis Ngannou -- granted, he was born in Cameroon -- won the heavyweight title, would it help propel MMA in France, where for decades the boxing and judo political power structures have sought to stifle and suppress it? We’re now in an era, especially for the UFC, where the success of any fighter with a particular passport could wield major media and political currency and perhaps even just straight currency, too.
ESPN+ MORE OF A MINUS FOR NOW
Speaking of internationality, American fight fans were treated to the first UFC pay-per-view offered exclusively through ESPN+, and to say that it didn’t go well -- maybe even having some small impact on domestic buys -- would be an understatement, leading to some immediate damage control from White.
“So we started talking to ESPN, the talks moved really fast and we struck a deal with ESPN, and we knew we had to pull this fight off very soon, on both sides; and we knew that there were going to be some hiccups,” White said afterwards. “Hiccups” would be putting it mildly.
For American consumers, problems were not hard to find. The largest gripe is that fans were forced to purchase the card via the ESPN website and were unable to do so via the ESPN+ app. Then, the ESPN+ portal to purchase it was overloaded, leading to many being unable to even access the site and leaving some fans to simply pass on the event, with Bisping and fellow former champion Frankie Edgar taking to social media in confusion, asking how to watch the event. It didn’t end there, though. Many experienced video and audio glitches, along with buffering. Others bristled at having to buy the card for $59.99, having already signed up in advance, only for the UFC to announce a package for $79.99 that would net buyers UFC 236 and a full year of ESPN+.
Adding insult to injury is the fact that only the United States, the promotion’s biggest market, has to suffer for this. For instance, in Canada, the PPV could be purchased as normal with a simple click on your TV, because the UFC’s Canadian rights are owned by TSN, a network in which ESPN has a 20-percent stake. Meanwhile, in other international markets, PPV cards can still be purchased via UFC Fight Pass for as low as $20 or $30 in some countries like South Korea. I don’t think anyone expected this project to run smoothly out of the gate, but this was especially bad. It’s the kind of thing ESPN and Co. really need to shore up, as its corporate overlords at Disney launch Disney+ in November. White was naturally reassuring on the matter, promising future events will be purchasable via the app.
“I’m not just saying this because I’m in business with these guys,” he said. “You know, you’ve seen me in business with guys that I don’t exactly love being in business with. It happens sometimes. These guys are so good at what they do. They’re so good, they’re so on top of everything. We’ll get the problems that people had tonight fixed, and it’ll only get better.”