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The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday made its way to Anaheim, California, as Daniel Cormier put the undisputed heavyweight title on the line against Stipe Miocic in the UFC 241 headliner at the Honda Center. With it came some good, some bad and some ugly.
THE GOOD: JUST LIKE YESTERDAY
Three years is a long time in the fight game, and the UFC machine never stops moving. Just take a look at the landscape since we last saw Nate Diaz at UFC 202. Current welterweight title challenger Colby Covington was barely noticed on the Fight Pass prelims. Cody Garbrandt was a surging newcomer who had only recently cemented himself as a contender. He has since won the belt and dropped his next two title fights. Other names from the card -- Anthony Johnson, Lorenz Larkin and Artem Lobov -- have moved on from their time in the promotion.
To see an athlete sit on the shelf for that amount of time and then return as if he hadn’t missed a day is an extremely rare phenomenon. The world either passes you by while those who remain active evolve and newer faces emerge hoping to improve upon the generation they’re replacing, or the fickle nature of fans is highlighted as the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately attitude shows itself.
Diaz defied those odds in stunning fashion. Nearly three full years removed from his close decision loss to Conor McGregor, the Stockton, California, native had his way with former lightweight champion Anthony Pettis in the co-main event. Without seeming to need a second to warm up, Diaz made use of his signature pressure to keep Pettis’ flashy offense contained. With his opponent spending most of the 15 minutes on the back foot, we were treated to a vintage performance from the reluctant star. However, it wasn’t just that Diaz confidently walked his man down. In an incredible plot twist, he evolved. This time, he seemed like a more complete fighter, with offensive wrestling and better defense.
This improbably improved version of Diaz comes around at the perfect time. Of course, his presence would’ve been welcomed earlier, but now just seems fitting. With both the welterweight and lightweight divisions experiencing logjams at the top, Diaz injects the kind of name value and big money that keeps things moving without disrupting the title picture. For example, his idea of fighting Jorge Masvidal would be a big-money opportunity that may temporarily quench the latter’s thirst for a title shot while putting butts in seats. Additionally, former interim lightweight champion Tony Ferguson may have another option if he is once again left without a chance at undisputed gold.
Outside of the rankings and the pure sporting elements of MMA, it’s good to have Diaz back. Anyone who tells you that the sport is better off without him is either lying or horribly misinformed. Whether you love his antics, hate his attitude or just come to watch people hit each other in a cage, he’s here to meet our needs. Welcome back.
THE BAD: GRIND TO A HALT
Let’s first give credit where credit is due. Miocic weathered the storm, made adjustments and came from behind to knock out Cormier and take back the heavyweight title. It was an impressive showing that saw the Ohio firefighter battle through adversity and emerge victorious. However, what happened to Cormier was troubling.
After gaining a clear advantage in the opening frame, Cormier abandoned what was successful: keeping his guard high, avoiding shots and sneaking in wrestling. Miocic looked confused and overwhelmed, as “DC” imposed his will. As he got up off the floor and moved toward the stool after the round, it seemed inevitable that the history of UFC 226 would repeat itself.
Slowly but surely, Cormier stopped doing what worked. His boxing defense began to wither away in favor of trading blows with Miocic. His patented single-leg takedown vanished, and there was very little to keep the challenger guessing about what was coming next. A persistent and adaptive Miocic responded with thunderous body shots that completely erased any trace of the version of “DC” that controlled the first round. With his hands down and supremely confident in what he could do to Miocic, Cormier snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Whether it was a case of not heeding the advice of his corner, his understated hubris coming around to haunt him or being a middle-aged man in a cage fight, the Cormier we saw in the later rounds was not what we were accustomed to from the former dual-division champion.
It’s no secret that the American Kickboxing Academy’s team captain has begun to eye life after fighting. Commentary and analyst work will certainly ease his transition away from being a competitor. After passing his self-imposed expiration date of 40 years, there were questions as to why he was still active and which fights he would choose to conclude his career. A trilogy fight with Jon Jones seemed to be the main target. After UFC 241, that bout seems much less desirable.
If “DC” decides to stick around, perhaps trading Jones for Miocic in a three-fight series would make the most sense. He still holds a dramatic win over Miocic and showed that he is still capable of defeating him before things took a turn. Plus, the stakes would still center around legacy. Where Jones blocked his campaign to become the greatest light heavyweight of all-time, a trilogy with Miocic would shift the conversation over to heavyweight. Both men have a valid claim to that subjective title, with finishes over each other and stellar resumes. It would maintain the gravitas and potentially still be a good box-office attraction. Considering the lack of options in heavyweight title challengers for Miocic outside of a rematch with Francis Ngannou, an immediate rematch with Cormier seems logical if “DC” sticks around.
If that’s the case, hopefully Cormier sticks with what has made him such a force in both weight classes. After suffering his second brutal knockout in as many trips to the Honda Center, it might be best for the superstitious wrestler to eye another location for his next walk to the Octagon.
THE UGLY: ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?
Paulo Henrique Costa and Yoel Romero put on a show that will most certainly be revisited when it’s time to reflect on the best fights of 2019. The visual was something to behold, as the two men with the most comic book-like physiques stood across from one another, both capable of startling spurts of violence at any given moment. Plus, the stakes were high, with a recent title challenger anxious to get back to being the No. 1 contender at 185 pounds taking on a fresh face making a big leap in quality of opposition.
From bell to bell, it played out in a chaotic whirlwind of body kicks, knees, punches, taunts and takedowns. It was a fantastic display of high-level mixed martial arts while also inspiring the “Just Bleed” fanboy in all of us. So why was the capacity crowd so quick to boo when Costa was declared the winner by decision?
Of course, they were unhappy with the scorecards. Romero is a fan favorite who has repeatedly thrilled audiences with his action-packed style, crushing finishes and eccentric personality. Seeing such a larger-than-life character in such a grueling fight not get his hand raised apparently didn’t sit well with them. However, there’s nothing to justify the overwhelming jeers of the reported 17,000 in attendance.
First, there was no robbery to protest. Media scores were split almost exactly down the middle. Our Sherdog judges were part of that split. One saw it in favor of Costa. From where I was seated cageside, it looked like Romero won the last round but failed to do enough in the two preceding it. When the margins of victory and defeat are that narrow, there’s no injustice involved. Instead, there’s a different but reasonable variance in interpretation. Neither man submits a scorecard and, as such, shouldn’t be subjected to heckling if a judge misinterpreted the fight. Second, booing a fight of that caliber is ridiculous. The two men in the Octagon fought with every fiber of their souls and walked away bloodied and banged up for our entertainment. Costa could barely walk as he made his way to the post-fight press conference. Romero was likely hospitalized afterwards. Both men walked out of the cage with less of themselves than they had walking in.
To the fools who were in the building, do better. Show some respect. Costa and Romero did everything they could.