5 months ago
On April Fools’ Day, the universe started pulling pranks on UFC 223. These are the ways this uniquely unlucky event could shape the UFC’s future… but first, let us remember just how much madness was crammed into a single week.
The Original Plan: UFC 223 at Brooklyn’s Barclays Arena was scheduled for April 7. It would feature 13 total fights, headlined by men’s interim lightweight champ Tony “El Cucuy” Ferguson against Khabib “The Eagle” Nurmagomedov—a matchup that had developed a reputation as cursed after falling through three previous times—and women’s strawweight champ “Thug” Rose Namajunas in a rematch with former belt holder Joanna “Violence” Jedrzejczyk.
On April 1, the weird broke out.
Ferguson Takes a Fall: On April Fools’ Day it was announced Ferguson had pulled even with Khabib—now each man had twice pulled out of a bout scheduled between them. Ferguson injured himself fulfilling what is typically one of the safer parts of a fighter’s job. El Cucuy tweeted: “As I was completing my UFC pre-fight media obligations on Friday I had an accident on a studio set that tore a ligament in my knee.” (He apparently tripped over a production cable.) But not to fear, because …
Hello, Holloway: Max “Blessed” Holloway, the UFC featherweight champion, agreed to step in. He would be fighting for the title in a different weight class on just six days notice … and he needed to make weight in a mere five. Oh, and Holloway’s own nutritionist George Lockhart acknowledged Blessed hadn’t been training. Still, they were confident he could shrink down to 155. Holloway’s exact weight when he accepted has not been revealed, but he implied he was over 180 pounds, meaning more than 25 pounds had to come off in five days. The next development was predictable…
Good-bye, Holloway (and Hello, a Whole Bunch of Other People): The day before UFC 223, Holloway was denied medical clearance to fight. Now Anthony Pettis was considered as an opponent. Then Paul Felder. Finally, Al Iaquinta got the call. (For those keeping a running total, this meant UFC 223 had three different official headline bouts in a five-day period.) Perhaps sensing something was needed to ensure fans felt they were still getting their money’s worth …
Title Twist: It was also announced that the interim lightweight title fight would now simply be a title fight, despite Iaquinta being ranked #11 and technically missing weight. (He weighed in at 155.2 pounds but had kept his underwear on, leading the UFC to insist the underwear’s weight could be subtracted and the New York State Athletic Commission to argue it could not—seriously, this actually happened.)
Oh, and almost forgot …
Conor McGregor Attacked a Bus: Normally it’s a good thing for the UFC when McGregor makes an appearance. He’s the biggest draw in mixed martial arts history—when he’s on the card, it’s guaranteed to sell over a million PPVs. (Or, when he boxes against Floyd Mayweather, over four million.) Maybe not this one though.
McGregor wasn’t even participating in UFC 223. Apparently, he was angry either about a run-in between Khabib and McGregor’s teammate Artem Lobov or the UFC stripping him of his lightweight title for failing to defend it in well over a year. In response, he and a group of friends unexpectedly showed up at Barclays and threw things at a bus, with McGregor personally shattering a window and getting arrested.
Collateral Damage: By all accounts, McGregor didn’t have a problem with Michael Chiesa nor Ray Borg. Unfortunately, they happened to be on that bus and broken glass isn’t a smart bomb. Chiesa suffered facial lacerations and Borg actually got glass in his eye. Both were forbidden to fight the next evening. (They received appearance fees but lost a shot at a win bonus, which can easily double a fighter’s pay.)
A Quartet of Cancellations: Chiesa and Borg’s fights both were lost. Lobov was booted from the card as punishment for his role in the attack. And the shuffling of fighters to preserve the main event caused a fourth bout to be dropped, reducing the card from 13 fights to nine. (Again, pay in the UFC is largely based on performance bonuses—if you don’t fight, you leave a lot of potential income on the table.)
Somehow UFC 223 happened. Rose again bested Jedrzejczyk, this time by decision. Khabib beat Iaquinta, though the fight unexpectedly lasted all five rounds. This led to a final surreal development …
Announcer Joe Rogan Apologized for His Commentary. Watching the Khabib-Iaquinta fight, I was reminded of what Mike Tyson trainer Teddy Atlas once told me about a “game quitter,” which he defined as, “A guy who doesn’t give up, doesn’t fall down, he’s game with those punches. But he stops trying to win.”
While Iaquinta apparently gave the fight everything he had, to watch him was to see a fighter who could survive but not actually complete. His defense was better than expected—he escaped a number of takedown attempts by Khabib. But from an offensive standpoint, there were long stretches when he might as well have stayed in the locker room. Khabib didn’t get a stoppage, but in three of the five rounds he took down Iaquinta and beat the living hell out of him. If you wanted to demonstrate the term “one-sided,” you could show a replay of this fight.
Unless you listened to the commentary by Joe Rogan, who outraged Khabib fans by making it sound like a thriller. So much so Rogan later felt compelled to apologize: “Make no mistake about it, Khabib won that fight by a landslide.” He explained it may have sounded differently because he decided to focus on Khabib’s “openings” that could have been exploited by a superior opponent. (Just not the one in the Octagon with him.)
Okay, that brings us up to date. These are the questions that need to be answered:
Was UFC 223 a ‘Success’? UFC 223 will be remembered for chaos, cancellations and the arrest of a superstar who, again, was at no point actually supposed to be there.
Then again, it reportedly drew 17,026 fans and posted a live gate of $3,007,108.12. (That works out to an average ticket price of $176.62.)
Paul Dergarabedian, the Senior Media Analyst for comScore, notes even negative publicity often proves oddly beneficial. First, it has the potential to put something “on the map,” bringing it to the attention of people who wouldn’t have noticed. (And McGregor certainly ensured UFC 223 scored airtime on a lot of newscasts that might have otherwise ignored it.) Beyond this, when marketing a combat sport, it doesn’t hurt to have stories that “make people go, ‘Wow, this is kind of crazy. I’ve got to check this out!”(“We’re not talking about the world of growing daisies,” Dergarabedian observes.)
Dergarabedian also believes negative connotations tend to “dissipate” over time: “Look at Mike Tyson!” Iron Mike last fought in 2005 (and last won a fight in 2003) and has had a career filled with scandal inside and outside the ring. Yet now many know him mostly for his appearance in The Hangover and somehow winding up the star of the Adult Swim animated series Mike Tyson Mysteries.
But there’s also cause for concern. Dergarabedian emphasizes that negative publicity doesn’t always turn out for the best: “It’s taking a gamble you have no control over.”
Essentially, McGregor forced the UFC to roll the dice at a moment they’re being forced to face some potential troubling underlying issues. For instance:
Does the UFC Have Sufficient ‘Stars’? Two of the biggest attractions in UFC history are Ronda Rousey and Brock Lesnar. Both were eventually revealed to have the same flaw as a fighter: they struggle when there’s punching. Rousey was knocked out in her last two fights and Lesnar was knocked out in two of his last three. (And he failed a drug test in the one he stayed conscious.) It’s likely neither will fight again and that’s just fine with them. After all, Lesnar was (and remains) a WWE superstar. Now “Rowdy” Rousey has joined him. The day after UFC 223, Rousey drew raves for her performance at WrestleMania 34, both from the sports world and from publications that normally have nothing to do with Vince McMahon’s realm, like People.
Because whatever you think of Rousey as a fighter, there’s no denying the power of that killer’s gaze as she heads to the fight.
Arguably, UFC 223 featured multiple fighters with careers that have exceeded Rousey’s and Lesnar’s. Jędrzejczyk has a career record of 16-2, with both losses to Najumas. (And she put on a strong performance in the rematch—the decision easily could have gone her way.) Nurmagomedov is now 26-0. But they’re harder sells to the U.S. market, starting with the fact they have last names most Americans not only can’t pronounce but aren’t certain how to begin pronouncing. (Joanna is from Poland and Khabib from Dagestan.)
The UFC 223 fighter who seems to have the greatest crossover potential is Rose Najumas. To start, there’s the look with her shaved head. She has openly discussed struggling with mental health issues. (Inspiring Joanna Violence’s less-than-enlightened taunt:“You are mentally unstable and you are broken already. And I will break you in the fight.”) Here Rose is with her emotional support dog:
Oh, and for good measure, she’s a gifted pianist:
Having a fighter like Rose with a title traditionally would have been a license to print money for the UFC. Except belts may not be worth what they used to.
Have UFC Titles Been Tainted? Once, it meant something to have a title in boxing: if you were the middleweight champion, that demonstrated there was no one approximating your size who could touch you. Today, there are 17 different weight classes and four major sanctioning bodies, all invariably disagreeing about who’s on top in a given division. (And yes, this does mean there could theoretically be 68 different boxing champs at a given moment.)
While the UFC has yet to reach this level of madness… it’s closing in. To start, some of the best fighters in the world have been competing in other promotions. (Notably the undefeated Ben Askren.)
Beyond this, the UFC’s willingness to plug in random opponents at the last minute to save headlining bouts means that undeserving fighters get title shots. Eventually, one was going to seize the moment. Michael “The Count” Bisping fought on short notice against Luke Rockhold and won in 2016, taking the middleweight title. (Rockhold had choked him out less than two years earlier and, by his own account, didn’t take the rematch seriously.)
Perhaps recognizing lightning was unlikely to strike twice, Bisping proceeded to duck all the actual contenders in the weight class, agreeing finally to fight 46-year-old Dan Henderson in Henderson’s final bout (Bisping nearly got knocked out before winning a decision) and Georges St-Pierre, who hadn’t fought in nearly four years and had never competed at a weight that high. (St-Pierre submitted Bisping—having avoided so much action during his title reign, Bisping inexplicably accepted another fight just three weeks later and was knocked out.)
Having won the title, St-Pierre returned to retirement.
The UFC also started awarding more and more “interim” titles, for when the champ was injured and couldn’t compete. What if the champ is out indefinitely? Or the interim champ gets hurt too? UFC 223 saw this all reach its logical extreme when Khabib won the lightweight title… but Ferguson insisted he was still the interim lightweight champ (since he’d been injured but never actually lost) and McGregor continued to insist he was the actual lightweight champ (since he hadn’t lost either—he just hadn’t felt like defending his title since 2016).
Meaning there are three fighters who can make a reasonable claim to the title, yet none of them have actually fought each other at any point.
Theoretically, this sets up a great fight for the UFC: Khabib vs. McGregor. Khabib is undefeated and holds the belt, McGregor’s the sport’s biggest star and there’s plenty of bad blood. (As a bonus, the winner can immediately take on Ferguson.)
Of course, this all depends on the answer to the UFC’s biggest question:
What the Hell Can You Do With Conor? McGregor’s career is potentially in real trouble—it’s hard to say you’re innocent of a crime when there’s video of you committing it. While as a first-time offender he might dodge serious punishment, it seems unlikely he’ll beat the charges altogether. And that puts the Irish fighter’s very ability to enter the U.S. in jeopardy, which is troublesome because the majority of the UFC’s biggest events happen either in Vegas or New York.
And even if McGregor somehow beats the rap, should the UFC keep him around? From a financial standpoint, it’s an easy answer. His last MMA fight, UFC 205: McGregor vs. Alvarez, had attendance of 20,427 and a staggering live gate of $17.7 million. That average ticket price of $866.50 makes Barclays seem a bargain.
But most of that appeal comes from a time when McGregor appeared to know exactly how far to push things. For instance, there was the time he took Jose Aldo’s championship belt:
Amusing at the time, the moment became iconic when he knocked Aldo out and actually took his belt. Now, however, McGregor’s antics are actively harming fellow fighters who are just trying to do their jobs. Speaking of doing a job, McGregor hasn’t fought in the UFC since 2016. Even his detour into boxing against Mayweather was almost eight months ago.
If the UFC lets him off with a slap on the wrist or no punishment at all, they’re not just saying McGregor is the face of the UFC—they’re saying he is the UFC, answerable only to his own whims. (Which, based on the bus attack, are getting weird.)
Dergarabedian sums it up: “You put all your eggs in one basket, you’re taking a huge risk.”
Below, another exciting fighter from UFC 223 with a deeply intimidating name: Zabit Magomedsharipov.