The UFC couldn’t have picked a better night to unveil its new look.
Let’s face it — the UFC of a few years ago was big but a little predictable. Georges St. Pierre would take people down at will or methodically jab them to a pulp. Anderson Silva would dance around a little and win with a Matrix-style move if he was interested or win methodically if he was bored. Brock Lesnar would take someone down and pound them with the giant ham hocks he calls fists.
The stars faded, and the UFC seemed to be fading with it. A lot of up-and-coming fighters were boring wrestlers who just leaned against opponents on the cage. The recurring feature on The Ultimate Fighter is now Dana White’s exasperation with fighters who show little fighting spirit but just try not to lose.
Tonight, we got a new perspective on the UFC. Part of it was the UFC’s production — new graphics, the Octagon used as a video screen, live music for the main event. Part of it, sadly, was the personality-killing Reebok gear that makes everyone look like a character in the original Rollerball, in which the corporation tried to make sure no athlete stood out from the gladiatorial spectacle.
Then part of it was a wild main card — a bloody showcase for a sport that has reached new heights of competitiveness.
We got hints early in the main card. Massive underdog Brad Pickett picked apart Thomas Almeida until the young Brazilian landed a knee that sent Pickett tumbling backward to the mat. Jeremy Stephens was also bloodied before landing a flying knee of his own.
The co-main event was an instant classic title fight. It’s hard to imagine that, just a few years ago, Robbie Lawler looked like a plodding journeyman. Now he has had two terrific title bouts with Johny Hendricks, winning the second to take the belt. Tonight, he made an utter mess of Rory MacDonald’s face but absorbed some punishment himself through four rounds. He was trailing on all three judges’ scorecards:
He might not have known he needed a knockout, but that’s what he delivered, landing a left hand that sent MacDonald down slowly, as if his ability to fight back was ebbing from his body.
Each of those fights was a compliment to the competitive spirit of today’s elite UFC fighters. We see so much mixed martial arts on television that we forget what these top-tier fighters are capable of doing.
And that led us to … Sinead O’Connor. Really. She sang for the entrance of the favorite son of Ireland and possibly my distant relative, Conor McGregor. (I’m related to the McGregor clan of Scotland, which finished third in a two-way power struggle in the Scottish highlands. Maybe some of us hopped over the water and found a better life in Ireland?)
So far in his career, McGregor’s mouth has outpaced his fighting accomplishments. He has long talked as if he already had a UFC belt, and he broke all manner of protocol by grabbing the belt at a press conference.
But when he actually earned the belt, coming back from a ground-and-pound onslaught by Chad Mendes to get the knockout late in the second round, we saw a more humble McGregor. He and Mendes showed the sportsmanship we’ve come to expect from most UFC greats. And he seemed to realize he might not have made it through the fight without the support of the massive hordes of Irish fans who wildly cheered for him.
McGregor might not be the best fighter in the featherweight division. He showed some holes in his game against Mendes, a late replacement for injured champion Jose Aldo. With a full training camp, Mendes might beat him. So might Aldo, when the champion faces the interim champion in a bout that should approach Lesnar-type pay-per-view numbers. Frankie Edgar should also be in the conversation.
And on a given night, Lawler might lose. He was down tonight. He barely beat Hendricks.
But these fighters fully deserve their belts. The fact that they’re not as dominant as Silva or St. Pierre in their primes just means we might be getting better and better fights.
New presentation. New clothes (though they need to work on that, along with the contracts behind them). New competition.
The next few years should be as thrilling as any we’ve seen in combat sports.