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And just like that, the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s partnership with Fox was over, leaving on something of a high note that was preceded by a steady and unsettling decline in ratings during the second half of the “game-changing” broadcast deal.
With the transition to ESPN having begun in earnest after the UFC 232 prelims finished on Dec. 29, the informal tape-cutting ceremony will occur on Saturday, when the promotion rolls into the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, for UFC Fight Night 143. There are plenty of storylines that will converge at the event, including the future of the flyweight division and the fate of the promotion’s winningest fighter in history: Donald Cerrone. These issues and more will be dissected in this Counterpunch.
Selling Mixed Signals in Dillashaw-Cejudo
One can’t help but note the irony that, after years of hand-wringing over the drawing power and financial viability of the flyweight division, the Ultimate Fighting Championship will make its first impression on the ESPN platform with a fight night headlined by a 125-pound title bout.
Sure, the main card will be featured on ESPN’s streaming arm rather than its much more established and prestigious television service, and one half of the main event is incumbent bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw, whose proven to be a moderately successful draw for the UFC on pay-per-view in the past. Still, this is the beginning of the “new era” about which UFC President Dana White keeps talking, and it’s anchored by a weight class that may not exist on Sunday.
The fight itself is compelling -- even if you ignore the very real risk that the “championship” component will fall away at the Eleventh Hour due to one or both men blowing the scales. “Killashaw” has carved out a reputation as one of the most dynamic and dangerous fighters on the UFC’s roster despite only competing twice in the last two years; meanwhile, “The Messenger” just took out pound-for-pound king Demetrious Johnson in Sherdog’s 2018 “Upset of the Year” in October. The betting lines are close and the stylistic questions abound. Can Cejudo take down Dillashaw and hold him there? Will Dillashaw’s power and conditioning translate at 125 pounds? Is Cejudo’s striking varied enough to hold water if he can’t neutralize Dillashaw’s offense with wrestling?
There’s also the question of stakes, which, as foreshadowed above, might generously be described as unclear.
If Cejudo wins, there’s a glimmer of hope that the flyweight division won’t be shuttered -- a narrative with which the former Olympic gold medalist is running to bolster his image as the UFC’s own Protector of the Realm. However, the reigning 125-pound king has also indicated that he’ll jump up to rematch Dillashaw at bantamweight, conceivably giving the promotion an excuse to let the thinning flyweight division die on the vine in his absence, all while compounding the logjam of contenders in the 135-pound weight class.
If Dillashaw is victorious, things are theoretically much simpler, with “the-dills-that-kills” presumably returning to bantamweight to take care of the winner of the UFC Fight Night 144 main event. Then again, a fight with former teammate and current flyweight Joseph Benavidez might just be more a more appealing financial proposition than the winner of Raphael Assuncao-Marlon Moraes, given the promotion’s intimate familiarity with selling that storyline.
Ultimately, we probably won’t know the significant consequences flowing from the UFC Fight Night 143 headliner event until long after the dust has settled. Which is to say that far from heralding a new frontier for MMA’s torchbearer, we’re continuing with business as usual.
The Easiest Solution to the Hardy Dilemma
By now you know that Greg Hardy is fighting in the co-main event, and my bet is you’re less familiar with his career as an NFL defensive end than his connection with alleged domestic-violence incidents perpetrated in 2014, which eventually contributed to his getting run out of the NFL. You’re probably also aware that three fights before Bruce Buffer announces Hardy’s name, Rachael Ostovich will enter the cage for the first time since her husband allegedly tried to murder her.
In White’s world, the only people uncomfortable with this arrangement are click bait-hungry Social Justice Warriors. In reality, Hardy’s continued presence and the promotion’s insistence on white-washing his past is a stain on the UFC brand that limits MMA’s potential as a force for good and sends a fairly unambiguous message to its increasingly long list of fighters who have been victims of domestic violence in the past.
For that reason, it would be a really great thing if the objectively likeable Allen Crowder pulled the upset and derailed the Hardy hype train before it really got a chance to leave the station, forcing both the UFC and Hardy himself to re-evaluate his future with the company. Don’t @ me.
‘Cowboy’ Gonna Cowboy
Cerrone will attempt to further solidify his record for the most wins in UFC history when he squares off with one of the company’s most promising young prospects in Alexander Hernandez in an under-the-radar scrap on the prelims. It’s the first fight that “Cowboy” has had at 155 pounds since his ill-fated shot at the title three years and 10 fights ago, and like so many of Cerrone’s recent bouts, it seems tailor-made to benefit everyone but him.
This isn’t to suggest it’s an unwinnable fight, but the risk outweighs its reward. Hernandez is well-known among hardcores. However, Hernandez has only two UFC fights under his belt, so “Cowboy” stands to win little more than bragging rights with a win over “Alexander the Great,” especially given the clusterf--- at the top of the division. By contrast, a loss could push Cerrone into the badlands of the 155-pound division before he has had a chance to re-establish himself in the weight class, while relegating “money fights” like a Nate Diaz rematch or a scrap with Conor McGregor to pipe-dream status.
By now we know that Cerrone doesn’t weigh up the pros and cons like many of his counterparts do and that his primary motivation is getting to throw down as often as physically possible, with title implications and politicking a distant afterthought. However, given his enormous fanbase and enduring company-man approach to the fight game, it’s disappointing that the UFC seems so intent on transitioning Cerrone to gatekeeper status in the least dignified way possible. Part of me thinks this is all part of a longer-term plot to punish Cerrone for his short but impactful foray into labor organizing a couple years ago, but in all likelihood, it’s promotional laziness masquerading as prospect building.
Jacob Debets is a recent law graduate who lives in Melbourne, Australia. He has been an MMA fan for more than a decade and trains in muay Thai and boxing at DMDs MMA in Brunswick. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.