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This Saturday night in Mexico City, former Ultimate Fighting Championship lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos looks to get back in the lightweight running against Tony Ferguson, who with a victory would become the first 155-pounder in UFC history to win nine consecutive fights. These are two of the best men in mixed martial arts' best division and so I am, predictably, mighty excited. On the other hand, I'd be lying if I said this event doesn't strike me as bittersweet.
To reflect on this particular card is to consider the best and worst of the present UFC product. It's Cain and Abel in the same body.
Like I said, dos Anjos-Ferguson is a brilliant fight; it has both contemporaneous high stakes in the UFC's cutthroat lightweight division and historical 155-pound resonance. It's got a ton of fun stylistic elements and intrigue which could result in a thrilling stoppage or just a great fight. At the same time, while I'll never front on a 25-minute lightweight UFC main event between stalwarts, dos Anjos-Ferguson is still plagued by context.
This is the lightweight division. Nevermind the ever-present spectre of injury in MMA, waiting to strike at any time, a healthy victor in dos Anjos-Ferguson is guaranteed nothing, even with a spectacular performance. Conor McGregor might be this sport's rising tide that lifts all boats and the golden goose who can spread the wealth, but his pathological quest for riches and legacy -- and the UFC needing to rely on his drawing ability in a 13-month span without Ronda Rousey – has helped engender a no-win for Saturday night's winner. Zuffa pushed for Eddie Alvarez to defend his UFC lightweight title against Khabib Nurmagomedov, Alvarez wanted the big-money McGregor fight at UFC 205 at Madison Square Garden and ultimately, the UFC couldn't resist.
Kudos to Alvarez and McGregor for getting what they want and making coin; this is prizefighting, after all. However, it still leaves the 23-0 Nurmagomedov in the lurch and seemingly queues him up as the top contender in waiting if he can dispatch Michael Johnson at UFC 205. If Nurmagomedov wins and gets a title shot, the winner of dos Anjos-Ferguson, incredibly, will still need to fight some sort of additional eliminator bout.
As it stands, Ferguson is one of only two men in UFC history to win eight consecutive bouts and not be granted a title shot; current featherweight contender Max Holloway is actually at nine in a row. If Nurmagomedov beats Johnson on Nov. 12 and is denied a title shot, he will join the club with Ferguson and Holloway, registering his eighth consecutive UFC win with no championship bid. More than that, nothing is ever guaranteed in the lightweight division: because it's MMA's deepest and most talented class, it's also exceedingly hard for fighters to go on these sorts of streaks and sustain them in pursuit of a title shot, hoping the stars line up for them while constantly treading water in a shark tank.
Just over eight years ago, it was considered promotional sabotage and flagrant malpractice when Jon Fitch had to win eight in a row to get a crack at Georges St. Pierre's welterweight crown. By his fourth and fifth straight wins, fans and media alike found it unfathomable, even with Fitch's grinding style, that he wasn't being given the rub. In 2016, a prime Fitch would likely need to win eight in a row just to get off of the Fight Pass undercard.
Speaking of that, while Fight Pass has become a rich, indispensable MMA resource and it is beneficial for the sport to have a strong, legitimate cable presence, our Fight Pass card will kick off Saturday at 6:30 p.m. ET and the six-fight main card doesn't start on FS1 until 10. If you're gonna watch this whole thing, prepare for a seven-hour time investment, half of which will be watching fighters you don't know and in many cases, don't need to. Let's not forget, the UFC is in Mexico City for the fourth time in less than two years because this is the finale of “The Ultimate Fighter: Latin America” Season 3. Both the location and the fact it's an international TUF finale are, again, reminders of the best and worst the modern UFC has to offer.
There is undeniable value in Zuffa, even if the company's goal was “global f---ing domination,” helping to lay the groundwork for MMA to develop in different nations, as well as exposing new, international viewers to the sport. Still, these globetrotting excursions and TUF on the whole are concepts that new ownership group WME-IMG are actively looking to rein in, plus, the massive influx of not-ready-for-primetime fighters to boost regional interest has hurt the overall standard of the UFC's product.
Now, six-fight main cards on FS1 may be nightmarish as far as television formatting goes, but honestly, this is an outstanding main card. In addition to the fantastic headliner, the Mexican crowd gets to watch the UFC debut of their very own Alexa Grasso, who at 8-0 is one of the best prospects in all of women's MMA and should shine against Heather Clark. It's also the debut of longtime Bellator MMA mainstay Marcin Held, who finds a perfect foil for his scramble-heavy grappling game in Diego Sanchez.
Ricardo Lamas-Charles Oliveira is a fight between two bonafide, perennial featherweight top 10'ers. Beneil Dariush-Rashid Magomedov is a pairing of emerging, still-improving top 15 lightweights. Hell, even the TUF: Latin America 3 final features two fighters -- 23-year-old Martin Bravo, 10-0, and 20-year-old Claudio Puelles, 7-1 -- with way more upside than you'd expect from a TUF variant like this. But, again, this is card is both benevolent and insidious at the same time, so the same nasty circumstances encircle these great fights, too.
As the debuts go, the worst you can say for Grasso is that she's overdue. Held's first UFC foray on the other hand, while he gets a fun hypothetical stylistic matchup, makes your brain scream “Why is Diego Sanchez still fighting?” Meanwhile, McGregor's aforementioned shadow looms large on these other bouts, as well. Is the winner of Lamas-Oliveira really that much closer to a title shot, given the McGregor-Aldo-Holloway logjam right now? How much further can the winner of Dariush-Magomedov advance in a division, the best of all divisions, where you may need to win 10 fights in a row to get a title bid and even then, McGregor might want a big fight and screw your plans up? And knowing how good lightweight is and how it continues to deepen and improve, even if I mentioned Bravo and Puelles' youth and potential, how can you ever guarantee anyone will be a player at 155?
I really do like this card, a lot in fact. They say not to look a gift horse in the mouth, but I think you can still love a pony as a present while acknowledging it's got some donkey-esque qualities. I'm not going to feel especially rueful watching dos Anjos-Ferguson, even knowing how difficult both fighters' promotional circumstances are. Watching Dariush-Magomedov will not make me cry out “Why does lightweight have to be so damn good?!” This event will not make me resent McGregor, even if his righteous self-interest has muddied the competitive waters throughout the UFC.
I'll love the fights, the main card especially. I'll love McGregor for being a great fighter and a megalomaniacal trailblazer. There are some pernicious contexts you can acknowledge without letting it wash you over and destroy your enthusiasm. I'll watch and I'll smile, but I'll be smiling with a mouthful of blood.