By James Corrigan
It is said that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
In the first show of the UFC’s ESPN era, which has changed the very nature of the MMA behemoth from being the underground kings to the establishment class, we received a classic UFC show in that every box was checked. Controversy? Check. Brilliance? Check. Blood? Absolutely. And by the end of the night, there were far more questions than answers.
12,154 fans at Barclays Center in Brooklyn witnessed a hugely anticipated main event superfight between defending flyweight champion Henry Cejudo and Bantamweight champ TJ Dillashaw end in a way that would be impossible to imagine, if it were not the UFC. Cejduo, an Olympic gold medal wrestler from 2008, came out more aggressive than normal against the striking master Dillashaw, and wound up hurting him with a right hand seconds into the fight. After Cejudo pounced, he landed many clean punches, but Dillashaw continued to scramble and attempt to escape.
As he got up to his feet, Cejudo landed a punch that snapped his head back and knocked him back down.
Seeing it live from my vantage point, it looked like DIllashaw may have been badly hurt. Referee Kevin MacDonald, not a name that comes up when discussing top MMA officials, thought so as well and stopped the fight after just 32 seconds. But upon further review, Dillashaw did continue to try and defend himself and grab hold of Cejudo’s leg.
UFC president Dana White agreed with the majority of those at cageside, saying after, “You’ve got two of the best guys in the world, two world champions, in a superfight. Let them fight. Let them finish…. Horrible stoppage.”
Dillashaw was less subtle, saying, “It sucks to have it stolen from me. I worked my butt off. It’s a title fight. It’s a champ vs champ fight. And you’re going to stop the fight like that?”
With the UFC flyweight division potentially in jeopardy if DIllashaw had won, the questions on the future of the two are endless. Would there be a rematch for Cejudo’s 125 title or Dillashaw’s 135? Would the division be removed anyway, forcing Cejudo to move up and rendering this fight pointless?
All of that remains to be seen. But one thing is for certain: Nobody can doubt Henry Cejudo anymore. He has defeated the greatest flyweight ever and arguably the greatest bantamweight ever in back to back fights. Controversy aside, his place among the sport’s all time elite has been cemented.
In the co-feature, former NFL defensive lineman and domestic abuser Greg Hardy made his UFC debut against skill depraved heavyweight Allen Crowder, and it went exactly how you would expect. After one and a half rounds of technical improficiency, Hardy landed an illegal knee to the head of Crowder while his knee was on the ground, knocking him out. Hardy was disqualified, and the New York fans, remembering both his dark past and his stint with the hated Cowboys, rained down boos and vulgar chants at the previously 3-0 fighter.
But amidst the darker moments, the greatness of Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone shined through. The 35 year old Cerrone, the UFC’s all time leader in wins, took on 26 year old prospect Alexander Hernandez in a fight that many (myself included) felt would be a passing of the torch moment.
However, the old gunslinger had other ideas, battering the youngster Hernandez for about one-and-a half rounds before finally finishing him off with a patented head kick. When it was over, Hernandez’s previously unblemished youthful face looked as if it had been through a meat grinder, while Cerrone, who had to lose 15 pounds more than usual in dropping down a weight class, had not a bruise to be found.
It was a testament not just to what Cerrone has meant for the UFC, but what he continues to mean. The crowd was at its loudest during this fight, cheering wildly for Cowboy, who had blessed them with countless legendary moments over his now 12 years fighting for UFC affiliated promotions. After the fight, he called out Conor McGregor, who responded by showing interest in the matchup on Twitter. It would be the dream match to end all dream matches.
But for now, the UFC’s ESPN era has begun. And so far it looks quite a bit like the Fox era, the Spike TV era, and seemingly all the other eras the company has gone through in its 25 years of existence. Because no matter the network, amount of coverage, venue, or anything else, anything can happen in the UFC, and usually does.