In the wake of the UFC’s first ESPN-exclusive PPV event we got two new interim champions, each crowned in wild, memorable, five-round brawls. After such a newsworthy show, it may be hard for you, the simple fan, to know how to feel. What should we be celebrating, and what should we be outraged about? When is the hype real, and when is the UFC trying to trick us out of our money? Unfortunately for both of us, I can’t make up your mind for you, but in this article I will at least give you some direction on what you should be excited about, and when you should hold your nose.
Preach: Dustin Poirier is the Man
Dustin Poirier’s aggressive style and endearing personality have made him something of a fan favorite for years, but he has always struggled to break through the ceiling as a true title contender. In the UFC’s most talented division, one has to be nearly perfect to ascend to the top (hell, the division’s champion Khabib Nurmagomedov does in fact have a perfect record).
Dustin has put together a hell of a streak with finish wins against tough, decorated opponents, but none were as impressive as this win over Featherweight champion Max Holloway. Against Holloway, Dustin showed the same power and durability that earned him this title shot, but also showcased a huge gas-tank and some of his best game-planning yet.
Early in the fight, Poirier was able to do what virtually no Holloway opponent has done before by successfully trading shots with the Hawaiian champion. Where most are unable to keep up with Holloway’s pace, Poirier instead set the tone himself by landing the heavier and more damaging shots in most exchanges, wobbling and even knocking down Holloway in the early rounds. At the same time, Poirier kept Holloway off balance with change-up low kicks to the legs and body.
After dealing enough damage to win the early rounds, Poirier gift-wrapped the win by surviving Max’s impressive second wave of attacks in the middle rounds and winning the fifth and final round. Poirier has always been a good fighter, but now no one can deny that he is one of the sport’s elites.
Hate: Lightweight and Featherweight Are All Mucked Up
Ideally after a title fight, we have a clearer idea of the division’s pecking order. Somehow, booking an interim Lightweight title bout between Dustin Poirier and Max Holloway could only serve to cause confusion and congestion in the title pictures in two divisions.
At Lightweight, one could argue that it is good to crown an active champion while Khabib Nurmagomedov is on hiatus from fighting until the fall. However, that ignores a couple of tough realities.
For one, it is sort of strange to have a “champion” disputing Khabib’s reign when Khabib is healthy, unbeaten, and openly discussing that he expects to fight again in the fall. Of course it isn’t ideal to have a champion who is only willing to fight once annually (especially in such a crowded division), but fighting once instead of twice per year doesn’t make him any less the champion. If the UFC considers it a problem that Khabib isn’t fighting more often, the solution is to come up with a way to get him inside the cage, not to promote a substitute champion while Khabib is on vacation. In short, this isn’t a situation where the champion’s health is in doubt and his return is a question mark, so there is no real reason to name a second champion in his division.
Secondly, it is unfortunately a bit naive to think that naming Poirier as interim champion even guarantees that he is the next challenger to Khabib’s title. Just this year we saw reigning interim champion Colby Covington get passed over for a shot at the undisputed title. That disregard for the interim title wasn’t even unprecedented — Tony Ferguson was recently in the exact same position as Poirier as interim Lightweight champion, and he ended up being stripped of his title without ever getting the chance to unify it.
Glancing at the list of other potential Khabib opponents, it’s very easy to imagine Dustin being passed over. Ask yourself as a UFC fan, would you be surprised to see Conor McGregor cut the line and get the lucrative Khabib rematch before Dustin gets a chance to unify? Or, if you had the chance to see the long-anticipated matchup between Khabib and the arguably more deserving contender Tony Ferguson (who is on a ridiculous 11-fight winning streak that dates back to 2013), how would you justify booking Poirier ahead of Ferguson? Because Poirier now has the interim title, whereas Tony had the interim title, even though Tony never actually lost that title in a fight? And if you do stick with Dustin over Tony, have you actually un-clogged the division, or have you further clogged it by artificially creating a challenger ahead of Ferguson in line?
However you’d answer that question, you’d probably agree that the booking of Holloway in an interim lightweight title shot was a lose-lose for the state of the featherweight division. It may have been worse had Max won, giving him stronger incentive to perhaps stay at lightweight and never again make the tougher cut to 145 pounds. But still, it’s always a weird look for a division to see its champion get defeated by someone who isn’t going to reign over the weight class. Now if Holloway stays at Lightweight, there will never be full closure on the division’s linear title. If he does come back down, it will be interesting to see if the man who was ranked #4 on the pound-for-pound rankings generates the same buzz, and the same respect, after being definitively beaten in a five round fight.
Preach: Izzy and Kelvin are the New Guard at 185
UFC’s Middleweight division sometimes feels like it’s in a constant state of change. To give a bit of context, no Middleweight champion has successfully defended his belt against a ranked opponent since Chris Weidman in 2015. Since that time a number of would-be contenders have come and gone without ever taking over the division. After UFC 236, fight fans can now finally look forward to a future where Middleweight once again features young, dangerous, active fighters.
In the case of Kelvin Gastelum, we have a fighter who has been crushing competition at 185 for a number of years, but whose performances are constantly received by fans with doubt, excuses, and skepticism. It’s true that Kelvin was a natural welterweight who moved up after difficulty cutting weight, and it’s true that his height and reach are on the shorter end for a 185er. But what do those measurements matter if Gastelum is winning fights?
Still, detractors find a way to pick at Kelvin’s resume, and while I may be the author of the MMA Player Hater’s Ball, it is my duty to hate only when hate is warranted. Kelvin has knocked down every 185er he has faced, and at this point has fought exclusively at 185 since UFC 200 in 2016. Kelvin may have lost against Israel Adesanya, but he fought a hell of a war. This time no one can argue that his knockdowns were assisted by his opponent being old with a degraded chin, or question his cardio abilities. Indeed, Gastelum brought the heat against a taller, longer, younger opponent, and did so for a full five rounds, even snatching the fourth round on all three judges’ scorecards. Kelvin Gastelum may not be a middleweight champion today, but no one can deny he belongs at the top of the middleweight division.
As for Adesanya, his performances continue to rise to the level of competition as he wades deeper and deeper into the division’s shark tank. Adesanya already has 6 wins in just over one year with the UFC. Undisputed champion Robert Whittaker has shown to be insanely tough and his skills very well-rounded in classic performances against the likes of Jacare Souza and Yoel Romero. Fans will be in for fireworks on the feet when Adesanya tests himself against Whittaker, hopefully scheduled to be booked sometime this autumn.
Hate: Jon Jones Eying Up Izzy
Before and after Israel’s excellent performance at UFC 236, Light Heavyweight Jon Jones felt the need to throw his hat in the ring and take some shots at the ascending 185er. I’m hating on this one for a number of reasons — for one, we’ve seen from Jon’s recent tweets about Stipe Miocic that JBJ tweets are wolf tickets. To recap, Jon tweeted that he would fight Stipe, Stipe responded in agreement, and then (surprise!) it was announced that Jon was actually booked next against former middleweight-washout-cum-205-contender Thiago Santos, in yet another fight where Jon is a ridiculously heavy favorite over a smaller man. At the same time, reports came out that Jon would demand an especially hefty payday to make the move up to heavyweight, where there is a number of interesting opponents, and where said opponents won’t be giving up so much height and reach.
Now, it’s one thing for Jon to talk empty smack about moving up to heavyweight while instead staying in his “natural” division. And it’s not really Jon’s fault that said division is mostly populated with old has-beens and journeymen. But for Jon to start openly looking downward for opponents is just shameful. Doubly so when Jon is targeting a small middleweight like Adesanya, who weighed in at a comfortable 183 pounds for his title fight. For someone with the frame of a heavyweight to call out a small middleweight, especially while his hated rival Daniel Cormier tears through the heavyweight division, reflects very poorly on Jon.
As is often the case, the actual in-cage action at UFC 236 provided a fun and exciting show. Here’s hoping the extracurricular stuff doesn’t end up overshadowing that.