Not every major MMA event leaves us with definitive outcomes that give a clear vision of future, or a notion of what comes next—organically jumpstarting the hype-making process. Sometimes, a fight card can leave us with more questions than answers. As such, this past Saturday’s UFC card in Norfolk, VA, wound up feeling like an exam that was impossible to study for.
After missing weight for the biggest fight of his career, then plunking Joseph Benavidez in the second round, what the hell does the UFC do with Deivison Figueiredo? For that matter, what happens to the flyweight division, which was already on life support, before the Figueiredo-Benavidez result sought to rip off its ventilator. Side-by-side showcases for featherweight standouts Megan Anderson and Felicia Spencer were supposed to give us a clear No. 1 contender to Amanda Nunes’ title. And while the answer should be obvious, somehow, it just… isn’t. And, how do we even process the multi-level train wreck that was Magomed Ankalaev vs. Ion Cutelaba?
Obviously, the touch-and-go situation at 125 pounds is at the forefront of fans’ minds. Figueiredo’s weight cut gaffe, followed by his resounding KO of Benavidez, was probably the worst outcome for the UFC and the destitute flyweight division. Some were keen to ascribe the Brazilian’s quick and nasty win due to the accidental clash of heads immediately preceded the knockout, but as with most aspects of this event, it’s not that simple. We’ll never know how badly Benavidez was ‘hurt’ by the noggin knocker – save for the cosmetic damage of the cut that it opened – but the incident and stoppage itself was precipitated by the shorter, reach-disadvantaged Benavidez barreling into the pocket, leading with his head, staring at the mat and throwing windmills. Is this an aberrant outcome, partially informed by Figueiredo’s coming in two and a half pounds overweight, then refusing to cut down any further, or a result of Benavidez’s ill-advised strategy? Again, more questions than answers.
Figueiredo naturally says he is open to a rematch to atone for his weight botch, and to give himself a mulligan at winning the UFC flyweight title. His manager, Wallid Ismail, has publicly stated that the ‘God of War’ and the UFC are keen for a second meeting at UFC 252 in July. Whether or not that comes to fruition, the negotiation itself is at least a glimmer of hope for the flyweight division’s future—even if it’s still deeply enveloped in darkness, with a roster of less than 20 fighters and most of its notable talent having been released over the last 18 months, as the UFC sought to close up the division, before reversing course.
On a related and marginally positive note, the UFC announced on Tuesday that it had signed Fight Nights Global flyweight champion Zhalgas Zhumagulov. As I wrote last week, with the UFC having axed so many standout 125-pounders from its roster (like Demetrious Johnson, Sergio Pettis, Dustin Ortiz, Magomed Bibulatov and scores of others) the quickest and most viable way for the promotion to rebuild a 125-pound roster is to raid the likes of Fight Nights Global, or Absolute Championship Akhmat. Russia and the Caucasus region easily has the greatest depth of talented flyweight prospects right now. It’s not a perfect solution, but it was the UFC’s own aimless, reactionary decision making that introduced the question about the flyweight’s future in the first place.
Saturday night in Norfolk also saw Megan Anderson polish off Norma Dumont with a stiff right hand, while Felicia Spencer pounded out Zarah Fairn, both in the first round. Naturally, the fights were put side-by-side to give the UFC the chance to survey the results and reactions, then decide who was next on deck for a shot at Amanda Nunes’ 145-pound title. While both handed their business easily in the opening frame, it was the sharp-striking Anderson who exuded the more natural charisma, played to the crowd and reaped the benefits of a vociferous fan reaction. She’s a shoo-in, right?
Well, never say never when it comes to UFC fight bookings, but this shouldn’t even be up for debate. Not only did UFC President Dana White lavishly praise Spencer for her gameness in defeat against former champion and current Bellator MMA titlist Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino last July, we’re less than a year removed from Spencer absolutely dummying Anderson in her promotional debut last May—choking her out in less than four minutes. Even if Spencer’s physical, top position grappling didn’t pose a more stylistic threat to Nunes than Anderson – which it does – the recent head-to-head win should make this a no-brainer not worthy of discussion. Nonetheless, the often curious whims of the UFC engender an environment where we’re never quite sure if what seems like certainty will actually come to pass.
And on the topic of matchmaking, is it worth the while to run back a light heavyweight clash between Magomed Ankalaev and Ion Cutelaba? While I would generally appraise referee Kevin McDonald as a quality official I seldom have qualms with, I think it’s undeniable that his indefensible premature stoppage in favor of Ankalaev is a healthy front-runner for 2020’s worst stoppage, and unlikely to be topped. For those demanding a rematch, it’s not just the basic notion of Cutelaba being cheated out of the fight. But rather, that by virtue of him being ripped off, it again introduces that pernicious situation where we’re desperate for information we can’t – and will never have the opportunity – to access. Was Cutelaba really pulling a rope-a-dope routine or was he legitimately hurt? Would he eventually have caught Ankalaev with his superior power?
For that matter, whether or not we get a rematch, does Cutelaba have any recourse here to have this outcome overturned? There is precedent for such a thing, most recently with Brazil’s CABMMA overturning Leandro Silva’s 2015 “win” over Drew Dober—after referee Eduardo Herdy inexplicably called for a technical submission, despite Dober not having tapped and actively defending the choke. However, there is still an obvious difference between a referee halting a bout when a fighter in a submission hold hasn’t tapped, and when they feel an athlete is legitimate in trouble – whether they are or aren’t – as a result of strikes, however clean they may or may not be landing. On top of that, it’s a very real possibility that Cutelaba may face monetary fines from the Virginia Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation for his foolish, pre-fight tough guy routine he pulled. One that lead to a brief physical skirmish with Ankalaev before the bout was even started.
The UFC’s card in Norfolk was a mess that has begat more messiness. I’m cognizant of and sympathetic to the fact that even the best laid plans of mice and men can go awry; it’s not as if the UFC could have foreseen the debacle of Ankalaev-Cutelaba, or that they were fundamentally misguided in featuring Anderson alongside Spencer—despite her recent head-to-head loss. That being said, not righteously explicating Spencer as Nunes’ next challenger and starting to get the hype train on track is a definite oversight. As for the thorny predicament at flyweight, the UFC couldn’t have predicted Figueiredo missing weight. But the entire situation that gave rise to this awkward impasse was created by the UFC’s scatterbrained, indecisive handling of its 125-pound division.
Prizefighting is unpredictable. We can’t always get the answers we want or the answers we seek. Dumb luck and happenstance can create sticky situations that are unavoidable in this sport. Knowing this, best practice is always for promoters to create scenarios in which an averse outcome doesn’t trigger a bewildering, domino effect of confusion and seeming purposelessness for its athletes and their immediate futures. It breeds a sense of confusion for fans that handicaps the ability to get genuinely excited for whatever may come next. As unwieldy and unpredictable as MMA might be, the goal for any promoter (but especially the UFC) should always be a steadfast commitment to ensuring we end up with more answers than questions. Especially the kind of questions that leave us in the lurch, handicap our intrigue and excitement, and raise the most poisonous question of all, “Ugh, who cares?”