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UFC 248 and the thrills and ills of high stakes prizefighting

Jordan Breen examines the wild ride that was UFC 248. From its incredible highs, to its mind-numbing lows.

Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

UFC 248 wasn’t an instant classic, but the event certainly entrenched itself as instantly memorable, for better and for worse. It exalted UFC women’s strawweight champion Weili Zhang and reaffirmed the elite status of former queen Joanna Jedrzejczyk, even in defeat, as the pair put on arguably the best fight between two women in the sport’s history. Meanwhile, middleweight kingpin Israel Adesanya and perpetual contender Yoel Romero confounded and soured the majority of MMA fans with a listless, frustrating main event for the ages. It was a contrasting tale of great and god awful, to say the least.

Why is it that, though? The obvious answer is that one bout was a five-round pitched battle, rich with technique and violence, while the other was a disappointing 25-minute game of charades from two fighters typically associated with dynamic knockouts; both of these statements are true. There’s something just as crucial at play here, though. A great back-and-forth title fight doesn’t typically instantly have the MMA world declaring it a watershed milestone for the sport – or hell, an entire gender – and the ‘greatest ever.’ While at the same time, an aggravating letdown usually doesn’t lead to the level and intensity of vitriol that Adesanya and Romero have been subjected to.

As always, however, context is king. What UFC 248 and the reaction to its two title fights reveals is the deep impact that the stakes of any bout have on our perception. In this sport – any sport, really – when the stakes are at their highest, greatness tends to create a shared thrill and fervor that can transform an event into something truly sublime. Conversely, when such a crucial, important event falls dramatically short of our expectations, the animus is amplified. It’s as if the audience has been personally offended, creating a narrative that there has never been a worse thing to ever have happened in wide world of sports. The higher the stakes, the more radically polarized reactions will ultimately be—coloring the casual, collective history and our individual recollections of those happenings.

MMA: MAR 07 UFC 248 Photo by Louis Grasse/PX Images/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Naturally, most of our perception of greatness and disappointment is informed by anticipation and expectation. We see a fight come together and we anticipate how the individual styles may mesh, what excitement that may entail, and what it means for those athletes and the sport as a whole. The stakes of any bout are implicit in all those ideas. There are plenty of non-title bouts – and many run-of-the-mill, three-round undercard fights – that shock us and defy expectation. But all things being equal, the weight and significance of a major championship bout, title eliminator, or sought-after grudge match will almost always lead to a more positive, passionate appraisal.

On the flip side, lame duck filler fights are a dime a dozen on even on great MMA cards at this point in time. And we may grouse and crack wise about them on Twitter, but at the end of the day, they’re disposable and forgettable. When the fight is supposed to signify something larger, when we have invested mental and metaphysical energy into a forthcoming contest, failure to create something entertaining or memorable in the cage often feels like an affront to the spectator.

This tendency may be selfish, even partially delusional, morphing our responses and recollections based on emotion and a high degree of subjectivity. It’s also understandable and sensible; as fans, we want to believe that most if not all fights have a capacity for greatness. That any given clash could knock our socks off, that our investment in sports are valid. It only makes sense that when the stakes are more profound, we interpret these events more profoundly.

UFC 196: McGregor v Diaz Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

Was Zhang-Jedrzejczyk a hell of a fight? Absolutely. Is it the best women’s MMA fight ever? Quite possibly. At the same time, was it drastically better than say, Jedrzeczyk-Claudia Gadelha 2? In which Jedrzejczyk needed to sweep the final three rounds to remain champion and did so with tense, dramatic aplomb. Or the One Championship title fight between Angela Lee and Mei Yamaguchi? Which was every bit as technical and back-and-forth, but offered much more in the way of exciting grappling exchanges? What about Miesha Tate taking the UFC women’s bantamweight crown from Holly Holm with a fifth-round rear-naked choke, in a situation where even winning a 10-9 round would have only led to a draw?

To each their own, of course. But whether or not readers agree with anointing Zhang-Jedrzejczyk as the ‘best ever’ women’s fight, it’s not hard to understand why that exaltation was the kneejerk reaction. Both fighters are dynamic, potent strikers who made for a nip-tuck, tit-for-tat, tactical battle. One that affirmed Zhang as an emerging international star, with reportedly over 33 million folks in China viewing their now-infamous weigh-in staredown online, and in excess of 20 million Chinese fans paying to watch Zhang’s first title defense.

Meanwhile, despite failing to reclaim her status as ‘Joanna Champion,’ Jedrzejczyk showed she’s far from a washed-up also-ran and still an elite fighter. People already expected a great fight, and it exceeded those expectations, heightening the already massive significance of the fight. Next time we have a truly awe-striking classic between two women, will it be fairly, rationally judged against Zhang-Jedrzejczyk? Probably not. A reminder that – rose-colored glasses be damned – when fights matter the most to the sport and manage to overdeliver, they’ll likely always matter the most to us.

Conversely, was Adesanya-Romero really the infamous, historic dumpster fire it was immediately heralded as? It was, at least in terms of pure entertainment value, positively atrocious. Watching one of the most, if not the most electrifying striker in the sport just prosaically tally up leg kicks against a lumbering, inert Romero for 25 minutes was annoying as hell—if not outright infuriating. It makes sense, though.

UFC 248: Adesanya v Romero Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

Both men are natural counter fighters, and Adesanya – for all his striking gifts – has shown himself to be hittable in the past. He correctly deduced that Romero’s style is predicated on long periods of inactivity punctuated with sudden, violent explosions of offense. Explosions he adeptly neutralized.

For as much as we praise smart, sober strategy in the cage, it is hard to not feel let down on some level, by seeing it here. Both because of the fighters’ past highlight reel stoppages, and because we want to believe that such a high-stakes fight would create a more offensive-minded atmosphere. Even if that’s inherently wishful thinking – and even if MMA fans can be often be overly cynical – I think most of us want to believe that two elite fighters with such athletic gifts, even if they don’t exceed our expectations, won’t fill us with revulsion. This sentiment is only magnified by what was at stake: this was more than likely ‘The Soldier of God’’s last real chance to claim middleweight gold at 42 years old, and Adesanya’s first title defense and first main event stateside—thought to be a potential starmaking performance. Neither treated it as such, making an already bitter pill especially hard to swallow.

While such indignation may be righteous, to some extent, there is some relative ‘good’ to be extracted from their fight. It gave us some valuable insight and intel into both fighters. It conclusively cemented Romero’s status as a mercurial talent whose entire style is predicated on these short bursts, and provided a blueprint for how an opponent might defeat him without exposing themselves to danger—unlike Robert Whittaker and Paulo Henrique Costa. It showed the maturity and analytical sensibilities of the still-developing Adesanya, who made heady adjustments after the first 10 minutes and wisely sought to maximize his advantage. And if nothing else, despite being an awkward and unsatisfying fight, there was still the tension and drama of how it would be scored as the bout sluggishly trudged along. Then again, I’m the kind of guy comfortable watching NBA playoff games end 79-76, as long as its competitive and comes down to the wire.

UFC 129: St-Pierre v Shields Photo by Al Bello/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Was Adesanya-Romero fun to watch? Absolutely not, and I hope I never have to sit through it again. But does it impugn the idea that Adesanya is an emerging star with a potentially outstanding career still ahead of him? Not at all. Plenty of legendary fighters have had awful, tedious fights. Most notably Anderson Silva, whom Adesanya is most often compared. There’s plenty of Randy Couture and Georges St. Pierre fights I’d never want to watch again, and it didn’t stop them from stardom. We watched because we wanted to see greatness, Adesanya fought to remain the greatest. Our priorities didn’t align, which is just part of the game.

If this fight had happened 12 or 18-months ago, even if it was still a 25-minute bore, people would’ve kvetched for the evening and into Sunday morning, then moved on. But with what was at stake on Saturday night, March 7th, in Las Vegas, the MMA masses became so invested in their anticipation of a king-making performance that instead, we’re inundated with moans and screams of it being the worst UFC title fight ever. A claim that isn’t even remotely true. I’d rather watch this again than Jens Pulver-Dennis Hallman or Kevin Randleman-Pedro Rizzo, even if that’s like choosing between drinking bleach, Drano, or battery acid.

Some fights are downright life-affirming and make us fall in love with the sport all over again; mesmerizing us and orienting our minds toward what future thrills may await us. Some just make us question why we even bother with MMA at all. But, even the worst of the worst doesn’t portend the future. Just as Weili Zhang and Joanna Jedrzejczyk aren’t done turning in 25-minute classics, a painful hiccup against Yoel Romero won’t stop Israel Adesanya from captivating us again—especially not with a foe like Paulo Henrique Costa on deck. When the stakes are at their highest, going bust might feel like the end of world. But MMA fans are, if nothing else, are true believers. And even after a bad beat, there’s always another hand to be dealt.

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