By Pete Hoffman
UFC’s ESPN Era started out just how you would want on Saturday night in Brooklyn: There were upsets, finishes, controversies, and Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone breaking even more records.
Here’s what we took away from ESPN’s inaugural UFC card:
1. This might have been the end of the “champ vs. champ” superfight era
It took just 32 seconds for Henry Cejudo to successfully defend his flyweight title against bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw in the main event. An early headkick caused Dillashaw to lose his footing and allowed Cejudo to unload a barrage of punches. Dillashaw, still not entirely recovered, attempted a single-leg takedown before referee Kevin MacDonald stepped in and called the fight. Dillashaw, UFC president Dana White and the crowd at Barclays Center all felt the fight was stopped prematurely. It did seem like Dillashaw deserved more time.
Both fighters immediately asked for a rematch. Cejudo offered to move up a weight class to challenge for the bantamweight title. Dillashaw was pushing to run it back at 125 pounds after getting what he considered to be a raw deal.
Regardless, these superfight experiments are falling short of expectations.
Cejudo-Dillashaw was the fourth title fight since November 2016 involving two champions from different weight classes, following Conor McGregor-Eddie Alvarez, Stipe Miocic-Daniel Cormier, and Cris Cyborg-Amanda Nunes. On paper, it seems like a great idea. But the matchups have been one-sided. Far from being epic battles, the four fights totaled a combined 14 minutes of fight time; only McGregor-Alvarez fight made it into the second round.
The worst part is the trickle-down effect once the fight is over. Is there an automatic rematch? Which belt does the “Champ Champ” defend? And what about the other top contenders in the division? In this new ESPN era, it’s more important for UFC to build up their full roster rather than focus solely on the 11 current champs.
2. Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone returned to lightweight and became a star again
Cerrone had fought 36 times as a lightweight before making the jump up to welterweight in 2016. He went on to fight 10 times in three years with a 6-4 record before finally convincing UFC to drop him back down to lightweight, where he feels most comfortable.
In his return to lightweight, Cerrone dominated a young, on-the-rise star in Alex Hernandez. In the lower weight classes, speed tends to be more of a factor, but the 35-year-old Cerrone showed patience, pose, and precision while putting on a clinic for the crowd in Brooklyn. It was an impeccable showcase fight on cable ESPN to lead into the main card on ESPN+. Cerrone even got the attention of the biggest name in MMA.
The lightweight division remains in chaos pending the results of McGregor’s and Khabib Nurmagovedov’s hearings with the Nevada commission next week to review their post-fight incident at UFC 229 in October. Cerrone’s next opponent may be undecided, but one thing is certain: He’ll be inducted into the Hall of Fame once he hangs up his gloves.
3. Greg Hardy looked like an amateur
The Barclays crowd was against Hardy, the former NFL player and domestic violence pariah, from the moment his highlight package hit the Jumbotron. The boos began to build, only to turn cheers if his opponent, Allen Crowder, got the victory.
Hardy’s previous opponents were unable to handle his striking power. All three were viciously knocked out in the first round. Crowder handled Hardy’s power and was able to take Hardy to the ground. To Hardy’s credit, he didn’t panic and found his way back to his feet.
Hardy seemed to tire in the second round, and Crowder egged him on. Hardy turned on his turbo button and looked as if he was about to empty his entire gas tank on Crowder. And then came the disqualification.
It happened so fast, yet everyone in the arena saw it coming a mile away. Hardy, who has only been training MMA for about two years, landed a devastating illegal knee to Crowder’s head while Crowder was on one knee and considered to be a “downed opponent.” The DQ was immediate. Hardy looked confused as the announcement was made.
Most fans and fellow fighters were quick to pile on Hardy, but there were a few who tried to defend his lack of awareness of the rules.
Anyone who was “worried” they wouldn’t have a chance to see Hardy try again in the cage, Dana White quickly started talking up Hardy’s next fight. “He got out of trouble on the ground several times and he learned a lot tonight,” White said, “so we’ll see where he goes from here.”
This is true about the fight game, for better or worse: As long as you can bring in an audience, you will have an opportunity to fight.
4. ESPN set Stephen A. up to fail
How did ESPN’s first broadcast go? The ratings numbers started to come in Sunday evening, and White was more than happy to share them.
The broadcast teams are pretty identical to those seen and heard on FS1 and PPV: Jon Anik and Cormier doing play-by-play, Megan Olivi doing post-fight interviews, and Karyn Bryant, Michael Bisping and Rashad Evans doing pre- and post-fight analysis.
There was one addition that got plenty of attention, though: Stephen A. Smith. No one understood why Smith was covering the event.