By Isaac Feldman
UFC hopes “UFC on ESPN+ 1” on Jan. 19 marks the beginning of a new era for mixed martial arts and avoids the negative headlines that previous events at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center have generated.
MMA fighters and organizations in general and will benefit from the larger audience that UFC reaches on ESPN, the culmination of a decades-long progression of combating stereotypes to become a mainstream sport and a succession of television deals -- from Spike TV to the successful seven-year pact with FOX that ended in 2018. UFC’s growth in viewership under the FOX umbrella, along with the minting of crossover superstars such as Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey, was such that Disney paid $1.5 billion for control of UFC’s broadcasting rights.
Now, for its first foray on ESPN, UFC will look to break the spell that hung over their past two cards in Brooklyn.
UFC 208, in 2017, was widely criticized as one of the worst MMA cards of all time. Nine of the 10 fights went to decisions. That’s bad, folks. UFC 223 became infamous when McGregor threw a hand truck through the window of a bus full of fighters in the lead-up to the pay-per-view event, leading to his arrest.
UFC’s third trip to Brooklyn doesn’t have a slate of mediocre fights or a superstar’s crazed outburst (yet). The negativity surrounding the fight card stems from former NFL defensive end Greg Hardy making his UFC debut on the undercard of the super-fight main event between bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw and flyweight champion Henry Cejudo.
Hardy was arrested in 2014 following a violent altercation with ex-girlfriend Nicole Holder during which Hardy allegedly threw Holder onto a futon covered with guns, strangled her and treated to kill her. Hardy was found guilty of assault, though the charges later were dropped when Holder did not appear in court to testify. Deadspin later published graphic photographs of Holder’s body covered in bruises. Hardy was inactive or suspended for most of the 2014 NFL season and part of the 2015 season.
Hardy’s UFC debut — a heavyweight fight against Allen Crowder — comes on the same card on which Rachael Ostovich is set to fight. Ostovich was allegedly battered by her husband, Arnold Berdon, also an MMA fighter, during a November incident in Hawaii.
Berdon was arrested and charged with assault. Ostovich suffered injuries to her face, head and body; she is proceeding with her flyweight bout against Paige VanZant next Saturday night.
It’s a glaring, troublesome juxtaposition for UFC just as the company is embarking on a new era for MMA coverage.
The main event between Dillashaw and Cejudo is what’s right about MMA: an unstoppable force against an immovable object. The fight is being contested at the 125-pound flyweight limit, meaning Dillashaw is cutting 10 more pounds than usual to try to become the fourth UFC fighter to simultaneously hold two titles (McGregor, Daniel Cormier, Amanda Nunes). Veteran flyweight and former title challenger Joseph Benavidez is UFC’s backup should Dillashaw or Cejudo fail to make weight.
Cejudo, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in wrestling, is trying to secure a spot in the pound-for-pound top 10 by making an historic first defense of his title. Cejudo won his belt in August at UFC 227 on the same night of Dillashaw’s most recent title defense. Cejudo outpointed Demetrious Johnson, the all-time winningest UFC champion, to become the second fighter (after Ronda Rousey) to win an Olympic medal and a UFC championship.
“UFC on ESPN+ 1” will be a wild mixture of matchups. Hardy’s debut is the sideshow attraction for casual MMA fans. Hardcore fans can soak up a Dillashaw-Cejudo dream match. UFC is looking for a solid start to the ESPN era and hoping to break the Barclays Center curse at the same time.