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I need to ask off the top: If you watched it, did you buy it? Don’t lie to me, baby. I know you stole it. Let’s just keep this a friends’ secret and move on, with nothing more said. All the better, given how litigious the Ultimate Fighting Championship can be.
Yet this is the world to which we woke up on Saturday morning. It’s not like UFC 234 was a blockbuster “stacked” pay-per-view, but in an era where the biggest MMA promotion sees fit to put on marathon cards that force you to sit through six or seven hours in order to watch what you care about, imagine the disappointment when you found out UFC middleweight champion Robert Whittaker had a major hernia and was undergoing emergency surgery. I mean, my apologies for reminding you of a ruined Saturday, but like I said, this is the world we inhabit. We are suckers for punishment, in more ways than one.
With that said, all the drama surrounding UFC 234 gave us more than a few things to talk about. Does Whittaker have staying power as champion? What’s the deal with Kelvin Gastelum’s toy belt, never mind the infection on the back of his head? Oh, and I suppose we should get to Israel Adesanya, too. Let’s figure out how to learn a couple things from the event in Melbourne, Australia.
Where is Robert Whittaker Going, Other than the Hospital?
Obviously, we can’t talk about UFC 234 without discussing Whittaker and whatever fate may stand in front of him. I mean, what do you even say? I saw this dude on the Australian circuit and thought he was a future welterweight champion, and that’s before he grew into his body and won a UFC title. At this point, it’s difficult to speculate. Then he wound up with a hernia that required surgery. This is not exactly the Kiwi’s first major medical procedure, and at 28 years old, it casts major doubt on whether or not he is the 185-pound heir apparent.
The last official UFC middleweight title defense was Michael Bisping-Georges St. Pierre in November 2017. Let that sink in for a second. Clearly, something has gone wrong. How much did this promotion sell for again?
The UFC brain trust is still informed by an era in which Zuffa first purchased the company and fighters like Chuck Liddell and Matt Hughes were willing to blow out their knees or fall off a house while roofing, then show up to fight a couple weeks later. The stakes have changed. The UFC has become worth, allegedly, $4.2 billion dollars, and commensurate with that, rostered fighters -- champions included -- have started wondering about the true nature of their worth. When fighters are making just less than 20 percent of revenue, what incentive do they have to risk their body?
By all details that have been disclosed, Whittaker was willing to fight, even knowing he needed major surgery. However, this isn’t 2001; it’s 2019. I’m not advocating any athletes showing up to fight with a serious injury, but if you’re scratching your head and wondering why fighters are erring on the side of caution, you’re just stuck in the wrong mindset. You made your bed, now you lie in it. You spent 18 years ripping off fighters and now you want them to fight for your lowball offer? It’s not your body on the line. Regardless of how Whittaker recovers and, hopefully, bounces back, he did the right thing, both for his career and his livelihood. Even if it was low-key, he took a stand against his promoter, which at this point is more valuable than ever.
Oh Boy, How Do We Even Talk About Kelvin Gastelum?
In an ironic fashion statement that seems totally appropriate for a modern UFC card, the biggest star of the night was a championship challenger who didn’t even end up fighting. Take a second and wrap your head around that. What do you want to start with: Henry Cejudo’s belt or Gastelum’s skull covered in staph? I can’t go so far as to say this is the worst post-Semaphore Entertainment Group UFC card, but it’s definitely up there with the most ridiculous and unusual events in company history.
All praise to Gastelum. He is massively talented, and while his diet has let him down on multiple occasions and sidetracked his career, he remains a fantastic fighter, especially since he has found a more appropriate weight division. However, what kind of huevos do you have to possess to show up, after your champion opponent falls out of a fight and requires emergency surgery, and then take your teammate’s title belt and call yourself the kingpin? You won one of the lamest seasons of “The Ultimate Fighter” on record, cut to welterweight, missed weight so badly your promoter forced you to move up to 185 pounds and now you’re going to run around with the flyweight champ’s title when he is probably going to have to move up to 135 pounds and screw up his professional career? Come on, dude.
This is the definition of a “bad look.” The best thing we can say about this situation is that Cejudo was a total team player, even if he recognized in the back of his mind how bad it would look optically and let Gastelum borrow the gold anyway. I won’t say he won the rematch with Demetrious Johnson, but there’s no doubt that Cejudo has his friends’ backs.
Oh, and When Gastelum Tried to Give Whittaker an Infection
I made the wrong decision in university and studied sociology and social anthropology, so clearly, I’m not exactly a medical doctor. You know who else isn’t? MMA’s greatest troll: Colby Covington, and you mean to tell me he’s the first person who can diagnose the pustules all over Gastelum?
I’ve been watching this sport for almost 20 years, and I know how athletic commissions and regulatory bodies can screw up. I remember the infamous “Ultimate Fighter” Season 4 outbreak, as well as Diego Sanchez and Mike Whitehead both getting into the Octagon with horrible and obvious staph infections. Gastelum admitted to having a staph infection in post-fight interviews, and if the fight had gone on as promised, he would have been fighting with bacteria spilling out of the back of his head. Surely regulatory oversight should have improved vis a vis those issues. Also, the Australian province of Victoria has actual commission oversight for MMA as of 2018, under the auspices of the Victoria Professional Boxing and Combat Sports Board.
Not only is this ridiculous, but it’s literally contagious and dangerous. Never mind me explaining how World Extreme Cagefighting champion Cole Escovedo nearly ended up a paraplegic because of MRSA locating to his spinal canal. A man we’ve already talked about -- Whittaker -- had a staph infection that kept him out for the better part of 2018 because it spread to his stomach and started destroying his flesh. Remember, that was why his rematch with Yoel Romero was postponed in the first place and saw him replaced by Luke Rockhold.
I am happy that more localities around the world are getting their act together and regulating the sport we love. At the same time, there are major issues you need to handle when you take on that duty, and leaving fighters at major risk because physicians on a single-day payday don’t care enough to recognize that someone has a potentially severe bacterial infection isn’t just impractical but could get someone killed. Anyone who has ever spent time on a wrestling mat or put on a gi knows that ringworm and staph are major issues; that’s why you shower in the gym or the minute you go home. I don’t think it’s too much to ask that physicians getting an easy paycheck use their medical knowledge and show a willingness to look out for this when someone’s life could be on the line.
Oh, but Israel Adesanya Also Fought … Like in the Main Event
The saddest point of UFC 234 was multifold. Adesanya might be the freshest, most exciting and most intriguing prospect that the promotion has on its roster at this point. More than that, he is one of the few blue chippers the UFC has put the thrust of its promotion behind. Now, I am not going to critique the actual matchmaking of putting Adesanya against the greatest middleweight ever in Anderson Silva; it’s not exactly a revolutionary idea to put and up-and-coming stud against an aged legend. Unfortunately, Adesanya got hit with being promoted to the main event on a terrible card, and he had to deal with arguably the greatest troll in MMA history.
The only round that Silva even possibly won was the second, on account of his jab and clever short-range striking. Even then, a 30-27 Adesanya scorecard wasn’t beyond the pale. Still, that’s not what made our ersatz main event a pain to watch. Silva just showed up to flex and get a paycheck. I appreciate the fact that he’s the best counterstriker -- and possibly the best striker period -- in MMA history, but after fake crying at media day, he just ran away from Adesanya and clearly had zero intention of actually trying to win, all while relying on the skill and conditioning he has left at almost 44 years old to not embarrass himself.
At the end of the day, you can’t blame Silva. You can’t prejudice his plaudits; it would be patently ridiculous to try to act as though he’s not one of the best fighters of all-time. At the same time, what makes the time-tested idea of the “prospect against legend” fight worthwhile is when both fighters are actively trying to win, which the UFC -- after dealing with Silva for almost 13 years -- should have known probably wasn’t going to happen. Silva knows he’s past his prime, he knew he was getting paid and he knew he was going to lose. Rather than take any real risks and put on an honest fight, he just sat on his bicycle. By all means, preserve yourself, but at the same time, it creates a dreadful look for a dude the UFC is trying to elevate to stardom.
Adesanya is only 29 years old and is exciting as hell, and even with the UFC’s middleweight division being as convoluted and confused as it is right now, “The Last Stylebender” will likely end up with a title shot before long. It’s just a shame he couldn’t have a coming-out moment, on account of “The Spider” just playing possum for 15 minutes.
The UFC Has Only Abated MMA Fans’ Thievery
Remember back in 2009 when the UFC threatened to sue folks who were watching its events on illegal streams? Remember the rise of justin.tv? Remember in 2012 when the promotion started going after bar owners clandestinely using terrestrial broadcasts to show their patrons fights instead of paying for a bar license? Remember when the promotion sued some random guy for $32 million? Well, all the UFC’s tough-guy antics will never pay a dime, and UFC 234 is a good reminder why.
Within minutes of the announcement of Whittaker-Gastelum being knocked off the card, I was just being cheeky and making jokes on Twitter. Almost immediately, my mentions and replies were filled with people proudly protesting by admitting and bragging about preparing to steal a stream. Some of them were even MMA media members. On the one hand, that may seem like a legal indiscretion, which I can’t really disagree with, but for our intents and purposes here, it’s proof positive that even diehard MMA fans have just given up on the UFC product when it doesn’t suit them.
You want to do 40-something cards a year and make your audience sign up for UFC Fight Pass and ESPN Plus? Newsflash: No one has time for this. Recognize that your age demographic skews younger where you’re asking people in a gig economy to take more money out of their wallet to sign up for multiple over-the-top services. Is this going to break the UFC’s back? No, of course not, but remember when 300,000 pay-per-view buys was the basement floor? Now, how common are 150,000-buy events?
It’s not like fans aren’t watching; it just so happens that the UFC ironically doesn’t understand that the largest reason the Fertitta brothers got to buy the promotion is that MMA incubated on the Internet after it was taken off pay-per-view. There’s a reason this sport has an entire era just called “The Dark Age.” Fortunately for fans, it taught them how to tape trade, how to work newsgroups and download torrents. In short, it taught us all how to steal. People have virtual private networks now. You might think what you have is worth $4.2 billion, but so long as you try to shovel cards like UFC 234 at fans, it is just going to cost them zero dollars and zero cents.