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After months of speculation, a frenzied press conference and boatloads of hype, the Ultimate Fighting Championship has finally announced who will be headlining the promotion’s third event at Madison Square Garden, a stage that is the closest thing to hallowed ground you’ll find in the fight world.
No, it’s not Jon Jones, whose logic-flouting USADA suspension conveniently cleared him to return just in time for the Nov. 3 date; nor UFC welterweight champion Tyron Woodley, who looked poised to square off opposite Colby Covington until he was sidelined by a hand injury he sustained pummeling Darren Till’s face into the canvas at UFC 228 last month. It’s not co-main eventers Nate Diaz and Dustin Poirier either, whose campaign to pressure the UFC into upgrading them to a main-event, 165-pound title fight generated a tidal wave of buzz before being derailed by UFC president Dana White.
Instead, the UFC’s third foray to the Garden will be anchored by former bantamweight title challenger Valentina Shevchenko and "The Ultimate Fighter Season 26" finalist Sijara Eubanks competing for the vacant flyweight title.
To put it as mildly as possible, this booking has fallen short of what MMA fans expected. In light of the magnitude of the UFC’s first two showings at MSG, which saw superstars Conor McGregor (at UFC 205) and Georges St. Pierre (at UFC 217) headline championship tripleheaders, the prevailing wisdom was that the UFC simply had to pull a rabbit out of the hat for its tertiary appearance; what we got instead was the UFC sawing itself in half.
Let’s start by stating the painfully obvious: Shevchenko versus Eubanks is not a pay-per-view worthy headliner, much less suitable for a tent pole event like UFC 230. The 125-pound female division is the newest, most under-promoted and least competently managed weight class in the entire 12-division promotion, and whilst Shevchenko is a relatively well-known commodity amongst hardcores, Eubanks has only one contest under the UFC banner and a paltry five professional fights overall. So low is the profile of -- checks Wikipedia entry for nickname -- “Sarge” that even UFC broadcaster Joe Rogan hadn’t heard of her until yesterday, a sentiment that speaks volumes given that it will literally be his job to know of, and hype up, Eubanks in November.
The booking comes with additional baggage in the form of Joanna Jedrzejczyk, who had originally been booked to fight for the 125-pound title opposite Shevchenko in the co-main event at UFC 231 in December. Jedrzejczyk, one of WMMA's most recognizable figures, was the champion of the 115-pound weight class from 2014 to 2017 and has a rivalry with Shevchenko dating back to 2006 when they fought three times on the muay Thai circuit. That she has been cast aside for the markedly less intriguing or experienced Eubanks after declining the UFC’s request to fight a month earlier at MSG is an extraordinary act of self-sabotage on the company’s part; it’s mugging Peter to pay Paul if the latter remittance was stung with 75 percent tax -- stupidity on every metric.
But the UFC’s insouciant attitude towards its contractual obligations, and its callous treatment of a tireless company woman in Jedrzejczyk, pales in comparison to the spitefulness at the center of the UFC 230 booking. Which is to say that the predominant drive behind Shevchenko-Eubanks is less an absurd over-estimation of The Bullet’s drawing power, and more a transparent middle finger flipped up in the direction of Stockon, California.
The fact is that far from “not moving the needle” -- a charge White made against Diaz during fraught negotiations with the recalcitrant lightweight in 2014 -- non-title fights featuring Nate Diaz stand as the UFC’s two most successful pay-per-views ever. His short-notice upset over Conor McGregor back at UFC 196 sold an estimated 1.3M buys and increased to the tune of 350K by the time the two rematched five months later at UFC 202, where “The Notorious” eked out a majority decision. In light of that history and mainstream exposure, Diaz versus anyone is infinitely more compelling and sellable than Shevchenko-Eubanks -- and that he will scrap with a violence machine like “The Diamond” is icing on the cake.
But the company is refusing to concede to that reality and promote them to the top billing because: (A) the idea originated with the fighters themselves rather than out of the UFC’s board room; and (B) Dana White would rather walk across hot coals than let himself be leveraged by a fighter who flourished despite his best efforts to bury him. It’s a demonstration of the company’s bull-headed determination to preserve every last vestige of authority its wields over its athletes -- at least those that don’t own their own whiskey company -- even when doing so pisses off fans and costs them millions of dollars.
Thankfully, there is still plenty of time to correct the record by elevating Diaz and Poirier to a five-round main event, with or without a 165-pound title on the line. While White can probably drown out the outrage at the Shevchenko-Eubanks booking during the build-up to UFC 229 -- a fight that’s being billed as the biggest in the promotion’s 25-year history -- it’s another thing for the UFC to keep its nerve when it comes closer to Nov. 3, much less roll into The Empire State with such an embarrassing card-order.
What the UFC do between now and that date will be nothing short of a referendum on what the company cares more about: what’s best for fans and fighters, or institutional grudge bearing. With McGregor coming out in support of a Diaz-Poirier headliner and a 165-pound division, there’s hope that the former will prevail -- if only to placate the company’s biggest star at a time when it’s about to reset on ESPN -- but we’re a long way off.
To quote a famous Australian prime minister in the 1970s: Maintain your rage and enthusiasm. There’s time yet to make this right.
Jacob Debets is a recent law graduate who lives in Melbourne, Australia. He has been an MMA fan for more than a decade and trains in muay Thai and boxing at DMDs MMA in Brunswick. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.