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CM Punk got taken to school on Saturday, but did anyone else learn any lessons from UFC 225 in Chicago? You should have, because there were plenty of takeaways and helpful reminders embedded in the action.
As is the case with so many major MMA cards, much of the fight night and post-event discussion centered on judging, including the debate over who deserved to win the Robert Whittaker-Yoel Romero main event rematch and several curious scorecards, several of which were turned in by infamous offender Sal D’Amato. Regardless of who you think won, a more intriguing question is whether or not Romero is actually becoming a better fighter at 41 years of age. Speaking of “The Soldier of God,” his missing weight was one of the biggest stories of the weekend, especially in conjunction with UFC President Dana White’s proclamation that the promotion would be returning to afternoon weigh-ins. In doing so, however, White is not exactly being truthful. Surprise, surprise.
Does Punk deserve our love and admiration? Does Mike Jackson deserve our scorn and contempt? Why are we so quick to give up on talented prospects when they lose formative bouts early in their career? Here are five lessons we learned from UFC 225:
Old Dog Doesn’t Get His Day, But Learns New Tricks
Yes, Romero missed weight for the second consecutive fight despite his pedigree as an Olympic silver medalist wrestler with a lifetime of experience when it comes to cutting weight; and maybe you even scored the UFC 225 main event for Robert Whittaker. However, even at 41 years old, “The Soldier of God” is still adding new arrows to his quiver.
For most of his nearly nine-year pro MMA career, Romero’s skill set has been an eclectic mishmash that lacked connectivity but was so amplified by his insane athleticism that he made it work. Early on, he was a low-output striker but was aided by the fact he could suddenly rip off lightning-fast, crushing punches or leap through the air and smoke his opponent with a sudden flying knee. He didn’t set up his takedowns especially well, but his fast-twitch freakishness and world-class technical wrestling ability would allow him to hit incredible takedowns in the blink of an eye when he could get his grips on his adversary. Given the fact that this haphazard combination got him to the elite echelon of 185 pounds, he was an unlikely candidate to continue to show technical improvements as he ended up at an advanced fighting age.
Well, color me surprised. Over his last four fights, Romero has continued to demonstrate new developments in his overall MMA game, which has served him well. While it was a flying knee and a devastating coffin-nail punch that knocked out Chris Weidman at UFC 205, Romero set it all up by becoming a much more creative, consistent and accurate counterpuncher, regardless of whether he was stalking or circling. In his first loss to Whittaker in July, his best success came when he used low kicks to bust up “The Reaper,” even tearing Whittaker’s MCL in the process. In February, his devastation of Luke Rockhold was predicated on his surprising use of a jab and actual combination punching. UFC 225 saw him sprinkle in a variety of spinning attacks, clever uses of striking out of clinch breaks and a more judicious sense of when to change stances and how to consistently score offense from orthodox or southpaw, rather than switching constantly and stagnating himself.
Romero still has the curious bugaboo of taking too long to get going, and his lackadaisical approach to the first 10 minutes of the Whittaker rematch may have lost him the fight; whether or not he can shore up that weakness is another kettle of fish. However, the native Cuban’s elite athleticism doesn’t seem to be waning, and he continues to show clear, observable technical Improvements fight in, fight out, which suggests Romero might not be out of the middleweight title picture for long, so long as he can make weight.
Dana White Isn’t Good at Statistics or Lying
Even before Romero missed weight and took the middleweight title out of the main event equation, one of the hottest topics heading into UFC 225 was UFC President Dana White’s proclamation that with so many fighters missing weight since the company instituted early weigh-ins two years ago, the UFC would be returning to afternoon weigh-ins imminently. Not many people seem enthused by the news, but don’t tell White that.
On fight night, journalists asked just about every fighter made available to the media how they felt about the switch back to later weigh-ins; all of them were in favor of early weigh-ins. I have yet to see any fighter, even on social media, express a desire to return to the old standard. White would like you to know that this is apparently an aberrant sample group.
“We talked to more fighters, and they want 4 o’clock weigh-ins,” White said at the post-fight press conference. “There’s 550 fighters under contract, so there’s a lot of asking to do before you get a number where, you know, you think the ratio is off.”
Since the UFC implemented its new weigh-in system in June 2016, 63 fighters have missed weight, resulting in 15 fight cancellations. In the two-year period prior with afternoon weigh-ins, 32 fighters failed to make weight.
“The numbers don’t lie. We’ve talked to fighters. A ton of fighters want to go back to 4 o’clock and there’s a lot of fighters that don’t,” White said. “Eddie Alvarez made a strong case to me about basically people who don’t make weight are never gonna make weight no matter what time you do the weigh-ins and stuff like that, but the numbers don’t lie. The percentages are way off, and I don’t know about you guys, but I know a lot of fighters and most of them are not morning people. They sleep all day and are usually up late at night; and this whole morning thing, they gotta cut weight that night. God knows how late they gotta stay up cutting weight and then they gotta go to bed and they can’t sleep much. It just isn’t working.”
Isn’t working for whom? Obviously, situations like this are part of why collective bargaining is such a constant hot-button issue in MMA, but this is hardly an instance of subtlety and nuance, like deciding the percentage of promotional revenue that should go to rostered fighters. This is quite transparently the UFC reneging on a health-and-safety measure that has had an adverse impact on its business and credibility, insofar as weight-related fight cancellations and changes have become so widespread that fans tend to not believe a fight will actually happen until both combatants are in the cage. Since the company pushes this prerogative regardless of criticisms, White would’ve been better off sticking with vague statements like “we’re still looking at the situation” or “we’re discussing it with our fighters,” or maybe even found one or two fighters to publicly espouse the value in afternoon weigh-ins. So far, despite the UFC’s alleged internal polling data, there’s not a single one of those fighters in sight.
It Is Not a Necessity That CM Punk Be Lionized
While his UFC tenure was certain to be a surefire failure given his injury history, age and the initial reports of his early training, I was never opposed to CM Punk getting a shot in the Octagon. MMA is at its heart a freakshow sport that harkens back to the days of carnival-challenge matches between tough guys and John Q. Public. Its kissing-cousins relationship with pro wrestling is undeniable. I’ll never complain about companies using crossover celebrities as a promotional tactic in and of itself. At the same time, I don’t have to pretend every famous person who makes a pretty penny to cash in his or her celebrity for a chance in the cage is a hero.
In the wake of Punk’s lopsided beatdown of a decision loss to Mike Jackson at UFC 225, I’ve seen many MMA folks valorize the former World Wrestling Entertainment champion for his “heart” and suggest that there is some inherent, magical quality to watching a famous neophyte embark on a journey through this sport. Frankly, I don’t get the sentiment.
“The guy’s 39 years old,” White said. “We gave him two shots, and he had a lot of heart tonight, and I think he should call it a wrap.”
In this case, this kind of apologia absolves the UFC of any responsibility for both its cynicism and matchmaking missteps with Punk, while also harkening to an “everybody is a warrior, everybody gets a trophy” mentality which is overly mawkish, cheapening and infantilizing MMA discourse.
There’s a reason the most pernicious, backhanded compliment you can give fighters is to tell them how great their chin is or that they have a ton of heart; it suggests that the greatest measure of their ability is how effectively you can get beat up. Not every flirtation with a fighting career for a famous person is some laudable journey of self-discovery worthy of fundamental respect and awe. Punk embarking on a fledgling MMA career is not a fundamentally laudable act of valor simply because he was willing to expose himself to failure in front of millions.
I don’t see any praise for former “Geordie Shore” reality TV star Aaron Chalmers for his racking up a 4-0 pro record and landing a Bellator deal. I’ve never heard anyone remark on the bravery of Mickey Rourke for launching his boxing career in the early 1990s. Rather, they simply remark on how getting his face punched up ruined his boyish good looks.
Punk grew to hate pro wrestling and was desperate to get out of the industry, so he tried something that he’d long wanted to do and was trounced twice in the Octagon, to the tune of making several million dollars. Would Punk have even rolled the dice on an MMA career if he wasn’t getting paid so handsomely? Probably not, and there’s not the slightest thing wrong with that. He made a smart business decision and got to live out a dream. That’s great, but it doesn’t make him Gandhi, either.
It Is Not a Necessity That Jackson Be Demonized
The other half of the sentimental Punk response is the performance of his opponent. Now, this is paradoxical, if totally predictable, as far as popular MMA reactions go: Punk is a hero for getting whooped for 15 minutes, but Jackson is a deadbeat malingerer for not finishing him off.
“[Jackson] I’m not happy with,” White said. “This guy was acting like a goofball tonight. You get this opportunity to fight CM Punk, and you’re doing, like, bolo punches to the body on top. Never looked like he was trying to finish the fight ever. Looked like he could have finished the fight a few times. Never tried.”
If Punk is so tough and has so much heart, it seems slightly silly to excoriate Jackson for not being able to finish him. It’s not like Jackson ran away from him: All three judges gave “The Truth” a 10-8 round in the second stanza. He landed 64 significant strikes to Punk’s 19. Also, this could have perhaps been avoided if the UFC chose a different opponent for the ex-wrestler. Watch any of Jackson’s boxing, kickboxing or amateur MMA bouts and it’s easy to see that he’s not a high-volume striker and is a counterfighter by nature, perhaps even to a fault. If the UFC wanted to maximize the odds that Punk would have a chance in his second Octagon appearance while also safeguarding the entertainment value of the fight, the company could have easily found an infinitely aggressive striker with the power and inclination to bash him if he had him in trouble. Jackson is not that fighter, which should have been obvious immediately.
Always keen to bury his own fighters, White continued to pile on Jackson: “I wouldn’t put that kid in the Contender Series.”
You know what? You probably shouldn’t, for the same reasons that Jackson-Punk ended up being the fight that it was. Jackson had a scant amount of amateur MMA experience and was 0-1 as a professional. This was a fight between two fighters with a combined career record of 0-2. Inexperienced fighters are simply that, inexperienced. This was essentially an opening preliminary fight on any anonymous regional show inside a midwestern barn, and the UFC got exactly the sort of fight that it booked and has little room to complain that its cynical recipe didn’t make an award-winning dish.
Don’t Cash Out Your Blue Chips
The MMA crowd can be a fickle one and “What have you done for me lately?” is often recited like a mantra. There is a tendency to abandon hope in fighters, especially up-and-coming prospects, the minute they lose or have a poor showing. I’m as guilty as everyone, on occasion. However, UFC 225 was a brilliant reminder not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
An overwhelming amount of the talent on the card were once well-regarded prospects who suffered an early loss or two, only to be written off before finding their groove, upping their games and becoming elite fighters. Look no further than the main event: Whittaker and Romero are both fighters that many, myself included, came to doubt despite their brilliant beginnings. When Romero transitioned to MMA in 2009, I was blown away by his athleticism, naturally powerful striking and quick adaptation to the sport, but when he finally came stateside, gassed out badly, looked listless and got stopped by Rafael Cavalcante at 205 pounds in Strikeforce, I questioned his dedication to the sport; and given his relatively advanced age as a prospect, I sold my Romero stock. Fast forward a year and a half. He trains at American Top Team, cuts to middleweight and wins eight in a row.
Same deal with Whittaker. While he had losses to Hoon Kim and Jesse Juarez while coming up in Australia, I regarded “The Reaper” as the best prospect in Oceania and was thrilled when he was included on “The Ultimate Fighter: The Smashes.” However, I made the same foolish mistake I made with Romero, as my enthusiasm cooled after his back-to-back losses to Court McGee and Stephen Thompson in the UFC, especially when he opted to move up to 185 pounds. My fears were entirely unfounded, as Whittaker grew into his middleweight body, looked much healthier and energetic and sharpened all the tools in his game to become the champion of the division. Silly me.
Because of brother Anthony Pettis’ stature as UFC lightweight champion at the time, as well as his age and already existing amateur experience, Sergio Pettis was supposed to take over the world when he made his pro debut at 18 years old. However, upon reaching the UFC, he struggled with his weight cuts to 125 pounds, bounced up to 135 temporarily and suffered stoppage losses to mid-level talents like Alex Caceres and Ryan Benoit; at UFC 225, he secured the biggest win of his career by beating the second-best flyweight ever in Joseph Benavidez. Mirsad Bektic looked like one of the five best prospects on the planet 18 months ago. Then, he was shockingly knocked out by Darren Elkins in March 2017, and all of a sudden, the world forgot about him. He returned in January to savagely plunk Godofredo Castro, and at UFC 225, he nailed down the biggest win of his career and broke into the featherweight Top 10 by hammering out a workmanlike decision over former UFC title challenger Ricardo Lamas.
Andrei Arlovski got knocked out by Neo-Nazi criminal psychopath Viacheslav Datsik in his first pro fight and was busted up by both Ricco Rodriguez and Pedro Rizzo early in his UFC tenure, but he still went on to become UFC champion and have a long, distinguished career. Remember, people were calling for Alistair Overeem to retire back in 2007 when he suffered four straight beatdown losses. If he had, he never would have won the K-1 World Grand Prix or become one of the 10 most accomplished heavyweights ever.
There will always be instances where we hop on a hype train that derails and crashes; there will always be talented busts in MMA who can’t make the most of their gifts. However, remember that taking a wrong turn or two doesn’t mean you can’t reach your final destination and that many of the greatest fighters in this sport’s history have used early losses as learning tools and launch pads to their previously predicted greatness.