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The last couple years haven’t produced a lot in the way of good luck for the biggest MMA organization in the world. Without a doubt, a significant portion of that unfortunate run was brought about by the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s own mistakes. However, a star-driven individual sport like MMA is always going to have ups and downs based on how the most marketable competitors perform. Unfortunately for the UFC, it has been one bad break after another recently.
Ronda Rousey was reaching new heights as a superstar attraction when she was brutally knocked out by Holly Holm. One additional knockout loss to Amanda Nunes, and she was out of the sport altogether. The new champion inherited none of Rousey’s drawing power. Conor McGregor won the UFC lightweight crown when Barack Obama was still president. Since then, he has more bus attacks (one) than title defenses (zero). Meanwhile, Jon Jones pulled another Jon Jones, killing a prospective superfight with Brock Lesnar and removing one more top star from active competition.
If UFC management had reasons to be gloomy of late, surely Saturday offered up a welcome infusion of optimism. For once, everything broke pretty much perfectly, and the prospect of pay-per-views in the next six months featuring McGregor-Khabib Nurmagomedov and Lesnar-Daniel Cormier could mean a much-desired windfall of cash. What happened at UFC 226 was pretty much the best-case scenario on every front, and there were no guarantees things would break that way.
With UFC President Dana White bringing in Lesnar to attend the event, clearly the plan was for him to fight either Cormier or Stipe Miocic. The latter looked dangerous early before getting caught with a punch he didn’t see coming. It was far from outside the realm of possibility that Miocic would win the fight, which would have been unfortunate for Lesnar and the UFC given Cormier was the much more marketable opponent for the World Wrestling Entertainment superstar.
Against a generic opponent, there isn’t necessarily a big difference from a marquee standpoint between Miocic and Cormier. Neither fighter moves pay-per-views without the right opponent. However, there is a big difference when the right opponent is present. Cormier is a natural promoter, and he will talk up a fight. When his opponent does the same, the fight can get quite big to the general public, as was the case with Cormier-Jones. Miocic, by contrast, isn’t terribly invested in promoting fights. He isn’t actively hostile to the concept, but he has made it clear it is not a priority to him. With Lesnar, Cormier has the perfect promotional opportunity. Miocic would almost certainly have focused on his training and left the promotion to Lesnar.
If Miocic had defeated Cormier, it’s unlikely we would have gotten such a dramatic scene after the fight. Pro wrestler Lesnar knows pro wrestling fan Cormier will cooperate when it comes to building up the fight. He doesn’t know the same about Miocic. If Lesnar had shoved Miocic as aggressively as he shoved Cormier, there’s no telling how Miocic would have reacted. It could have been a dangerous situation, leading to suspensions and delaying the fight. By contrast, Cormier knew just how to respond in a way to bring it back to their upcoming fight. Some fans look upon this give and take as distasteful, but it is something that has been present in many of the biggest fights of all-time featuring some of the most respected figures in the sport.
The dramatics of the Cormier-Lesnar confrontation at the end of UFC 226 will go a long way to making their eventual fight feel like a big deal. Beyond that, however, the dynamics of their matchup in the abstract makes it more compelling to fans. If Miocic had won, that would have been seven straight victories against a string of elite competitors. It would have been hard to sell a lot of fans on the idea that Lesnar would have much of a chance against Miocic.
Cormier, by contrast, has vulnerability. He’s older and reaching the end of his career. He moved up in weight class and superficially didn’t look anything like the massive, jacked Lesnar. Cormier will rightfully be the favorite, but it’s a lot easier for some fans to convince themselves that Lesnar could muscle Cormier around and win the fight. That doubt about the result makes any fight more marketable. Fans debating and discussing which way a fight will go is much more productive than fans simply assuming it’s going one way.
Finally, the UFC is lucky when it comes to the timing of Cormier-Lesnar. The obvious downside of the fight is that Lesnar clearly hasn’t earned a title shot. The way the UFC has handed out title shots to undeserving challengers while bypassing other contenders who have done much more to earn the shot has devalued its titles. At least here, there isn’t an obvious answer of who deserves the shot more than Lesnar.
The former champion, Miocic, was just knocked out decisively. Given the success he had as champion, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to give him an immediate rematch, but there certainly isn’t a clamoring for that, either. Former top contender Francis Ngannou was just involved in a historic debacle. His opponent, Derrick Lewis, gained little from it. Alistair Overeem, Mark Hunt and Junior dos Santos are coming off losses. That leaves only Curtis Blaydes and Alexander Volkov as prospective challengers. It would be OK if one of them received a title shot, but nobody is going to be calling it an outrage if neither does. Thus, Lesnar’s title shot won’t undermine the heavyweight title as much as it would at basically any other point in recent years. As an added bonus, there are few obvious light heavyweight contenders that Cormier would keep waiting.
Given the way things have gone in recent years, the UFC was overdue for some good breaks. So, too, was Cormier. Lesnar has had a long run of good luck in his own right, but he surely won’t be unhappy to receive even more. After what happened at UFC 226, they can all celebrate because they’ve all got a big fight coming on the horizon.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.