Make no mistake, the UFC’s debut on ESPN and ESPN+ was a success. And while there were a few downs, there were far more ups at UFC Brooklyn on Saturday night.
The UFC’s debut on ESPN is in the bag. And no, it was not just another Fight Night event. Thanks the the UFC stacking the deck at least somewhat, UFC Fight Night 143, as UFC Brooklyn is known to those keeping track, had a big event feel. Names like Donald Cerrone, Joanne Calderwood, Glover Teixeira, Paige VanZant, Henry Cejudo, and T.J. Dillashaw peppered the card, and made it feel like something special. Which is was, since it trumpeted the arrival of the promotion on ESPN. Well, ESPN+ anyway.
Big sports feel, right?
The UFC has long coveted exposure on America’s sports leader. While the FOX deal was big, the ESPN deal is that much bigger, and UFC fights will now feature on the likes of Sports Center, and all the other ESPN ancillary programming the cable network offers. While the promotion may never match the numbers their debut on big FOX drew in, the money was right — and if last night was any indicator, the ESPN era may be a win for fans.
With that said, there were ups, and there were downs. Let’s delve into them.
8. Down: Early Prelims That Dragged
To be blunt, the pacing of the early prelim card at UFC Brooklyn was atrocious. Viewers were advised to tune in at 6PM EST only to get a full half hour of talking heads. That, after hours of programming building up to the debut of the UFC on ESPN+. Yawn. How about we get to those fights?
And when we did get to those fights… break after break after break. Made worse by the fact that, by the end of the preliminary card (when Dennis Bermudez was giving an emotional post-fight interview about his uncle struggling with cancer), word had gotten around that college basketball was running long. The televised prelims would be delayed.
Yikes. You could have stopped for a nap during the breaks between some of the early action. For those watching the card on UFC Fight Pass (i.e. outside the U.S.), there was little more than a “the action will resume shortly” placard thrown up. Lots of room for improvement here.
7. Down: A Controversial Finish in the Main Event
The one thing you did not want for the UFC’s coming out party on ESPN and ESPN+ was a controversial finish. Instead, you got not one but two of them. The Greg Hardy disaster we’ll get to in a moment, but the main event must be addressed. There’s an argument to be made for both sides: Cejudo said during the UFC Brooklyn post-fight press conference that he felt Dillashaw go limp. Dillashaw, however, did appear to be moving, never seemed to go out, and was immediately on his feet arguing the call.
Refs have to make split decisions day in and day out in MMA. If this was any other card, it might not be such of a downer. But for there to be any controversy in the main event of the UFC’s first card on ESPN+, in a key title fight no less? That is extremely unfortunate.
Here’s where things get a little more interesting. UFC President Dana White said post-fight in Brooklyn that “I thought it was an early stoppage too.” That, despite awarding Cejudo a Performance of the Night award for the finish. Mixed messages much? Beyond that, White would not commit to a rematch between the two, which Cejudo called for at 135lbs, and Dillashaw clearly welcomed.
6. Down: Nearly Everything About Greg Hardy’s Presence
Former NFL star and heavyweight prospect Greg Hardy made his promotional debut at UFC Brooklyn. It did not go well. From the very moment the fight was announced, it had train wreck written all over it. Especially given the fact that a man once convicted of domestic violence (only to have the case thrown out on appeal when the victim did not appear to testify) was booked onto the same card as domestic violence victim Rachael Ostovich.
If you don’t like that narrative, how about the fact that just three fights into his career, Hardy was booked into a co-main event slot against a much more experienced fighter without ever having earned it? The same fans who screamed about the injustice of rushing Paige VanZant and Sage Northcutt to stardom seemed to relish in Hardy’s arrival, using some of the most oddball logic imaginable (oh, he’s an athlete in another sport? And what, Northcutt’s decade plus of martial arts doesn’t matter?).
The man welcoming Hardy to the octagon was Allen Crowder, who told us days before the fight what his game plan was. And he did exactly what he said he would. The fighter, who in the past had faced top heavyweights Curtis Blaydes and Justin Willis, planned to drag Hardy deep into the fight, given the Pro Bowler had never gone past the first round. He suggested he’d let Hardy dictate where the fight went, and would be willing to trade with him, but fall back on wrestling if Hardy began swinging for the fences.
It all went according to plan. In the second round, Hardy began to show signs of fatigue. Crowder began coming on strong, trash talking Hardy, tagging him, backing him up. He had taken him down in the first round, and shot for a takedown then, only for Hardy to sprawl and fight it off. Then, with Crowder on his knees, Hardy unleashed a knee to the head. Crowder was the very definition of a downed opponent. Hardy either didn’t know or didn’t care.
On Canada’s TSN, analyst Robin Black made an astute observation: this was not a case of a fighter being in motion. Hardy had time to actually think about throwing that knee, and still chose to launch it. In one of the most flagrant fouls in UFC history, Hardy wound up disqualified. Crowder got the win, and the fans, who booed Hardy as he walked out thanks to his failures outside the sporting realm, booed him after the fight, thanks to his failures in the cage.
Hardy later apologized, but said at the UFC Brooklyn post-fight presser that “He was getting up, it was inexperience in mistiming it, man.” Not sure what fight he was watching.
5. Up: Dennis Bermudez Retires On A Win
This is a bit of a mixed bag, but let’s call it an up. Dennis Bermudez retired after his victory over Te Edwards on Satuday at UFC Brooklyn. It was a dominant performance that saw Bermudez, still just 32 years old, turn back the clock. The man who once had a seven fight win streak at featherweight in the UFC looked stellar in the lightweight fight. Four fight losing streak? What’s that?
Yet post fight, he stripped off the gloves and called it a career. Clearly emotional, he spoke of nearly giving up during his slump, but told Jon Anik that he stuck it out in part because he wanted his children to be able to look back and see him overcome adversity. He also dedicated the fight to his uncle, who is battling cancer.
It’s a shame to see Bermudez go, especially when he looked so good against Edwards. Yet a fighter going out on a win is rare enough. And given Bermudez’s style, which has seen him take a lot of damage over the years, it’s hard to argue against the decision.
4. Up: Paige VanZant Gets Back in the Win Column
Oh, the naysayers aren’t going to like this one. ’12 Gauge’ Paige VanZant (a somewhat silly nickname for the generally kind-hearted VanZant) got back in the win column at UFC Brooklyn. The win came at the expense of Rahael Ostovich, who actually had the bulk of the attention on her leading into the fight due to the unfortunate events that transpired in her personal life a few months back.
Plenty of fans derided the booking of VanZant vs. Ostovich as being more about looks that athletics. Plenty of people are also really, really shallow. VanZant’s win on Saturday should remind us why she’s in the UFC: the girl has plenty of heart. For all the moaning about her being rushed into the spotlight, Paige VanZant has been competing in mixed martial arts for nearly a decade. During her time in the UFC, she has put on some gutsy performances, notably against Felice Herrig in New Jersey at UFC on FOC 15, and even against ‘Jessy Jess’ (Jessica-Rose Clark), which saw VanZant fight through a broken arm in a losing effort.
She put in another gutsy effort this weekend. In Brooklyn against Ostovich, VanZant was essentially dominated throughout the first round. Taken to the ground and controlled. Put in a dicey submission attempt or two. Yet she went out in the second, and even after going to the ground again, found a way to win, latching on with an arm-bar and forcing Ostovich to tap.
VanZant is now 5-3 in the UFC, and snaps a two-fight losing streak. Yes, she’s a pretty face. She’s also a talented fighter. Get over it.
3. Up: Cowboy Cerrone’s Record-Setting Performance
There is just so much to like about what Donald ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone did at UFC Brooklyn. In his return to the lightweight division, he looked phenomenal. Cerrone was the underdog against Alexander Hernandez, but from the way he fought, you wouldn’t know it. Breaking down his opponent over the course of the fight, Cerrone seemed to have an extra punch at the end of every combination, and smartly began timing a knee that Hernandez just couldn’t seem to avoid.
Hernandez had talked a lot of trash leading in, and many expected him to steamroll Cowboy, who is reaching the twilight of his career. Yet he turned back the clock Saturday in a performance that caught the eye of Conor McGregor — and may have earned the biggest fight of his career.
It also earned Cowboy $100,000 in bonus money. That’s thanks to not one but two post fight bonuses. Adding another Fight of the Night and another Performance of the night bonus to his collection, Cerrone now has sole possession of the UFC bonus record. A nice addition to his record pile, which includes most UFC wins, and finishes.
2. Up: Vastly Improved Pacing on the Main Card
Rejoice, rejoice. A six fight main card at a Fight Night event finished prior to 1AM in the east.
For those of you overseas, well, sorry. You have it worse than those of us in North America period. But east coasters in the U.S. and Canada have long complained about cards dragging on close to 2AM. Which is simply draining when the early prelims start at 6PM. At UFC Brooklyn, however, the main card pace was vastly improved.
No breaks. No tedious video packages. Just fight after fight. It’s exactly what UFC fans have been clamoring for for years. If this proves the rule, and not the exception, viewers are going to be very happy with this new ESPN+ arrangement.
1. Up: The Flyweight Division Comes Out Looking Strong
We don’t know what the future has in store for the UFC’s flyweight division. There’s still the odd fight being booked, as is the case with Jussier Formiga vs. Deiveson Figueiredo at UFC Nashville in March.
Yet one of the big takeaways from UFC Brooklyn is that yes, flyweight can be exciting. Yes, fighters at 125lbs can finish fights.
Champ Henry Cejudo came out looking like a man on a mission in Brooklyn, and he was. That mission: fend off the invading T.J. Dillashaw, who almost relished in the idea that he had been sent to “kill the division” by claiming a second UFC title with no real intention of defending it. Dillashaw was already looking ahead to a featherweight title challenge prior to his fight against Cejudo. That was a cart placed well in front of the horse. Instead of becoming the next champ-champ, Dillashaw was steamrolled by Cejudo. T.J. came out looking flat, Cejudo looked fired up. Controversial stoppage or not, the flyweight won.
Maybe it all comes down to the weight cut. More likely, Cejudo, an Olympic gold medalist, is just that good.