Sometimes UFC fight cards amount to just that: a series of fights organized according to significance, with maximum room for approximately 20,000 tedious ads in between. Every once in a while, though, it all unravels, and the ensuing chaos is absolutely beautiful.
UFC 203, which took place over the weekend, was a ponderous, blundering beast before it even kicked off. Its foundation included a hint of circus spectacle with the inclusion of WWE-wrestler-turned-wannabe-MMA-fighter CM Punk’s debut, but the rest was pure, unplanned calamity—a welcome reprieve from trash talk and pre-fight shoving matches and all the other ways the UFC script “breaks” in the year 2016.
Case in point: a day before the event, a bunch of fighters got caught in an elevator accident, forcing one of said fighters, C.B. Dollaway, off the card with an injury. By my count, that elevator now has one win on its professional MMA record. Maybe the UFC can phone it up when CM Punk is ready to fight again.
There was also the matter of some weird kid heckling UFC heavyweight challenger Alistair Overeem—a mountain of a man with mountain men for arms and mountain lions for legs—at every pre-fight event he possibly could. It didn’t strike me as a great idea given that Overeem has trained his entire life to beat the shit out of people he doesn’t like, but heckling is rarely about what’s being said. It’s a power play, a means of making the powerful seem powerless because, in that particular moment, they can’t do anything. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised to see news reports of Weird Heckler Kid getting one hell of swirly in the coming days.
It should also be noted that Overeem was late to the pre-fight weigh-ins and received a fine. His excuse? Another damn elevator. Lesson learned: if you’re a fighter in Cleveland, Ohio, probably just take the stairs.
But those bizarre incidents were only window dressing for the event itself. Fittingly, night-of weirdness began with CM Punk’s fight, which—I can’t stress this enough—included CM Punk. To be clear, unlike fellow WWE-wrassler-turned-UFC-fighter Brock Lesnar, Punk signed on the UFC’s dotted line with almost no prior combat experience to speak of. Lesnar, at least, had a decorated NCAA wrestling career behind him, and he’d fought once outside the UFC to boot. Punk signed a UFC contract in 2014, trained at renowned fight gym Roufusport while battling through injuries, and then climbed into the cage. He did it because he was a famous dude who wanted to, and the UFC obliged. Nothing more, nothing less.
If I had to guess, the UFC wanted Punk for two reasons: 1) the obvious curiosity factor, and 2) his gift of gab. Problem is, CM Punk The Smart Mouth never showed up. Instead of playing a character, Punk spent his multi-year pre-fight build-up as the mild-mannered Phil Brooks. When the UFC first announced that it’d signed Punk, he was the talk of the town. By the time the fight rolled around this weekend, there was scarcely any intrigue left in the balloon. Only wet fart sounds.
Punk’s opponent, meanwhile, was some kid UFC president Dana White hand-picked on a YouTube reality show. Because fuck it, you know? However, despite basically being an amateur, that kid, Mickey Gall, was no amateur. He came in with worlds more experience under his belt than Punk, and it showed. Punk got taken down and punched into oblivion inside of one round. And thus, the grand “What if?” dream died, remarkable for just how unremarkable it ended up being. Credit where credit’s due: the UFC does not spoonfeed big-name outsiders. James Toney, Kimbo Slice, and even Brock Lesnar all got thrown to the wolves, and while CM Punk got a lower-caliber opponent, Gall was by no means a softball.
Oh, I should add that after winning, Gall called out UFC mad science experiment (in pristinely marketable blandness) tube child Sage Northcutt, and god damn it, that’s a freakshow fight I’m only slightly ashamed to admit I’m interested in. The circus continues!
To be honest, I think the weirdness peaked during the co-main event, but just barely. It began when ex-heavyweight champion Fabricio Werdum started the fight with a flying goddamn sidekick to the head of sentient beard in a man costume Travis Browne. And it LANDED. Again, these are heavyweights we’re talking about. Both of them weighed-in at around the 240 lb mark. Fighters half their size barely ever try ridiculous Karate Kid flying shit, and when they do, it typically fails. So there was that.
Shortly after, Browne dislocated the crap out of his finger and called for a time-out. Problem: the rules don’t allow for time-outs in the event of an injury like that. The fight should’ve been declared a TKO win for Werdum at that point. Instead, the ref decided to just go with it, I guess, and Browne got to take a break. Across the world, shoulders were shrugged and eyes were rolled. Then the fight resumed.
Werdum still won, but only after a brawl between his and Browne’s corners nearly broke out in the cage. After the fight ended, notoriously despised hack coach Edmund Tarverdyan—who spent the whole fight spouting bullshit worlds away from reality at his student, something he also did for Ronda Rousey when she lost—started yelling at Werdum. Sensing potential danger, Werdum shoved him away with a push-kick, a technique that’s not especially damaging, but it gets the message across. Before everybody flew off the handle, UFC officials intervened and kept the fighters’ corners out of the cage. Then and only then did they finally get around to reading off the decision and declaring Werdum the winner.
Protocol for this sort of thing suggests that, despite the circumstances, Werdum should probably be fined for kicking a coach. However, it looks like the state athletic commission won’t be doing anything, and public consensus is basically, “Haha, go fuck yourself, Edmund Tarverdyan.” I consider myself a prominent member of the Edmund Tarverdyan anti-fan club, but I’m not entirely sure this is something we should be cheering. If Travis Browne had kicked Werdum’s head coach, Rafael Cordeiro, I have a feeling things would be pretty different. Then again, Cordeiro isn’t an asshole, so maybe it’s all moot.
UFC 203's pageant of the bizarre concluded with a heavyweight championship tilt between champ (and Cleveland native) Stipe Miocic and Alistair Overeem. It was a torrid single-round affair, with Overeem knocking down Miocic and catching him in a guillotine choke, only for Miocic to escape and stalk down Overeem until he opened up the opportunity to go for the kill. And when Miocic pounced, he pounced hard. Three solid ground-and-pound punches left Overeem unconscious, and he struggled to even slump onto his stool afterward.
Next came the post-fight interviews. Miocic mostly yelled a bunch of stuff about Ohio, and then for some reason UFC officials handed the microphone to his recently concussed opponent. With all the grace of a daytime soap opera, Overeem delivered his twist: he was certain that he’d felt Miocic tap out when he slapped on that guillotine choke near the start of the fight. Commentator Joe Rogan dutifully entertained the idea and pulled up the sequence on the big screen. He then slowed it down and... nope, no tap. But Overeem was certain. CERTAIN. So Rogan ran through it again, and shockingly, it did not magically change, even in the face of powerful overtures from the probably-not-psychic brain of a recently concussed giant.
On the upside, everyone in the MMA world is now pretty much in agreement that forcing foggy-brained KO victims to do interviews is shitty and humiliating. Here’s hoping that, soon, that won’t even be a thing at all.
So yeah, that was UFC 203 in a nutshell: strange, fun, and vaguely upsetting. It deviated from the typical script, and then it deviated from the script specifically written for deviations. In recent times, I feel like even some of the “crazy” UFC moments have become stale. Conor McGregor or a Diaz brother goes on a tirade. Fighters get into a scuffle during a media event or the weigh-ins. “These guys really hate each other.” Etc. The first time, it’s surprising. The second time, you begin to think the UFC wants this stuff to happen. The 20th time, after it’s been packaged and re-packaged into countless marketing materials, you know they do.
MMA in the year 2016 is an intrinsically odd thing. It’s half-sport, half-circus, but even it can fall into patterns and lulls. UFC 203 holds the distinction of being strange even by typical standards of strangeness. It was a refreshing wake-up, a spectacle among spectacles, but not necessarily for the reasons the UFC intended. It made people laugh, wince, and ask some tough questions. Also CM Punk was there, I guess.