UFC 207 was a historic card for many reasons. It saw the return of one of the sport’s biggest stars, after a year-long sabbatical. There was a double main-event featuring both genders of bantamweight champions. And it was the highest grossing gate in the company’s Las Vegas event promoting history. However, after all the tweets are sent, and stories are written about the results, this event will be remembered as a notable page turn in UFC lore.
There are often familiar story-lines a fan can expect when heading into a major UFC event. Stories like, “Will this be the night that (random rising star) establishes their status at the top?” Or, “Will (random fan-favorite) be able to return to greatness after a devastating defeat?” And there is my favorite, “Can (floundering former star) show that they still have something left?” UFC 207 had all of these narratives in play during this impressive card.
One salient story that is sure to get lost in all the rhetoric from this major event, is where does former welterweight champion Johny Hendricks go from here? It was right around this time three years ago that Hendricks was viewed as the uncrowned champion of the division. As he was two months removed from a highly disputed split-decision loss to the best welterweight of all-time—Georges St-Pierre.
He followed that up with a fight-of-the-year scrap against Robbie Lawler for that same belt (vacated by St. Pierre). After reaching the mountain top, “Bigg Rigg” has gone 1-4 in his last five fights. His loses were to Lawler, in a title rematch, Stephen Thompson, Kelvin Gastelum, and Neil Magny at UFC 207. None of those loses are anything to be ashamed about. All of those men are some of the best in the weight-class.
But a loss is a loss, and Hendricks’ fall from elite-level status has been sudden. He has always had trouble making weight for his bouts—including missing weight at both UFC 200 and 207. He has also alluded to retirement in recent interviews before his fights. The question of if the fire is still there, for the former champion, has to be asked.
At 5’9”, Hendricks does not have the sort of height that would be advantageous at middleweight. So with that not being a favorable option, and in the midst of a three fight losing streak, fans may be looking at the final days of a very impressive championship career, which flamed out shockingly soon.
One of the moments from Friday night overshadowing the Hendricks loss, of course, is Ronda Rousey’s embarrassing defeat at the hands of Amanda Nunes. The reigning bantamweight champion dispatched of Rousey—the biggest name in the history of women’s Mixed Martial Arts (MMA)—in a mere 48 seconds. Doing to Rousey what she had done to many of her opponents during her rise to super-stardom.
After a highlight reel knockout loss at to Holly Holm at UFC 193, Rousey stepped away from the sport for over a year. The general feeling was she needed to take a break from the hectic schedule she had maintained following three fights in 2015. And many hoped she would take the time to improve on the weaknesses she did have in her MMA game–notably her striking defense.
Yet when Rousey returned to the spotlight, she loyally returned with the same coaches and trainers—despite most fans and experts feeling a change of camp was necessary—and an anti-media attitude in the lead-up to her fight with Nunes.
Neither helped her case before, and after, the fight. Her unevolved striking was laid to waste by the hyper-talented champion in their bout, and the MMA community had no sympathy for Rousey afterwards, since she was allowed to do no press promotion for the event.
She has already had roles in several movies. And after her much talked about interview on the Ellen Degeneres Show, there were already signs that Rousey was pondering a life after the UFC. This was supposed to be the fight that proved, one way or the other, if “Rowdy” was in this MMA thing for the long-haul. As of today, the long-term forecast of her career seems cloudy at best.
If Rousey were to return anytime soon, many would be surprised. It was well publicized how devastating the first loss of her career was to her. Being beaten again, and more soundly than the first time, is likely to make another hiatus much more permanent.
There is no doubt Rousey was for women’s MMA (WMMA), what Michael Jordan was for the NBA in the 90s. She was the winning star that brought the sport attention it had never seen before. And she has opened the door for female fighters to make paychecks that were unfathomable three years ago. At 29-years-old, there is time for Rousey to return to action rebuilt, and remade–down the line. However, on Friday, we saw a legitimate shift change in the short history of WMMA in the UFC. As the most marketable star in the division has left a marked void in it.
While Rousey’s massive defeat was the lead story from the event, the most momentous course change was in the men’s 135 pound weight-class, after the dramatic defeat of reigning champion Dominick Cruz, by Cody Garbrandt.
Cruz is the best bantamweight in the history of the sport. He is a sure-fire UFC hall-of-famer because he has beaten some of the best fighters–below lightweight–to ever put on a pair four ounce gloves. He has wins over Ian McCall, Joseph Benavidez (twice), Urijah Faber (twice) and Demetrious Johnson. Then, after fighting once during an injury plagued five year stretch, he would make a triumphant return to beat T.J. Dillashaw for the bantamweight title. And if you have seen Dillashaw’s fights after that loss, you know how monumental that victory for Cruz was.
With his legendary status solidified, Cruz was an understandable favorite over Garbrandt. With an impressive 10-0 record (before UFC 207) littered with exciting knockout wins, all Garbrandt had to do was be competitive, and he would have gained a lot of respect. Since he has only been fighting in the sport for only four years. Garbrandt did more than earn respect, he put the division, and sport, on notice. Because there is a new force of nature running through the bantamweight division.
As dominant as Nunes’ win over Rousey was, it wasn’t a total shocker. “No Love’s” win over Cruz was the opposite. Not because pundits didn’t feel he could win. Many did, but few could have expected the masterful performance he put on. Completely clowning a fighter who is used to making his opponents look a fool.
He made Cruz swing and miss, taste blood, and feel the canvas multiple times after flooring him with heavy shots. Garbrandt showed composure, and cardio, light-years ahead of his experience level. He dominated “The Dominator.”
Cruz is only 31-years-old, so he isn’t done yet. But with eleven years in the sport, a litany of injuries overcome, and a very cushy role as an analyst for Fox Sports, he isn’t likely to stay around much longer. While the new champ has challengers like Dillashaw waiting in the wings, a significant page was turned on the history of the division. The division’s best-ever has now been forced to ponder the end. As younger, and fresher, talent move to the forefront of bantamweight.
UFC 207 was full of momentous moments. While it was a stacked card, and enjoyable event, this event will be looked at as a changing of the guard point in time. When divisions were altered forever, and stars of the very recent past saw the sunset of their careers closing in.
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