‘UFC 203’ Cooldown: the Thrills and the Agonies

Photo credit: Ultimate Fighting Championship©

If UFC 199 was a “black swan event” for the promotion, as I said in its aftermath, what the hell was UFC 203? Perhaps it’s a question which answers itself, because, to run with the zoomorphism a little longer, this Cleveland card defied all taxonomy. Still heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic, however, did not: he reinforced himself as the whale that capsized his division, with 203 marking the second consecutive first-round KO of a heavyweight widely recognized to be among the most accomplished fighters in the sport. Yet, as 203’s promotional material reminded us, the husky-voiced Ohio native has been making waves, arguably, for years; since, at the very least, his December 2014 decision loss to former champion Junior “Cigano” Dos Santos which many believe he won. Miocic followed this five-round vestige with TKO victories over interim-heavyweight title challenger (and 2001 K-1 World Grand Prix winner) Mark Hunt, and another former heavyweight champion in Ardrei Arlovski.

Resumes notwithstanding, however, the margin for error in the heavyweight division is practically invisible, and if anything, Miocic and Overeem’s turbulent four and a half minute contest proved how relative “error” is in the context of elite mixed martial artists, especially those above 205lbs. The stand-up pedigree of each man here—Miocic a Golden Gloves boxing champion and Overeem, as with Hunt, a K-1 champion—raised the frequency on these divisional constants even more. Both men are skilled and confident on the ground (Miocic is an NCAA Division 1 wrestler and Overeem an ADCC Submission Wrestling champion), thus unafraid of potential level changes to the canvas, and both are lethal counter-strikers. This could have translated into a Holm vs. Schevchenko situation, where one defensive fighter (in this example Holm) found no other recourse but to play aggressor against an opposing defensive fighter, therefore eschewing their core modus operandi without their adversary having to make the same concession. Fortunately, neither Miocic nor Overeem rely on counter-striking, and as a consequence the engagements were especially unpredictable.

As the outcome of this fight was definitive and not susceptible to the “must system” (and also for the sake of brevity, frankly) I will let 203’s main event speak for itself in a way I did not UFC 202’s. I began discussion of the card in reverse order because this high stakes main-event-on-eggshells was among the few highlights that most of us couldn’t have done without. Miocic vs. Overeem stands, in my opinion, as one of the greatest single-round heavyweight fights, and championship fights, in MMA history; maybe one of the greatest single-round MMA fights, full stop. And it’s a good thing, because had it disappointed following the bizarre circus which preceded it (even before the actual event), the effect would have been analogous to the tent collapsing and the animals running free.

The elephant in the room (and outside it) was pro-wrestling celebrity CM Punk (real name Phillip Brooks) and whether or not he could somehow transcend the usual parameters required to compete in the UFC. From the company’s official website: “It takes a whole lot of hard work and dedication to become a UFC fighter. Most fighters fight professionally in smaller organizations for years and have extensive training in multiple disciplines before the UFC will even consider allowing them in the cage. These fighters are hand picked from the best of the best and the few chosen ones make it to the pinnacle of MMA fighting.” Brooks had none of this clout entering the octagon opposite the 2-0, twenty-four year old Mickey Gall, yet was “hand picked” by UFC president Dana White two years ago ostensibly to combat the company’s lowest PPV-buys-per-annum since 2005, almost a decade prior.

Strangely, despite the surreality of Brooks’s participation in UFC 203—including the fact his celebrity moniker was used not as a traditional “ring-name” but as a substitute for his real name—the fight itself was hardly the weirdest of the night, if only because it played out just as most predicted: Gall controlled every aspect of the fight (and Brooks) without the need of a full round (or half of one) to end it. Contrast this with the co-main event, Fabrício Werdum vs. Travis Browne 2: Werdum, a 240lb submissions specialist, begins the fight with an octagon-clearing flying side kick to Browne’s face; Browne calls a timeout for a broken finger (the result of a partially-blocked punch from Werdum) and referee Gary Copeland obliges, despite an injury of this nature not being legal cause for a cessation of action under UFC rules; Browne’s coach, the frequently lambasted Edmond Tarverdyan, shouting such sage and technical corner advice as “this motherfucker ain’t got shit on you!” and “fight solid, fight with heart!” inches from Browne’s face, which Fight Network’s Robin Black appropriately summarized as “a complete failure for your athlete.”

Havoc continued post-fight as the judges’ official decision (unanimous for Werdum) was delayed by an outraged Tarverdyan, who approached Werdum shouting obscenities. Werdum responded by defensively push-kicking Tarverdyan away, which nearly resulted in an altercation between teams. This odd, unfortunate exchange has been the subject of well-deserved controversy, and, for my part, while I do not approve of Werdum’s reaction, an MMA coach of all people should know not to direct aggression at a fighter in a fight’s immediate aftermath, when emotion and adrenaline alike are reliably going to be elevated. As is disorientation and memory impairment, post-knockout, which Overeem’s recall of the tap that never was underscored with (ironically, perhaps) rare clarity.

Despite an incredible main event rescuing the card from both disorder and a dissatisfied audience (who thought it somehow justified to boo their home-state champion’s opponent not only during the fight but after he had lost in brutal fashion), UFC 203 just could not escape without this final strangeness: Overeem and commentator Joe Rogan combing the tape for an alternate ending, one which, if discovered, might have paid back all the deafening elation of moments prior with uproar and dejection. Directed, perhaps, less at Miocic than the universe—where we ultimately direct most of our blues and ire over fight outcomes. Fighting, the maxim goes, is “ninety percent mental”, but for the audience it is surely one-hundred. If we boo a fighter for losing, then, especially one whom we wanted to see lose, we’ve failed to connect worse than they have. We’ve won and failed to win.