Postliminary: UFC 247

Photo credit: Ultimate Fighting Championship

In her post-fight interview at the UFC’s 25th anniversary event in 2018, strawweight and flyweight prospect Maycee “The Future” Barber shouted into the mic, “I’m not here to fight to not lose, I’m here to fight to win!” to cheers from her fellow Denverites in attendance. The fight was Barber’s debut with the promotion (as well as for her opponent Cifers) and she had been adamant in pre-fight interviews that she would not only capture gold in the UFC, but break light-heavyweight Jon Jones’ record as its youngest-ever champion at twenty-three.

Barber, however, not only suffered a loss in her most recent outing opposite grappler Roxanne Modafferi but a torn ACL as well, complicating this goal likely for the remainder of the year. Should she be successful in her return and put a win streak together at flyweight in particular—which in contrast to strawweight is light on contenders as the UFC’s newest division—it is still conceivable Barber could realize her dream at only twenty-one.

“The Future”, of course, is not the lone fighter on the roster vocalizing this goal; twenty-two year old undefeated middleweight Edmen Shahbazyan, for example. Shahbazyan, like Barber, is a finisher almost without exception, having finished ten of his eleven wins to Barber’s seven of a total eight. When it comes to title contention in the UFC, number of victories is often secondary to nature of said victories. Unless you have compiled so many, especially consecutively, that to deny you would undermine the promotion’s image as the paragon of excellence in the sport, chances are your title aspirations will go ungranted if you’re not also disposing your foes with style points.

The flip side of this, it goes without saying, is the expectation it sets. Fans will buy your pay-per-views and tickets to your events but be satisfied with nothing less; oddsmakers and the betting segment of the public will literally invest time and money in your heretofore spectacularity. Failing a flash knockout or slick submission, though, dominance will suffice. As long as you aren’t dishonouring these investments with the crime of losing in a sport where everyone eventually loses, your efforts will continue to be reciprocated with accolade and widespread confidence.

This past weekend’s UFC 247, headlined by the aforementioned Jones and undefeated knockout artist Dominick Reyes, was a lesson on these fronts and more. In the opinion of most, in which I include myself, Jones should have lost both the fight and his light-heavyweight belt. In both total strikes overall (116-104) and significant strikes across the first three rounds (23-17, 33-22, 26-19) Reyes had Jones objectively outmatched. Jones did complete one takedown apiece in the final two rounds, but was not able to secure the position or mount any kind of control or offence before Reyes sprung back to his feet; the other seven takedowns attempted were stuffed from the outset.

This is an important stat not only on its face but because Jones specifically credited takedowns post-fight for his unanimous decision win, telling commentator Joe Rogan, “I think the difference in the fight were takedowns,” while admitting he “couldn’t keep him down for too long.” Though most observers including pundits and fellow fighters believe Reyes should have won, there seems to be equal unanimity that Reyes’ victory was earned in the first three stanzas while Jones took the final two. Having rewatched the fight several times, I again have no disagreement.

As UFC fights are scored by the round, the fact that Jones edged Reyes in the championship minutes is not grounds enough to award him the victory, let alone the 49-46 scorecard (or four rounds to one for Jones) awarded by the deservedly maligned Joe Soliz. Just as upsetting as the decision itself was, as in Jones’ last outing against Brazilian Thiago Santos, the lack of urgency. The momentum of this fight did not shift because Jones adjusted the approach that had cost him the first three rounds, but because the much less experienced Reyes had never fought five rounds before and it showed late in his output.

Some in the MMA space argue that Jones is and has been slowing down. Perhaps he isn’t as creative, perhaps he’s older in fight years than his perseverate win streak implies. I disagree. This was the same coasting Jones who fought Ovince Saint Preux in 2016 and Anthony Smith last year, yet between which delivered stellar performances against rivals Daniel Cormier and Alexander Gustafsson. And while it is true the light-heavyweight division now houses more athletic and dangerous contenders than ever before—many of whom, as opposed to before, also match Jones in stature—I believe the only variable at play here is Jones’ mind. Either he lacks a champion’s urgency, even when it’s demanded, because the drive that brought him all his achievements is gone, or he lacks it because having never known defeat, even in loss, he no longer believes he’s capable.

No fighter, it must be noted, not even most great champions, wins every fight spectacularly. George St. Pierre is widely considered the greatest mixed martial artist of all time and at the height of his reign placed his fate in the hands of judges on seven consecutive occasions. Yet he was able to recognize those crucial moments when not only the fight and belt were in jeopardy, but so was his rarified air; his legacy as one of if not the best ever, in as well as out of the cage. Whether one forgives Jones his transgressions or agrees with the various clemencies afforded him which allowed his career to go on, the octagon is now, wherever the truth lies, the only stage left for redemption. Had he responded to a tough three rounds against Reyes with the same fourth and fifth rounds he presented Cormier and Gustafsson in their first encounters, we would not still be talking about UFC 247. His victory would feel as routine post-fight as felt inevitable before it.

That is not how this one feels. Watching Jones in 2019 and now in 2020, it feels as if he’s fighting not to lose. Like he already has, just without having been defeated. And unfortunately for Reyes, as Jones’ rematches with “D.C.” and the Swede made clear, this non-win—at least officially—may be the only one he’ll ever hold over Jones let alone above his own head. If the champion’s tendency to stay in third gear through the full twenty-five minutes is now as solid as his chin, Reyes may be looking at another breathless decision unless he can somehow bridge, or break, the astronomical experience gap.

Throughout his career, and especially during its well-publicized turbulence, Jones has credited either Jesus or “God’s will” for his still being part of the sport at all. Whether the two rematch and whether Reyes can break this as well, it feels, looking back, as if Jones’ greatness was some kind of unspoken loan; like he’s given the game and us so much, both good and not, that we’re the ones who now have to pay the interest. The amount of help God is willing to provide him, it seems, has dwindled down from walks in the park with Ariel Helwani and science none of us can appreciate to human error itself. What is that worth in pay-per-view points? The time has come for the man, and more importantly the fighter, to decide what part of history he wants to play. For someone, his coaches, maybe even his enemies, to remind him it hasn’t ended yet.

Does he want to be the greatest without question or with it? He’s said he doesn’t want it to be a conversation, but performances like these make it one. His opponents sense this. It’s clear as day his career is at a low tide, which neither means it won’t return to its old highs nor guarantees it. In the lead up to 247, this uncertainty is clearly where Reyes’ eerie confidence came from. “You won all these fights, ” he said, “you beat all these people, now it’s time for you to get beat.” It was time, we now know, and it wasn’t. And that is where we find ourselves, somehow. Listening to the great Bones Jones, he who throws elbows like punches, preach the lord shall rise again. Watching as it happens. At pains to believe a thing.