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The Morning After UFC 207

Matthew Wells

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The return was not feared.

What does a lion fear? They are considered the king of the jungle. While the male lions appear more vicious and menacing with the most distinctive characteristic of the species, the thick mane, it is the female lion, the lioness, who is more efficient and effective as a hunter. Generally smaller, more agile, and quicker to the attack, the lioness is also cold and calculated. After Friday night, perhaps there is no other nickname more appropriate for the UFC Bantamweight Champion Amanda Nunes.

Taking a theatrical approach to her nickname of “lioness”, Nunes stood on the scale during the ceremonial weigh-ins wearing a lion’s mask. Just as a lioness will stalk her prey from a distance, after peering out into the sea of fans in attendance at the T-Mobile Arena, Nunes slowly turned her head and focused her attention to the end of the stage where Ronda Rousey stood. After stepping down from the scale and getting face to face with her opponent, the hunt was all but on. Exchanging intense glares, neither woman backed down from the moment, creating a powerful moment to fuel the fire for the fight which lacked the normal fight week promotion.

After her fall from grace at UFC 193 via a Holly Holm head kick, Ronda Rousey was finally set to make her return to action Friday evening. However, the return would be on her terms which included zero fight week media obligations aside from the ceremonial weigh-ins and appearances on UFC Embedded. Unsurprisingly, this was a wildly unpopular move with the media who traveled to Las Vegas for coverage of the former champion. Fans of the sport would also voice their displeasure with the move via social media. While there is no finite way to measure the effect this would have on Pay Per View sales, there is no question that fight week press conferences and interviews create an increased buzz for fights in the final hours before hitting the pay wall – just ask Conor McGregor.

For Ronda Rousey, who went silent for months after her loss to Holm, facing the media during fight week (or not facing) was an important step to reveal her mental state heading into the fight against Nunes. As she would eventually discuss in the famous interview with Ellen Degeneres, the loss to Holm completely shook her to the core, driving her to suicidal thoughts. Sure, the official UFC promos would paint the picture that Ronda Rousey was completely rejuvenated and focused on regaining her title at UFC 207. However, avoiding the media under the guise of “they turned on me” post-UFC 193, told a story all its own. While simply looking at her physique, Ronda arrived in Las Vegas in perhaps the best shape of her fighting career. More importantly, though, if Ronda was not mentally strong enough to answer hard questions about her career from the media, how could she possibly be in the right place mentally to compete against a fearless striker like Nunes?

Despite her best game face in staredowns and during her walk into the Octagon, once the first punch from Nunes landed, the iconic fierce demeanor of Rousey quickly faded. The former Olympian was locked in a cage with a lioness hunting for a kill – and as punch, after punch landed, there was no escaping this mauling. In just 48 seconds, Herb Dean stepped in to stop the violence. For the second time in a row, Ronda Rousey left the cage battered and distraught. For a fighter who made her career off dishing out lighting quick finishes of her opponents, the latest (and possibly final) chapter of her career was on the receiving end.

 

Is it the end?

For the many people that view Rousey as a figure of inspiration and strength, it is important now more than ever for her to face the media and speak on her recent shortcomings inside the Octagon. Rousey’s celebrity reaches into homes and television screens of people who would otherwise not watch mixed martial arts. They tune in for Ronda and her story, the DNB campaign, and the overall image of feminine strength she has created. Inspirational figures must deliver on their promise which includes facing the reality of outcomes. There are many young girls who are inspired by what Ronda has been able to accomplish throughout her career and will be paying attention to how Ronda handles this loss.

If this was the last image of Ronda Rousey in the UFC cage, her career accomplishments as an Olympian, fighter, transcendent celebrity and trailblazer for women’s mixed martial arts will trump the recent lows. Without Ronda Rousey, there is no WMMA in the UFC in 2012. It took a special athlete and a special personality to change the mind of UFC President Dana White, who at the time believed women’s MMA wasn’t a good fit for the promotion. As we prepare to ring in 2017, women’s MMA has since evolved rapidly into a beast all its own, creating new superstars and fights that earn top billing on Pay Per Views. If Ronda Rousey was not there to carry the torch, who knows where we would be at this point? Luckily she was and we are all alive in a time to witness something truly special in the world of sports.

Regardless of what may be next for Ronda Rousey, we must all take a moment to say, “Thank you.”

 

No Love for the Dominator

While one career may be reaching the resolution of its plot, another is in the middle of the rising action phase.

Cody Garbrandt, a Team Alpha Male product, was set to take on the UFC Bantamweight Champion Dominick Cruz, the one man who has wreaked havoc on the camp’s top names for years – Urijah Faber, Joseph Benavidez, and T.J. Dillashaw would all fall victim to the ghost-like movement of Dominick Cruz during his 13 fight win streak that stretches back to the WEC days. That run of wins and successful bantamweight title defenses would come to end on Friday evening, as Cody Garbrandt put on a masterful performance in the co-main event of UFC 207.

It was billed as and believed to be a clash of the elusive, unorthodox wizard against the always-forward, powerful knockout artist. Garbrandt threw everyone for a loop as he revealed an entirely different aspect to his game – an incredibly patient, technical, and tactical fight approach. For a stylish man outside of the Octagon, Cody “No Love” brought a certain stylish flair into the cage with him on Friday night as well, as he taunted Cruz at any opportunity over the course of five rounds. Garbrandt channeled his inner Diaz brother in the fourth round after dropping Cruz with a hard left hand that was followed up not by subsequent strikes to end the bout, but rather by pointing and laughing as Cruz picked himself up from the canvas. Nobody has picked Dominick Cruz apart in such a manner, much less taunting and dancing while doing so.

To cap off 2016, it was only right that we witnessed one more incredible changing of the guard, especially considering the madness that has occurred over the past twelve months in the sport. While Garbrandt’s performance was incredible enough, his post-fight dedication to Maddux Maple, his good friend, and leukemia survivor was the icing on the cake. Just as Dana White wrapped the belt around Garbrandt’s waist, Cody would do the same for Maddux, making good on his promise from a few weeks ago to give him the real belt should he be successful. It was a very special moment to celebrate his friend, who he credits with changing his life for the better, leading him to become a UFC champion.

Whether the newly crowned champion decides to fight former Team Alpha Male partner T.J. Dillashaw or wants to run it back with Dominick Cruz, the bantamweight division is as hot has it has ever been.

It was real, 2016.

Looking back on the year that was 2016, the game has changed in many ways.

We’re still feeling the impact from WME-IMG’s purchase of the UFC over the summer, which has seen many long-time employees and executives searching for the next phase of their careers, including commentator Mike Goldberg, whose final event on the mic was Friday evening. UFC matchmaker Joe Silva also partook in his final event as a UFC employee at UFC 207. Dave Sholler left his PR gig with the UFC to move to the NBA. Lorenzo Fertitta made his exit from the company when the sale was completed. There have been plenty of changes behind the scenes, yet the promotion continues to deliver a solid product.

For the fighters who make this sport truly incredible, 2016 should mark an important year in terms of fighter pay. Multi-million dollar disclosed paydays were realized by Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey. As a result, their opponents benefited by increased pay which should continue to create a ripple effect throughout the sport. Free agency and fighter unions were both hot topics in the MMA world in 2016, which will both continue to evolve in the new year.

In a year which New York legalized mixed martial arts and provided numerous broken records, the sport is in a very good place heading to 2017.

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Fight Announcements

Jacare Souza vs. Kelvin Gastelum Official for UFC 224

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Brazils second UFC event of the new year added another middleweight contest. UFC officials announced, Kelvin Gastelum will face Jacare Souza in Rio de Janeiro at UFC 224.

The inevitable main card booking of Souza comes after headlining UFC on Fox 27. The Brazilian fighter is 3-2 in his last 5. His recent contests only look worrisome in comparison to the entirety of his long career. Prior to his past 5, Souza held an eight fight win streak. In that period of time, he defeated Gegard Mousasi, Derek Brunson (for the first time), and Chris Camozzi twice. Despite the drama words and numbers on screens create, his recent record is nothing to have concern over. A split decision loss to Yoel Romero in 2015, and a 2017 TKO loss to division champion, Robert Whittaker is manageable. Defeating Derek Brunson in the opening round of their main event bout kept him deep in the milky opaque froth that is the middleweight title picture. Clearly his position in that photo lies upon the upcoming match up.

Looking ahead for Jacare Souza, assuming he wins, becomes interesting, just as it devastating for Kelvin Gastelum. Gastelum is 3-1 since returning to middleweight, technically his record sits at 2-1 and 1 No Contest. He tested positive for marijuana in a sample collected the night of his bout against Vitor Belfort by USADA in March of 2017. Originally, the outcome of the bout read the way viewers remembered it; a 1st rd. TKO in favor of Gastelum. On May 7th, 2017, the win was officially overturned and changed to a No Contest. He also received a 90 day suspension, adjusted to the day of the failed test (March 11th).

In the aftermath of the failed test, his scheduled contest against Anderson Silva. He then split his next two contests, losing to Chris Weidman and defeating Michael Bisping emphatically, yet under odd circumstances. A win for Gastelum certainly muddies the waters of middleweight contenders, while adding to a good 185 lb. resume.

UFC 224 takes place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on May 12th, 2018 at the Jeunesse Arena. A battle betwen Brazilians is set for the date as Lyoto Machida takes on Vitor Belfort. Other featured bouts include; Aleksei Oleynik vs. Junior Albini*, Cezar Ferreira vs. Karl Roberson*, Alberto Mina vs. Ramazan Emeev, and Davi Ramos vs. Nick Hein*.

*Bouts reportedly set for UFC 224

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Exclusive: Mike Ekundayo, “He could come with anything, I don’t care”

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In a little less than a week, Rise of Champions crowns its inaugural bantamweight champion. The crowning of the first 135 lb. champion marks the young promotions first champion. It makes sense why the promotion owned and operated by UK MMA star, Brad Pickett, and Team Titan head coach, Mickey Papas plan to crown the promotions first champion in the bantamweight division. Pickett competed in the division throughout his tenure with the WEC, and ultimately the entity which absorbed the light weight promotion, the UFC. Even more-so, two young and rising prospects of the division. One undefeated in his professional and amateur career, the other riding a seven consecutive victories, five by submission. The two meet February 17th, Mike Ekundayo puts his career unbeaten streak up against Jonas Magard’s at ROC 5, for the aforementioned, inaugural bantamweight championship.

Speaking to the undefeated Ekundayo before his fight, he believes this opportunity to be inevitable. Born in Hackney, (a borough of London) early in life, Ekundayo was no stranger to cramming his belongings into large cardboard boxes. At the age of 7, he moved from Hackney to Herne Hill, a district located in South London. Two years later he found himself in similar situation, moving from his vaguely new home in Herne Hill to Brixton. A road trip in the car to his new home, took approximately 5 minutes.

It is admittedly, not an easy life. In a harrowing article describing the horrors of gang life in London by the metro.uk, former gang member turned community activist, made the claim, “When you are from Brixton, from Peckham, west London, anywhere in London, you are seeing hardship where a lot of communities can’t reach their full potential”.

In his own words, Ekundayo describes his home as, “not the best start to have in your life. It’s not the best upbringing”. But that couldn’t matter any less for him. Not only does the London resident consistently work to grow his potential, he gets to see it every day. His coaches Brad Pickett and Mickey Papas hold the knowledge as well as first-hand experience, increasing his limits with every session. “We’re all close”, speaking of his coaches and team. “My head coach is Mickey Papas, he’s very knowable in the game. He’s been around for a very long time. He teaches me a lot, I can learn a lot of stuff from Mickey Papas. Sometimes I just think, how does he know all of this? Where did he get this information from?”

He continued, “While I was coming up through amateur, Brad (Pickett) was still an active fighter, but nowadays he’s taken a coaching approach. So he’s coaching us prospects getting us to where he got to and further… He’s been through it all, gotten to the top, and stayed at the top”.

Further discussing his coach, “For UK MMA, you could definitely call Brad a legend. He’s done a lot in his career, and someone who I rate highly as an MMA fighter is Demetrious Johnson, and of course Brad has got a win over (him). I feel like just being surrounded by someone like Brad, you’re working towards the right things. When he passes information onto you, you respect it that bit more because of far he got in his career. He’s definitely given me the right guidance, I trust his guidance”.

When it comes to the upcoming title fight, confidence poured out from where praise and respect had once been. “I just think it’s my time, to be honest. I really do believe it’s my time for all of this. The work I put in, certain things become inevitable”, he said. “I actually called this after I won my third fight, I called for belts and big shows. I spoke it to existence”. He continued, “It’s my time to finally to get a strap of some sort. All the straps is what we’re going for, all of them. We’re going for every one”.

“Rise of Champions is my show… That’s how I feel when I’m performing on ROC, it’s just my show, it’s my time to shine. Everyone knows who there here to see, there not really there to see the other guys. It’s my time, it’s my show and I’m going to put on a show on February 17th and I’m going to win that belt”.

The infectious nature of his positive attitude was palpable. Although we only spoke through small rectangular devices, I could feel his energy in the room. His attitude shined brightest when talking about what it would mean to be the first ever ROC Bantamweight champion. Ekundayo claimed, “It just means a lot to have my first belt in anything to be honest… Within myself, I call myself a champion, every day. But now, other people would have to call me a champion because I’ve got a belt… And one thing I really want to do is, which sounds a bit weird, I just want to take the belt home to my area, to Brixton.”

“I just want to take it to my area, and just show the people of that area what hard work can achieve… I want to just take it to my people and show them that not for nothing, we are from Brixton, it’s not the best start to have in your life. It’s not the best upbringing but you can rise above it and you can achieve your goals and that’s what the belt will mean”.

When the conversation shifted to the topic of his opponent, Ekundayo had less encouraging words rolling off his tongue. Jonas Magard, the second half of the ROC 5 main event, holds a record of 7-4. Currently he owns a seven fight win streak after starting his career 1-3. Ekundayo thought, “He did fight quite decent guys in his three loses… but in the seven fight win streak, none of his opponents have been of caliber”.

He elaborated further, “What’s in my thoughts is more me, then it is of him. So, he could come with anything, I don’t care. I’m just focused on how I’m going to be picture perfect. How I’m going to paint a masterpiece, how I’m going to make it a beautifully perfect performance. That’s what my primary focus is on, so what he does to me is irrelevant, I’m just going to focus on how I’m going to be perfect on the night of February 17th”.

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Announcement

UFC 222 Re-Worked with Cris Cyborg vs. Yana Kunitskaya, and Frankie Edgar vs. Brian Ortega

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UFC 222 has been saved, and it didn’t take a superhero to lift the burning boulder which was Max Holloway’s injury and withdrawal. All it took was a female named Cyborg and a man with a demeanor so smooth, he could be mistaken for an alter-ego. Cris Cyborg now serves as the UFC 222 main event when she defends her featherweight belt against Yana Kunitskaya. Frankie Edgar bumped down to the co-main event to face Brian Ortega in what is likely a title eliminator. The news of the UFC 222 revival originally stemmed from a report by MMAFighting.com and confirmed later in the evening by the UFC.

Over the course of the week, reports surrounded the Las Vegas card and whether it would survive. Multiple options were reportedly being mulled over; cancelling the card outright, changing the pay-per-view (PPV) to a ‘Fight Night’ with an Edgar vs. Ortega main event, Dillashaw vs. Garbrandt 2 main event, among others. Ultimately, the promotion landed on Cyborg vs. Kunitskaya as the new main event, while also booking Brian Ortega.

This adjustment of the card places their women’s Featherweight champion in the second PPV main event in three months. Cris Cyborg recently put her undisputed Featherweight title on the line against Holly Holm at the year ending card, UFC 219. She successfully defended her belt by unanimous decision, in what was an amazing technical display from the Brazilian. In her octagon career, Cyborg is undefeated in her four appearances with three KO/TKO stoppages.

The second half of the new main event, Yana Kunitskaya, makes her UFC debut against the scariest women on the roster. If the 145 lb. champion was not enough of a challenge, Kunitskaya also makes her first appearance in the division since defeating Cindy Dandois in December of 2010. Of Russia descent, her most recent performances came inside the Invicta FC cage. At the female-only promotion, she posted a record of 1-1, with 1 No Contest. Her loss and no contest, both came at the hands of former UFC Featherweight title challenger, Tonya Evinger.

Turning to the co-main event, both fighters have been relatively inactive but, for good reason. Brian Ortega amazingly forced perennial men’s Featherweight contender, Cub Swanson, to tap in the second round of their ‘Fight Night: Fresno’ contest. Ortega fought twice in 2017, but more-so stayed inactive following his stoppage victory over Swanson. The Californian contender announced his desire to wait in line for the next title shot following the recent victory.

For Frankie Edgar, his last fight took place at UFC 211 when he absolutely demolished young and rising star, Yair Rodriguez. A card which took place last May. While Ortega holds an undefeated record, Edgar is undefeated in his previous 9 fights, excluding people named Jose Aldo.

UFC 222 takes place at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada on March 3rd.

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