Rocked? Or wobbled?
After Michael Johnson landed a powerful left hand to Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 205, legions of fans swear to this day that Khabib was rocked. To me, I hardly detected a wobble. As far as I could tell, Khabib remained composed, cool, calm, and kept marching forward. Maybe the punch didn’t do as much damage as many seem to think it did. Maybe it was just Khabib being Dagestan tough, like when he ate a spinning kick from one of the best kickers in the UFC like it was a Lunchables sandwich that does nothing for a grown man’s appetite. No, to paraphrase Khabib, “The Eagle” was still hungry. “The Eagle” still needed to catch something. And in both the Johnson fight and Barboza fight, whether it came naturally after receiving hard blows or if Khabib had to dig deeper than he let on, “The Eagle” continued to set the tone. “The Eagle” continued forward.
“The Eagle” has continued to glide forward into the main event of UFC 223, which will be taking place tonight. And unfortunately, his originally slated foe and longstanding rival, Tony Ferguson, won’t be there to meet him. Last week, I provided eight reasons why Tony Ferguson would, in fact, be there waiting for “The Eagle” when he touched down in Brooklyn, prepared to halt his ascension to glory. But as it turns out, the MMA gods continue to drag out the inevitable. The ninth reason of my list from last week ensured the MMA community that even if the worst came to pass and we were left without Ferguson/Khabib yet again, the fight will still happen someday. They are too dominant, and both have too many years left for their paths to eventually cross. But unfortunately, it won’t be at UFC 223.
My final reason why fans were not to worry about Ferguson/Khabib happening was that if somehow the fight was called off, McGregor would be there to save the day. Although this final reason was provided in a tongue-in-cheek, skeptical manner, logic did indeed have it that the man who wanted to step in and save UFC 222 on short notice would do the same thing for UFC 223, where his own belt would be on the line. But instead, in a stunning twist, it was McGregor’s featherweight successor, Max Holloway, whose words months ago at the UFC 223 press conference turned out to be a harbinger of who would actually come to the rescue. In what sometimes seems to be a rarity in MMA, Max Holloway proved that he was not all talk. He did step in to save the pay per view when someone from the main event fell out, and he did want to face Khabib Nurmagomedov, something not many people walking the planet can follow through on by jotting their name on the dotted line. Unfortunately, Holloway was prevented from cutting weight further by the NYSAC and was thus unable to put actions to his rare words.
But if you want to talk resilience, you have to give a big salute to the UFC. They had every opportunity to accept that they were in the wrong state at the wrong time and that everything orchestrated by the MMA gods was working against them. But they didn’t. They kept plugging away and going through options with many obstacles thrown at them along the way until they found an unlikely, yet suitable last-minute replacement in Al Iaquinta, who is on a five-fight win streak and holds victories over names like Jorge Masvidal and Kevin Lee. A talented boxer and wrestler, Iaquinta is one of the most intriguing matchups for Khabib in the division and arguably a tougher fight for him than Max Holloway stylistically. So you have to give credit to where it’s due for the UFC showing resiliency under perhaps the most chaotic circumstances we’ve seen in a one-week span.
And more importantly, you have shown resilience. The fans. I do not know what will become of the buzz and buys of UFC 223, which was originally projected to be the biggest pay per view since UFC 205. That, of course, may change with Holloway out, but I do know that the true fans of MMA will find a lot to appreciate from this great card. I also know that, as a whole, the entire MMA community will bounce back from the wreckage of what was the most stacked card of the year.
The fact is, we’re used to this. We’re used to main events, dream matches, or stacked cards falling apart, whether it’s on a pay per view or a UFC on FOX card or a UFC Fight Night. And you know what? While this may be hard to believe, when Khabib vs. Ferguson is booked again….and it will be booked again (Dana is already backtracking from his comments from earlier this week swearing that it wouldn’t), I’m here to tell you, the wounds from UFC 223 will have healed, and we will anticipate it just as much, maybe even more, and defy all logic and common sense doing so. How do I know? Because we’ve done it before. You’d swear that a year ago we weren’t one day away from Khabib/Ferguson before its heartbreaking cancellation judging by the buzz that was surrounding the original UFC 223 main event. Sure, the “will it or won’t it” talks will be louder than ever, but let’s face it, that’s part of the mystique of Khabib/Ferguson. And we will hype the fight up yet again. Because whenever a fight of that magnitude is announced, the past seems to fade behind as we continue going forward, and our hope continues its collective resilience.
Unfortunately, not everyone will have the opportunity to show resilience at UFC 223. Thanks to the antics of Conor McGregor and his posse, Michael Chiesa, Anthony Pettis, Brandon Moreno, Paul Felder, Alex Caceres, and Ray Borg will not be provided the opportunity to perform at UFC 223. But fortunately for us, one name who almost was on this list, Rose Namajunas, will continue forward after being shaken by Thursday’s events.
But perhaps more than any fighter on the card, the former strawweight champion and the still self-proclaimed strawweight queen will have the opportunity to show how she progresses in the face of adversity. Joanna Jedrzejczyk has been tested before inside the Octagon. She was tested in her first fight with Claudia Gadelha before she was the queen of the strawweight division, and many had Gadelha winning that close, split-decision fight. She was also tested in her second fight with Gadelha, where her strawweight title was on the line. The general consensus is that Joanna was down two rounds heading into the third, before she pulled away. But in the final three rounds, Joanna dug deep and she, too, showed her resilience.
Only this time, what Joanna Jedrzejczyk will have to display tonight goes even deeper than what she dug to discover in her split-decision win or the come-from-behind comeback against the same opponent. This time, Joanna must face an opponent she has never encountered in MMA: Defeat.
Joanna is showing all the signs of a champion ready to display her resilience. She is saying all the right things and is saying it convincingly. She is ready to bounce back from a devastating weight cut. She is ready to bounce back from the lashings from the MMA community who have branded her a bully who got what she had coming to her. It is seemingly Joanna against the world come tonight. It is also Joanna against defeat. It is Joanna fighting for her legacy when the cage closes and her very name: Joanna Champion. Will Joanna join the ranks of legends who have faced defeat and continued to go forward? Or will she join the ranks of another female fighter whom she admires, Ronda Rousey, along with Gina Carano, both fading to the devastating blow that defeat brings to an undefeated fighter?
UFC 223 is a story of resilience. It has lost the original main event that was years in the making, its replacement, as well as three bouts that helped make the card the most stacked of the year, as well as Lobov/Caceras. But it hasn’t lost the fans. Some? I’m sure. But when you tune in to UFC 223 or log into MMA social media, you will see how quickly the MMA community can move on come fight night. You will see how resilient we can be. So while 30% of the fighters we expected to compete in Brooklyn won’t be, we’ll still be there. We’ll be there to see Mike Rodriguez make his official UFC debut after his impressive Contender Series showing to face a hungry Devin Clark in an intriguing striker vs. grappler matchup. We’ll be there to see Zabit Magomedsharipov attempt to show the world why he is nearly a four-figure favorite going into his match with Kyle Bochniak on the main card, where he belonged in the first place. We are going to tune into see the grizzled veteran Evan Dunham battle Oliver Aubin Mercier as Mercier attempts to get over the hump and begin to seize his apparent potential. We are going to see Joe Lauzon attempt to bounce back from two straight losses against Chris Gruetzemacher, who is looking to do the same, both men looking to not to suffer the third straight loss of doom and instead display their resilience.
We will tune in to see Karolina Kowalkiewicz continue to try to show her Resilience and claw her way back to title contention after falling off the horse at UFC 205, the same event where the “The Eagle” continued his forward pressure on the lightweight division. Awaiting Kowalkiewicz will be one of the hungriest fighters in MMA, Felice Herrig. We will be there to see Renato Moicano and Calvin Kattar put on a technical striking clinic for the UFC fans around the world. Finally, we will be there to see the “The Eagle” continue to attempt to go forward on to his lifelong dream, but the local Iaquinta holds the key to the city and hopes to close the gates on the “The Eagle” once the cage closes.
And in the co-main event, Rose Namajunas, a woman who has displayed more resilience in her personal life than I can capture in words will show up in Brooklyn to continue to do just that against a woman looking to do the same and recapture her name. The term “Champion” is more than a title for Joanna. It’s an identity. But to reclaim it, she will have to show more resilience than ever before.
Yes, UFC 223 is a story of resilience in a city of resilience. And as the most resilient fans in professional sports, we will be there to see it. There is no question that the UFC 223 card was more than just wobbled. No, it was definitely rocked. In fact, some even began to wonder whether there should have been a stoppage after plans hit the canvas so many times. But the MMA community will progress undeterred. As always, like the Brooklynites in non-stop traffic going at a breakneck speed down I-478, we will follow the lead of Joanna Jedrzejczyk at the UFC 217 post-fight press conference, who with bruised ego, blackened eye, and a cracked, yet unbroken voice, uttered the words that our resilience echoes with the tone of “The Eagle:”
“We moving forward. We moving forward.”