5 things we learned from the UFC’s return to Las Vegas

UFC Fight Night: Poirier v Hooker

Dustin Poirier and Dan Hooker | Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC

After five straight weeks of events at the APEX, it would be hard to argue that the UFC’s return to Las Vegas was anything but a success.

That’s right, even as a proud member of the MMA media that has been working tirelessly to shut down the UFC since mid-March, even I have to tip my cap to the promotion for putting on a series of entertaining shows that for the most part appear to have left fighters and fans satisfied. Whether you were looking for dramatic finishes, clickbait headlines (again, us), or Fight of the Year contenders, there was—as cliche and carny as it sounds—something for everyone.

Getting the wheels back in motion in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic was never going to be perfect and the looming crisis must be acknowledged, so here are five takeaways from the UFC’s homecoming.

The UFC vs. COVID-19

Credit to the Nevada State Athletic Commission and the UFC for laying out proper guidelines ahead of the APEX shows in an effort to minimize exposure and risk, even if the safest option would be to not attempt to run shows at all. If Dana White wants to put his head down and run through this wall, at least his organization is doing it with a helmet on, as it were.

UFC Fight Night: Eye v Calvillo
Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC
Dana White

Even more credit has to go to the fighters and their teams, and the UFC staff for putting in the work over the past 30-some-odd days to ensure that everything ran as smoothly and as safely as possible.

That said, we saw firsthand just how serious an issue COVID-19 is and how disruptive it can be to the sporting world. Several foreign fighters found themselves unable to secure a visa due to increased travel restrictions, including Jennifer Maia, Viviane Araujo, and Kyle Nelson, but those cancellations paled in comparison to the scare that others faced in Las Vegas.

Ian Heinisch nearly missed out on what would turn out to be highlight-reel win over Gerald Meerschaert at UFC 250 when one of his cornermen initially tested positive for COVID-19, only to see that cornerman cleared after a second test. Matt Frevola and Ramiz Brahimaj weren’t so lucky. Their cornermen tested positive and just like that, their trip to Vegas was for naught.

However—and I’m sure White and the UFC will be happy to tout this—the fact that these cases were caught is evidence that the system is at least somewhat working, though we’ll just have to cross our fingers and hope that the testing was effective and that none of the attendees are heading back to their cities with COVID-19 in tow. Plus, as insensitive as it sounds, the withdrawals created opportunities that hungry fighters were quick to pounce on.

We can be heroes, just for one day

UFC Fight Night: Hansen v Frey
Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC
Kay Hansen

Justin Jaynes! Christian Aguilera! Kay Hansen! Julian Erosa!

These four, among several others, were called upon on short-notice as either replacements or simply to fill cards with the UFC scrambling to put events together with the coronavirus pandemic throwing everyone’s schedules into chaos. Not all managed to shine in these situations, but a few manufactured feel-good moments under extraordinarily difficult circumstances, including the names above.

For others like Hannah Cifers and Roosevelt Roberts, they proved to the UFC that they’re team players of the highest order even if the results were mixed. What losses mean for their futures is anybody’s guess, but for now officials at least owe them a minor debt of gratitude for stepping up and fighting with little care for their own plans.

Small cage, big highlights

Forget White’s assertion that the smaller cage at the APEX producing more exciting fights is “all an illusion.” Believe what you want, but the fact is that the past five weeks have produced enough highlights to last the UFC the rest of the year.

Who could forget UFC on ESPN 10 kicking off with three fights that all ended in under a minute? Julia Avila, Tyson Nam, Jamahal Hill, Chris Gutierrez, Alex Perez, and Tanner Boser walking their opponents down before scoring spectacular finishes? Josh Emmett and Shane Burgos looking pleased as punch that the APEX octagon encouraged them to throw down?

UFC Fight Night: Emmett v Burgos
Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC
Shane Burgos and Josh Emmett

Obviously, some of the highlights were due to unbalanced matchmaking as much as the actual skill of the winners, but that won’t matter to the UFC’s marketing team. White wants the UFC to be the leader in sports and entertainment with other leagues still trying to regain their footing and as it stands, his fighters continue to churn out viral clips for the world to see.

A headliner by any other name…

Even though we know that not all main events are created equal, it’s a fact that became more pronounced with a recent stretch of lackluster headliners.

Gilbert Burns dominating Tyron Woodley? Good for Burns, bad for viewers tuning in for a competitive fight. Amanda Nunes disposing of a gritty Felicia Spencer? Ditto. And for the casual fan, the less said about Cynthia Calvillo and Curtis Blaydes’ five-round wins the better.

This is not to take anything away from the fighters thrust into headlining positions. It just has to be noted that they probably were not the UFC’s first choice to close the show, but with so many precautions being taken due to COVID-19, beggars can’t be choosers (it should also be noted that even the much-maligned Eye-Calvillo headliner led cable ratings on its night).

Besides…

Wow them in the end and you’ve got a hit

UFC Fight Night: Poirier v Hooker
Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC
Dustin Poirier

Is there anyone that’s going to complain about the UFC being back after watching Dustin Poirer and Dan Hooker give it everything they’ve got for five rounds?

Look, nothing is topping Zhang Weili vs. Joanna Jedrzejczyk for Fight of the Year, but that fact that Poirier vs. Hooker and Emmett vs. Burgos are even in the discussion speaks to the depth of the UFC’s roster and gives White supporters some firepower in the debate of whether or not he should be holding events right now.

On paper, the UFC on ESPN 12 main event looked like an instant classic and in practice, it surpassed expectations. Top-shelf striking, skillful grappling, inhuman endurance, heart. The fight was the best that MMA has to offer.

Bring up the UFC APEX events a few months from now and no one is going to be lamenting the lack of buzz surrounding the main events leading up to the one that took place last night. Those disappointments are easily forgotten in the non-stop world of MMA, even more so when a shiny, blood-spattered bauble is dangled in front of us.

The serotonin injection from Saturday’s main event will linger in the minds of fans at least until “Fight Island” emerges from the depths in two weeks and that’s maybe the most important thing the UFC learned from its first APEX run. While being the only game in town doesn’t guarantee a flood of new viewers, the ones that have been here all along are here to stay as long as the matchmakers keep finding bodies to battle under that UFC banner.

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