Saturday night’s UFC Mexico was rolling along just fine until the main event. Then, everything just unraveled.
The top spot pitted No. 7 ranked featherweight Yair Rodriguez (11-2, 1 no contest) against No. 8 ranked Jeremy Stephens. On paper, it looked like a great action fight. With a history of exciting bouts, Stephens could headline a show even with a 28-16, 1 no-contest record that doesn’t read like a main event or top-ten fighter. Stephens also has had big wins over the likes of Doo Ho Choi, Gilbert Melendez and Renan Barao.
Meanwhile, Rodriguez’s bout against “The Korean Zombie” Chan Sung Jung was the kind of fight that could some day end up in the UFC Hall of Fame given the incredible elbow knockout he pulled off at the buzzer. He came into the fight with clear momentum.
Of course, the fight barely happened. Rodriguez’s fingers ended up in Stephens’ eyes, and the fight was stopped in 15 seconds. The spectators understandably were disappointed. But really, the reaction wasn’t disappointment. It was fury.
With bottles, cups and liquids flying everywhere – into the cage, onto spectators, over ringside officials – it was an ugly scene unlike any UFC show in recent memory.
It was so bad, it begs the question: Is it worth it to run a show in Mexico City? It’s already a tough venue for fighters, particularly undercard combatants who aren’t paid much. Mexico City is probably best known in UFC history for Cain Velasquez, the heavyweight with the legendary gas tank, losing the championship to Fabricio Werdum after altitude robbed him of his vaunted stamina. Werdum had spent months in country to get his body acclimated. Velasquez did not. So it became a must that if fighters were booked in Mexico City, they needed to go to Mexico and train at high altitude for one month or longer, something undercard fighters couldn’t readily afford.
While no crowd would react well to a main event not happening, few crowds have reacted in such an ugly manner.
The crowd already was unhappy that Alexa Grasso, who’d been heavily promoted on Mexican television leading up to the show, dropped a majority decision to Carla Esparza. Grasso looked strong in the third round, enough to get a 10-8 from one judge, leading to one draw scorecard. But it was clear Esparza won rounds one and two with her wrestling game. Realistically, the best Grasso could have hoped for was a draw given her 10-8 third round. But she only got that score from one of three judges. Esparza said beer was thrown on her as she left the cage for the dressing room.
After the fight was called and the fans were calmed down, things only got worse. Rodriguez claimed Stephens used the eye injury to get out of the fight, even though it was clear Stephens couldn’t open his left eye and there was no way he could continue. The claim made Rodriguez look bad. Stephens’ was clearly not an intentional, and claiming someone – let alone a fighter of his reputation – would fake an injury to get out of a fight he had trained so hard for was clearly preposterous. It was worse that it was Rodriguez’s act that led to the fight not taking place, even if it was an accident.
Then came word that the two had another incident in the hotel after the fight, footage of which came to light on Tuesday. The footage showed Stephens shoving Rodriguez and both men calling each other gay slurs and swearing up a storm. While the idea of a heated confrontation can be used to build a rematch, UFC has come under fire for fighters using gay slurs in the past. It wasn’t a good look for either fighter.
Then again, the promotion set a pay-per-view record when it built UFC 229 promos around Conor McGregor’s infamous bus attack, so all of this could create far more interest in a rematch.
It took the UFC a long time to break into Mexico. Dana White and the Fertittas had coveted the market from the start because of the boxing’s success in the country. There were issues that kept them from out for years. When Velasquez won the UFC title and Mexican television for his bout with Brock Lesnar in 2010 went through the roof, he was established as a hero in the market. A big show in Mexico looked like an easy winner. Yet it didn’t happen until UFC 180 on November 15, 2014. The event was a huge immediate sellout.
Still, the first show had bad luck. Velasquez got injured three weeks before his fight with Werdum. The second show, less than one year later at UFC 188, was the show that established the lesson that you have to prepare for Mexico City’s altitude – no matter how strong your sea-level conditioning. Then the market cooled off, and UFC had only promoted five events before Saturday with the last coming in 2017.
Of course, it makes no sense to pull out of a market like Mexico City because of a bad fan reaction from very unique circumstances. But with demand for events so high around the world, this probably didn’t do Mexico City any favors regarding a quick return.
Let’s look at how Fortunes Changed for Five – well, in this case, six – stars of Saturday’s show.
JEREMY STEPHENS & YAIR RODRGUEZ – For now, it’s hard not to link the two together. The fight made sense without a grudge aspect or storyline. It’s a fight that sounds exciting on paper, and the two are ranked right next to one another. Now it has those elements as well. There’s no other fighter either could face right now that would have nearly the interest level. For fans, they probably want to see it sooner than letter after all the publicity of this past week. So it really just depends on Stephens’ eye recovering fully and then giving both men enough time to get ready.
CARLA ESPARZA – Esparza, the company’s first-ever strawweight champion (15-6), was the winner over a top-10 ranked opponent, but it was close. Really, if no other option came around, you could do the fight again. But for now, Esparza would make a good opponent for Tatiana Suarez (8-0), provided Suarez’s long-running neck injury is healed, and Suarez isn’t picked for a title fight with Weili Zhang next. Another opponent Esparza could next face is Nina Ansaroff (10-6).
ALEXA GRASSO – Esparza would really be the best fight for her going forward, but that’s unlikely to happen right away. Marina Rodriguez (12-0-1) would make a good next opponent for the division, as it would give Rodriguez a chance to face another name opponent after her wins over Jessica Aguilar and Tecia Torres. On the other hand, it would give Grasso a win that would move her past her loss.
BRANDON MORENO – Moreno (15-5-1), who headlined the previous time UFC came to Mexico City, suffered a decision loss to Sergio Pettis. He also had a close fight, a draw with Askar Askarov (10-0-1). Askarov won the first round, and Moreno won round three strong. Round two saw Askarov get takedowns and a positioning edge, but Moreno dropped him late with a head kick.
Being up on 92 percent of media scores, Moreno probably deserved round two, and thus, the fight. He should get the higher ranked next opponent. But with the draw you could conceivably run this one back right away. If not, a good opponent for Moreno is Rogerio Bontorin (16-1).
After a loss to Alexandre Pantoja, now a top title contender, Moreno was one of the biggest casualties in star power when UFC looked at dropping the flyweight division. He was cut, and when plans changed, was brought back. He could still be a big draw for the promotion.
ASKAR ASKAROV – After a draw with a ranked opponent, the previously unbeaten fighter could face Kai Kara France (20-7) next, if not Moreno.