In the past seven days we were reminded that every momentous occasion in MMA comes with a kind of karmic tax. Since UFC 217 played out to great wonderment just a week ago — a card that has been called the greatest of all time by a good many tempters of fate — MMA’s celestial governors have been busy smiting us in new and inventive ways. Frankie Edgar was forced out of his featherweight title with Max Holloway for UFC 218, and then (once again) Dominick Cruz was forced out of his bantamweight fight with Jimmie Rivera. That’s enough, right? Oh no, no, no — those governors weren’t nearly done.
Anderson Silva — who headlines the UFC’s inaugural visit to mainland China —popped (once again) on a USADA test, and was pulled from his fight with Kelvin Gastelum. On the same day, Conor McGregor made his Bellator debut in the way that a burglar might make a debut at your house — he broke in. He scaled the fence and tackled his victorious SBG teammate Charlie Ward, before turning a set of black pupils on referee Marc Goddard for having the temerity to tell him to get out. Oh, and he slapped a Bellator official en-route, as a spoiled child might slap a nanny for raising her voice. What could counterbalance an epic event better than Conor McGregor coming apart at the seams?
Such was the lead-up and backdrop for Saturday night’s UFC Fight Night Norfolk, a card that kind of distilled the ying-yang aspect of all of the above. It was a great card, ultimately, with plenty of finishes (four of six on the main card didn’t need judges), and yet there was a sad violin playing behind it all. Dustin Poirier finally emerged as a true contender at lightweight and showed that his mic skills have come along as well, stating — altogether matter-of-factly — that he plans to A) fight the winner of Justin Gaethje-Eddie Alvarez and then B) fight for a title.
Yet it that main event was the ultimate fall of Anthony Pettis, too, who had returned to lightweight and what he hoped would be championship form. A rib injury forced him Pettis tap, somewhat anticlimactically. He’s now lost five of his last seven fights since showing up on the Wheaties box holding the belt back in late 2014. How swift and cruel the fates in MMA are. One minute up here; the next down there.
The Norfolk card was set up as an antique shop, full of colorful relics from a bygone day — a bunch of fight veterans performing on Veteran’s Day. Matt Brown originally said he was going to retire after his fight with Diego Sanchez, but before even traded a punch with the TUF 1 winner he’d all but come down from that declaration. The lasting image was that of Sanchez, though, crumpling over his own weight and folding on the canvas after a measured-out, completely telegraphed elbow from Brown. That whole sequence struck a chord. How many more times do we need to see Sanchez taking that kind of punishment?
The UFC, for anyone who has been watching since at least the mid-aughts, is in some ways a carousel of old friendly names, commonly being pitted against each other. The Sanchez’s and Browns, the Clay Guidas and the Joe Lauzons, perpetual contender flirts we’ve seen compete so many times that never fail to make a card feel familiar. Each time one of them gets dialed up, the “warrior status” spikes right along with the “wince factor.” At some point, it’s hard not to skew towards the latter. The same thing happened with Lauzon, a bonus-hoarder who found himself being gored by the Tasmanian devil Guida on Saturday, somewhat surprisingly. It was a great win for Guida — his first KO since 2008 — yet kind of hard to watch from the Lauzon perspective.
How many more times do we need to see J-Lau wearing his own blood, so nobly and full of wonder of how it got there?
One of the “wince/warrior” fighters who was also teetering on retirement beforehand was Andrei Arlovski, who found himself standing in there against a Brazilian Bam Bam. Junior Albini fought Arlovski while wearing — for all intents and purposes — a Reebok diaper, which plays to a wholly different kind of fetish than fight aficionados are used to. Yet he couldn’t knock Arlovski out, or even beat him. Arlvoski, who had lost five straight coming in, prevailed on the scorecards, saying afterwards that he had a couple of years of fighting left in him. There weren’t many party horns sounding off when he said it.
Still, it was a name-filled card that resulted in a good night of fights, with Sage Northcutt showing up in his best form to date and Marlon Moraes picking up a win over John Dodson. Who would have thought that the criminally underrated Raphael Assuncao — who had only a single TKO going back to his WEC days in 2009 — would knockout Matthew Lopez with that punch? Or that right as Matt Brown threw the elbow to evaporate Sanchez the Fox Sports 1 feed would cut to an empty press conference room? Or that Michael Bisping, who fought on that good-vibes UFC 217 card, would be announced as the stand-in for Silva against Gastelum?
It’s been just that kind of week in MMA, and Norfolk just played right along.