UFC 199 was stacked with moments that reminded me why I love MMA. Michael Bisping's championship win. Dan Henderson's age-defying comeback KO of Hector Lombard. The last 10 seconds of Max Holloway vs Ricardo Lamas. Shame the UFC had to mar it by being a petty wreck of an organisation. Images via Getty.
It's a storybook event whose best chapters have been ignored in favour of the UFC's latest bout of organisational paranoia. In between the night's fights, the UFC officially announced that Brock Lesnar is returning to MMA for a one-off fight next month. It was quite a surprise, given that Lesnar was thought to have abandoned authentic man-punching entirely when he picked the WWE as his 360kg gorilla dance partner last year.
Some people, however, knew the announcement was coming, because a longtime MMA journalist named Ariel Helwani worked his sources and got the scoop ever so slightly ahead of time. For the crime of — SWEET MERCIFUL FEDOR FORBID — reporting the news, Helwani and two other MMAFighting.com staff members were ejected from the event and barred from attending future UFC productions as media. Permanently.
Here are some other things that happened on Saturday night:
1) Dan Henderson, a 45-year-old fan favourite who moves like a reanimated cadaver craving the sweet release of death, managed to knock out the comparatively youthful Hector Lombard. Leading up to the fight, everybody was expecting a slaughter. "Hendo" has been a shell of his granite-chinned former self for the past few years, but he's soldiered on despite fans fearing for his health. Meanwhile, Lombard is a musclebound monster man known for his thunderous punching power. I shook a Magic Eight Ball before the fight. It said, "This is gonna be ugly. Oh gosh, I think I'm gonna be sick." Then it puked all over my floor.
At first, it looked like we'd all been complicit in punching Dan Henderson's ticket to the afterlife. He plodded in with his signature right hand — which fans have affectionately nicknamed The H-Bomb — cocked, and got cracked and clobbered. But then he nailed Lombard with a big shot of his own, and the nausea maggots in the pit of my stomach jumped a rung on the evolutionary ladder to become butterflies. Then Lombard rallied with a series of massive shots, and that familiar sick feeling began to set in.
But it wasn't over! Old Man Dan hobbled away from round one, only to come back in round two and knock Lombard every imaginable kind of fuck out. He wobbled him with a head kick and then finished the job with a crafty-arse standing elbow. When Lombard hit the ground, he was out cold. The crowd went bonkers. I cheered at my TV screen. My Magic Eight Ball wept with glee. Afterward, Henderson confessed that he might've fought his last fight. If so, it was a hell of a way to go out. A legendary ending to a legendary career.
2) After three hard rounds, 66kg heir apparent Max Holloway was way ahead on the scorecards against the always-game Ricardo Lamas. Graceful punching technique and sharp movement gave him his lead, so what'd he do? He approached Lamas and pointed at the ground. Lamas immediately understood the gesture. Both then planted their feet and winged the biggest, ugliest punches they possibly could. For the fight's remaining 10 seconds, it was Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots. Any single punch could've sent the other to the canvas.
It was insane by definition. Holloway didn't need to do that. He had the fight in the bag. It was blind, stupid machismo, a tactical misfire that could've cost him his hard-earned nine-fight win streak. But it was so dang cool. I imagine I'll remember that moment for years to come.
3) Michael Bisping, the UFC's stalwart British star who'd accomplished everything short of receiving a title shot in his decade-long UFC career, finally got one. And goodness gracious, did he ever make good on it.
After years of falling heartbreakingly short in big fights, the 37-year-old smartly dissected champ Luke Rockhold's style and beat him with his own go-to weapon: The counter hook. Bisping did this on two weeks' notice, having taken the fight after former champ Chris Weidman was forced to drop out with an injury. He did this against a guy, Rockhold, who obliterated him in two rounds the last time they fought. He did this after fighting and beating the man once regarded as the greatest fighter of all time, Anderson Silva, a few months ago. What a comeback.
The modern Michael Bisping is a far cry from the thin-skinned trash talker of UFCs long past. These days, he's damn near likeable (I dare you not to crack a smile while watching him be a Cool Dad), which makes this win all the sweeter. No, he hasn't exactly been graceful in defeat, but as far as MMA storylines go, this one's about as feel-good as it gets. For years, Michael Bisping's best quality was his unyielding persistence — faith in himself that remained even after everyone else (his own toddler son included) wrote him off. In the twilight of his career, it paid off. He's finally a champion.
And that's to say nothing of Dominick Cruz's dominating performance against Urijah Faber — which finally put an end to a longtime rivalry — or young gun Dustin Poirier's excellent KO of Bobby Green.
All of those things happened in a single night. But so did the UFC's heavy handed treatment of media. There's a storyline there, too. The journalist in question, Ariel Helwani, used to do work for UFC broadcast partner FOX. He appeared on UFC talkshows, conducted UFC interviews and was a mainstay at events. Then, in the wake of an interview with 77kg rising star Rory MacDonald in which they briefly discussed the prospect of MacDonald not re-signing with the UFC, his gig at FOX was suddenly over. Apparently the interview was the last straw because Helwani acknowledged the idea of free agency, that a fighter could conceivably do business with an organisation that's not the UFC.
The UFC has a history of both trying to control media through access and burning longtime allies when they don't dance exactly the way UFC brass wants. Banning Helwani and co now stands as the most visible example of both those nasty tendencies, and people are rightly up in arms about it. As Helwani later pointed out, he wasn't even doing stuff that really hurt the UFC. "I'm almost embarrassed because people are saying, 'You're standing up for journalism'," he told Yahoo Sports. "I'm not doing any great investigative journalism here. This is not ground-breaking stuff. I'm not going to win a Pulitzer for this."
But as we've learned time and time again, what the UFC wants, the UFC gets. If you're not in lockstep with that, fuck you. Beloved cutman tries to speak up about an unfair pay cut? Fuck him. Conor McGregor asks for a slightly lighter promotional schedule in a way that might make his next fight even bigger and more interesting? Fuck him. Journalists try to be UFC mouthpieces slightly less than 100 per cent of the time? Fuck them.
But in each of those cases (the latter two, especially) mainstream conversation ultimately shifted toward the UFC's shitty policies, toward organisational corruption that simply can't be ignored. This time, one of the best UFC events in years got overshadowed, and the sport continues to look like it's run by petty arseholes who rule through intimidation. Between this and other incidents of more obvious corruption, it's becoming harder and harder not to question what we're seeing when we watch UFC cards. Are we getting the real story?
What a terrible, unnecessary outcome, especially over such a small infraction.
It gets worse. Since the incident at UFC 199, Helwani has confessed to tremendously unethical behaviour that was enabled by the UFC. Despite the fact that his main job was at MMAFighting, a news site independent of the UFC, he claims he was receiving paychecks for his part-time FOX gig signed by Zuffa, the UFC's parent company. He's also said he got direct permission from UFC president Dana White to pursue scoops, and he would frequently ask UFC fighters if certain questions were OK before asking them in interviews. It's all a very, very bad look for MMA, a sport that's struggled mightily to be taken seriously over the years.
The worst part? Even after all this, I don't imagine the UFC is in a big hurry to change. The money keeps coming in, and the fighters and press stick around because they don't have much in the way of better options. Unlike the fight stories at UFC 199 — with their dramatic twists and satisfying conclusions, now overshadowed — I sincerely doubt we've heard the last of this one.