For a little while, UFC 200 seemed cursed. The "best card ever" lost its original main event to a squabble between Conor McGregor and the UFC. Then, two days before the big show, Jon Jones got busted for a doping violation, scrapping yet another main event and sending the UFC scrambling.
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Don't get me wrong: UFC 200 was still stacked top-to-bottom. But each time the UFC's hyperbole-and-buzz-word-fuelled marketing machine reached a fever pitch, somebody chucked a wrench into its sputtering innards. Drama, thick and viscous, seeped from the goddamn walls. As marquee fights got canceled, rumours of a UFC sale flew, and the UFC tried to swat them down with its usual anti-media viciousness. Even at the very, very last second, then-women's bantamweight champ Miesha Tate nearly missed the weigh-ins, which would have led to a third fucking main event cancellation. I imagine UFC president/skeezbag-in-chief Dana White was sweating bullshit. Bullets. I mean bullets.
Even taken in conjunction with all the garbage that's increasingly associated with the UFC as an organisation, however, UFC 200 delivered. In fact, I would argue that it was better for having weathered an incomprehensible trash avalanche.
It could've been a disaster. The UFC was in large part hedging its bets on last-second replacement Anderson Silva, a decidedly aged legend recovering from gallbladder surgery who decided to take the fight against light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier on two days' notice because, no shit, he was gonna be in town anyway and the UFC didn't have any better options.
The UFC was also counting on Brock Lesnar, a WWE import who hadn't had an MMA fight in five years, to actually, you know, fight. Meanwhile, there were ample questions about the mental and physical states of ex-champs Cain Velasquez and Jose Aldo, both making comebacks from brutal losses. Also Miesha Tate was seeing a very bad hypnotherapist in the lead up to her fight, and that never bodes well for anyone (except the very bad hypnotherapist).
And yet, UFC 200's main card included a bit of everything that makes the UFC such an impossible-to-look-away-from toilet explosion spectacle. Some of the fights had snoozer moments, but they were laden with interesting stories and momentum shifts. Former heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez returned to dominance in part thanks to absurd spin kicks that 109kg monster men should not be able to throw, lest they risk decapitating a mountain.
Former featherweight champ Jose Aldo looked like his phenomenal old self against a gritty Frankie Edgar, blending his preposterous speed, timing, and athleticism with smoother movement than we've ever seen from him. This was a far cry from the anxious, jittery headcase who got KOed by Conor McGregor in 13 seconds.
All the while McGregor stood cage-side, cocky grin a ghost of a memory as a deathly serious glare possessed his features.
In one of the night's best moments, Anderson Silva — creaky and out-of-shape after hardly training at all for months — gave everything he had against wrestle grinder muffin man Daniel Cormier. Cormier, in peak condition for his originally scheduled fight against Jon Jones, ultimately won, but Silva had some seriously excellent moments when Cormier, forever unable to resist an opportunity to Prove Himself, decided to throw hands with the striking mastermind. Silva even had Cormier in serious danger in the waning moments of round three with a body kick that made Cormier wince like somebody fired a nail gun into his side.
Afterward, Silva and Cormier hugged and smooched it out in a heartening moment of mutual respect, and a clearly emotional Silva got down on his knees in the center of the octagon and thanked the crowd for supporting him. Later, at a post-event press conference, Silva broke down in tears, saying, "I've never fought for money. I don't expect anything. This is the air I breathe. This is what I love to do." It was a perfect portrait of a legend near the end of his career. He knows his days are numbered, but he's gonna fight his heart out until the bitter end.
After Cormier and Silva had their tilt, Brock Lesnar nearly caused the cage to physically tilt into the earth with his impossible-arse frame, which best resembles a turducken, except stuffed with three silverback gorillas. This was his return battle after years away from the sport. He said he came back because last time around, his career was cut short by a debilitating intestinal disease. He wanted to silence whatever doubts were left in the ham hock he calls a noggin. On paper, his opponent, perhaps the hardest puncher in the whole UFC, Mark Hunt, was a nightmare match-up for the notoriously punch-averse Lesnar. Meanwhile, Lesnar arrived shrouded in questions. Who would he be? A rejuvenated giant, or a shell of a shell of his former self?
Lesnar did not, strictly speaking, fight against Mark Hunt, so much as he avoided punching engagements like the plague and waited for perfect bull rush takedown moments. On one hand, the fight had some embarrassing bits, mostly involving Lesnar turtling in pants-pissing terror any time Hunt so much as flicked a wrist.
But it was also weirdly thrilling, a sort of throwback to the grappler-vs-striker fights of ancient underground UFC competitions prior to the "mixed" part of mixed martial arts, paired with Lesnar's inherent freakshow appeal. Lesnar was constantly just outside the perimeter of Hunt's punches, and every time they clashed, there was a very real chance he was gonna get bodied.
Ultimately, Lesnar survived and got the W. Now questions soar surrounding a different W, one followed by the letters WE. Will Brock Lesnar continue fighting MMA, or was this just a one-off to quell some personal demons? If he chooses to do so, how will the WWE react? The very fact that Lesnar wriggled out of contractual obligations to take a surprise UFC fight means he's probably got the bargaining power to render their concerns moot, but I suppose we'll see.
UFC 200's main event saw a new star rise as the UFC's plans came crashing down to Earth, through it, and into the portion of hell where good intentions and idiotic schemes share regretful tales next to lakes of fire. Amanda Nunes was supposed to be a gimme fight for then-champion Miesha Tate. Earlier this year, Tate pulled off a stunning submission finish against Holly Holm, the woman who sent Ronda Rousey to The Land Of No Apples with a dream-shattering head kick. The UFC pretty clearly wanted Tate to take this one, and then rematch either Holm or Rousey in a title fight that would assuredly do gangbusters.
They were stupid to use Nunes, a sharp and vicious striker known for strong opening rounds, as a pawn in this plan. To the UFC's credit, they did the right thing by promoting the only actual championship fight on the card to main event status. However, Nunes battered and bloodied a typically porous Tate en route to a nasty first round finish. Tate was never even in the fight. It was a beatdown.
After the fight, Nunes wept from the top of the goddamn world. She screamed her lungs out, because what else do you do when you just beat the shit out of both another human being and the odds to achieve your dream in the main event of one of the biggest UFC cards ever? She gave a great post-fight speech, too, thanking her sister (who was in the crowd) for always believing in her. She's also the UFC's first openly gay champion and, for now, the only Brazilian UFC champ, all of which is pretty badass.
The whole moment was UFC 200 in a nutshell. Originally, Nunes and Tate's fight wasn't gonna be the main event. Before Jon Jones forced the UFC to once against reshuffle the card, they were set to be overshadowed by Aldo vs Edgar, Lesnar vs Hunt, and Cormier vs Jones. In the end, however, an unheralded challenger took center stage, dashed the UFC's plans, and stole the show.
UFC 200 might not have been everything it was supposed to be, but I don't watch the UFC for perfectly packaged cards where everything goes to plan. I watch for unexpected moments, for flaws and chaos and glimpses of humanity beneath the glossy sheen. I'm not sure if UFC 200 will age particularly well, but right now, in this particular moment, it's an encapsulation of everything UFC — drama, organizational incompetence, and all. I'm not sure we could've asked for much better from "the best card ever."