UFC 203 | Exciting For All The Right Reasons (Review)

Written By: Josh Hemeon

   As much as I will thoroughly enjoy teasing my co-hosts tonight on The Midnight Drive-Thru live on Mixlr, I can’t help but feel a little conflicted. Those of you who have read my previous work on the UFC are well aware of the ongoing battle in the MMA community of whether MMA should primarily be a sport or sports-entertainment. All the MMA purists that say MMA should be a sport first were vindicated last night as CM Punk was utterly dominated by relatively unknown UFC newcomer Mickey Gall. This fight took place third from the top of the main card. Gall alluded in the post-fight press conference that he felt he did not deserve to be following UFC veterans Jimmie Rivera and Urijah Faber on the main card. While this view is certainly not without merit, the MMA purist in me is ashamed to admit my own excitement and anticipation for Punk’s debut bout.

To recap, UFC 203 had a solid main card. Starting with strawweight bouts, all 5’2” of Jessica Andrade finished Joanna Calderwood by guillotine choke in the first round after repeatedly slamming the bigger fighter and dominating her on the ground. Next came a lackluster performance by bantamweights Urijah Faber and Jimmie Rivera which consisted of mostly standup exchanges outside of the pocket. Rivera out landed Faber coasting to a lopsided decision, the only noteworthy aspects were Faber’s fouls (one groin kick and one eye gouge, both most likely unintentional). Then came the highly anticipated MMA debut of former WWE superstar CM Punk against UFC newcomer Mickey Gall. Punk looked to come out swinging only to be immediately taken down by Gall, who transitioned easily to mount and then to back mount. Gall proceeded to viciously ground-and-pound Punk while looking for a choke. Punk absorbed many strikes while defending several choke attempts before Gall successfully locked in a rear-naked choke forcing Punk to tap out 2:14 into the first round.

Then came the heavyweight contenders, former champion Fabricio Werdum won a unanimous decision against Rhonda Rousey’s boyfriend, Travis Browne. Werdum came out with flashy flying kicks before Browne broke his finger. This resulted in Browne attempting to call time-out (there are no time-outs in MMA) and the referee did not stop time allowing for Werdum to land several shots with Browne’s guard down. Browne, unable to attack with his signature right hand, was out-struck by the former champion giving Werdum a lopsided victory. Perhaps the biggest highlight is Browne’s coach Edmond Tarverdyan exchanging words with Werdum after the fight leading to Werdum push-kicking Tarverdyan. Werdum also taunted the booing crowd making cry-baby gestures. As of yet, there is no fallout for the post-fight scuffle, but this may change. When asked about the altercation and whether he had regretted his actions, Werdum noted Tarverdyan’s aggression and Tarverdyan calling him a motherfucker and claimed he push-kicked him to keep distance also adding “You never talk about my mom!” Beautiful!

Finally, the main event for the UFC Heavyweight Championship between newly crowned champion Stipe Miocic and challenger Alistair Overeem. Overeem fought an uncharacteristically cautious fight against the champion. Overeem was able to drop the Miocic with a right hand and followed up with a guillotine choke. However, the champion was able to weather the storm and used his boxing to hurt Overeem before securing a takedown late in the first round and landing several ground punches that knocked out the challenger. Miocic celebrated in front of his hometown crowd in Cleveland, Ohio, raising the belt and playing to the crowd. Overeem claimed Miocic tapped to his guillotine choke but the replay clearly revealed there was no tap.

All in all UFC 203 was a very interesting and chaotic night. Andrade’s attempted powerbomb, Faber’s fouls, Gall’s domination of Punk, Werdum’s flying head kick and post-fight antics, and finally a stiff KO and a protested finish. There was lots of excitement and controversy on the card aside from CM Punk’s unsuccessful debut. This leads me back to the question of what the UFC should look for in terms of booking fights.

While Diaz/McGregor II proved to be an excellent fight in spite of the fact that it made absolutely no sense from a sports/ranking perspective, CM Punk’s debut was more reminiscent of Randy Couture vs James Toney at UFC 118. For those fans newer to UFC, Randy Couture is a former two-time UFC Light-heavyweight Champion, a three-time UFC Heavyweight Champion and UFC Hall of Fame inductee. James Toney is a former world champion professional boxer with titles in three different weight classes. Toney had insulted MMA and the UFC repeatedly and boasted he could beat any UFC fighter. Putting Toney against Couture was essentially feeding him to the lions and Toney was quickly submitted in the first round. CM Punk’s venture into the UFC is even more implausible than Toney’s given Toney’s professional boxing background. So why was it that we entertained the thought that Punk’s UFC debut could be any different?

Going into his match against Mickey Gall, CM Punk had no amateur MMA fights, no amateur boxing background, no amateur wrestling background, and no amateur jiu-jitsu background. This fight played out exactly how it should have. While fans of professional wrestling are well-versed in the suspension of disbelief, I can see why many were especially willing to believe in CM Punk in spite of the overwhelming odds. Punk was training at a reputable MMA gym, had financial resources, and perhaps the most compelling: he had the support of the UFC. While Toney badmouthed his way into the octagon, Punk was offered the opportunity by the UFC. Additionally, Punk’s opponent was relatively realistic in comparison to Toney’s. While a UFC fighter of any caliber is hardly a fair fight against someone who has never fought in their life, I think any MMA fan would agree that Gall would likely be dominated in a similar fashion by welterweight elites such as Tyron Woodley, Stephen Thompson or Demian Maia. Nevertheless, in an age of UFC where box office is valued greater than the athletic competition and MMA’s few top stars appear to receive favorable treatment from UFC booking, it seemed like Punk just might stand a chance.

Mixed-martial arts is currently split between two basic groups of fans: MMA purists and casual fans. MMA purists are those who are knowledgeable of striking, wrestling, and/or jiu-jitsu and like to analyze fights and compare match-ups, much like your typical armchair quarterback NFL fans. Casual fans are a lot more like WWE fans, mostly in it for the pre-fight drama and big spots (KOs, slams, etc.).  Attracting casual fans usually take precedent in the business sense because the purists are going to be there either way. It is ironic that all of the unexpected twists, fighter drama, and amazing spots were found everywhere else on the card. Punk was outclassed, he and Gall embraced in the octagon showing the typical fighter respect and then that was it. Aside from Faber/Rivera, the rest of the main card was what WWE fans would call one big spot-fest with dramatic slams, flying kicks, and a devastating knockout. The main and co-main event both had post-fight drama as well. All of these things happened organically without any apparent encouragement from the UFC.

It is unclear whether or not the UFC will continue with these freak show style matchups after UFC 203. On the heels of Brock Lesnar’s anti-doping violation and CM Punk’s embarrassing performance, I doubt the UFC will be jumping to sign any WWE alumni anytime soon. As for Punk, despite him vying to continue his MMA journey, early reports suggest that UFC President Dana White is not interested continuing this storyline, not at the UFC level at least. It is unfortunate that the story of UFC 203 will likely revolve around Punk’s failures. I, for one, would much rather focus on the rise of Jessica Andrade at strawweight and the superstar performance from Stipe Miocic who at this rate may become the greatest UFC Heavyweight Champion of all time. Nevertheless, I doubt my co-hosts are going to indulge me in my praise of legitimate MMA fighters tonight!