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Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Crooke’s Cage: Q1 Grades for the UFC

Rachel Choi
Illustration Rachel Choi

While we all went home for some well-deserved rest after what felt like a hellish midterm season, the UFC continues to push on. As we approach UFC 300 (holy crap, that’s a lot of pay-per-views), it’s time for UFC fans to sit down and review what Uncle Dana White and company put on the table for the first quarter of 2024.

This article will also get a special twist on it—as most of our professors have probably graded midterms by now, I feel it’s necessary to invoke my not-exactly-real degree in understanding combat sports and give the UFC a midterm grade based on the quality of their pay-per-views, parity for all of the weight classes, booking decisions, as well as looking ahead into the summer for the UFC. Strap in, this might take a minute.

Section I: Divisional Parity

There can only be one (or two) champions at a time in a UFC weight division. This section will give a general overview of all the weight classes, their champions, and who may be next in line to challenge for twelve pounds of gold around their waist. There’s also the possibility that a division is being held “hostage,” where there is no clear challenger for a champion or if a champion is unwilling to defend their title.

To start, let’s discuss the heavyweight division. Jon Jones was supposed to defend his title against Stipe Miocic at UFC 295 in New York City, but the all-time great tore his pectoral muscle during training camp. This would force an interim heavyweight title bout to be created for Tom Aspinall and Sergei Pavlovich, a fight that Aspinall would win within 70 seconds via knockout. While Aspinall is currently looking for the inside line to Jones, “Bones” is not as keen on unifying the titles immediately. Jones wants that Miocic fight more than anything, and while the undisputed champ is out recovering, Aspinall must take charge and lead the division while we wait for a (hopeful) title unification bout down the line.

Suppose you’re interested in seeing what a division where most of its ranked fighters can lay claim to a title shot: look no further than the middleweight division. I’ve previously mentioned how it was likely the middleweight title would change hands often after Dricus du Plessis won the title this past January. With Sean Strickland calling for a rematch, the game of hot potato at middleweight looks to continue throughout the rest of the year.

Consistency is great for a division, and a division that’s very good at having parity while still having long-standing champions is none other than the men’s bantamweight division. The latest title challenge for the 135-pound crowd came at UFC 299 in Miami, where Sean O’Malley would make his first title defense by absolutely mauling Marlon “Chito” Vera for five rounds, earning two 50-45 scores and a 50-44 in what is seen as a striking masterclass from O’Malley, but also a showcase of toughness from Vera. Merab Dvalishvili looks to be the next man to challenge for the belt, but with O’Malley’s callout of Topuria for a possible champ-versus-champ matchup and the recovery time for such a brutal fight, this fight could be several months away at the minimum.

Another division that’s recently seen a massive shakeup is the women’s bantamweight division—at least the aftershocks. Amanda Nunes retired as the UFC Bantamweight Champion in the women’s division this past June, leaving a statement with a dominant performance against Irene Aldana. While the division’s crown remained vacant until January, Raquel Pennington and Mayra Bueno Silva would go at it for five rounds, with Pennington showing the grit of a seasoned veteran, which was more than enough to knock off Bueno Silva. In a performance that showed flashes of Nunes’ previous reign, it’s a safe bet that Pennington will be the current dominant force at 135, and with Julianna Pena waiting in the wings, there’s a good chance of that.

Overall Grade: B+

Most of the divisions right now are in stable condition or have recently seen new champions, mainly in the form of Raquel Pennington succeeding Amanda Nunes as the women’s bantamweight champ. With Pennington, Topuria, and Du Plessis, divisional shakeups may happen but the foundations remain stable.

Section II: Booking

As I was working on this, the UFC decided to book a flyweight title fight at UFC 301 between Alexandre Pantoja and … 10th-ranked Steve Erceg?

Let me clarify this by saying that the flyweight division is in a mild state of chaos, stemming back to Demetrious Johnson’s title reign through the 2010s. For Pantoja, almost every top-5 flyweight has faced the champ already. Brandon Royval and Moreno have both had two official fights against Pantoja, with both losing their title fights against the champ. Kai Kara-France is coming off back-to-back losses to Moreno and Amir Albazi, the former being for the interim title. Albazi is the only fighter who hasn’t challenged Pantoja, and given that Albazi’s last fight was in June of last year, the question becomes why Erceg and not Albazi?

While the details of the negotiations and the viability of this decision are in question, the UFC has also managed to make incredible cards to kick off the year—case in point: the booking for UFC 299 and UFC 300. UFC 299 featured the debuts of standout heavyweight kickboxer Robellis Despaigne and former Bellator contender Michael “Venom” Page, and they were just the appetizers. Dustin Poirier was booked to face French standout Benoit Saint-Denis and O’Malley got his “champion’s choice” fight for his first title defense, which allowed narratives to build—the only guy to beat O’Malley is the previously aforementioned Vera, and Poirier was coming off of a devastating knockout loss to Justin Gaethje for the BMF belt. 

Speaking of narratives and Gaethje, he’s scheduled to defend his claim as the UFC’s “baddest motherf***er” against another bad man in former featherweight champ Max Holloway, and Alex Pereira will try to avenge his mentor, Glover Texeira, in a light heavyweight title fight against the man who beat Teixeira–Jamahal Hill. Zhang Weili and Yan Xiaonan face off in the first all-China title fight in the UFC. If you can’t see the globalization of the world’s biggest MMA brand, it’s likely because this is one that’s happened quietly with the UFC’s semi-underground status.

Overall Grade: C+ (With A Massive Asterisk)

It’s hard to say there’s anything inherently wrong with the booking that White and company have been putting out, but a title fight between a champ and a number ten-ranked contender is a massive head-scratcher, a mild cost of rationality to be an MMA fan. I don’t get paid to book the fights. The only reason there is an asterisk is due to the possibility of fights being negotiated for the summer, as announcements usually happen between eight and ten weeks before the show.

Section III: Down the Road

The bad idea about having loaded cards back-to-back is that many of the big names in all divisions will be out of action for months at the minimum—that’s just how it is. One of UFC 300’s big marketing plays is their twelve current or former champions on the card—yes, twelve. There is a small issue in that this can end up depleting the remainder of divisions of massive fights while leaving the UFC with plenty of open co-main and main event slots.

With Conor McGregor as wish-washy as ever when it comes to his incredibly delayed fight with Michael Chandler, there’s no guarantee that the matchup could become the first time coaches from The Ultimate Fighter haven’t fought. With Alexa Grasso and Valentina Shevchenko announced as the coaches for TUF 32, the show that saved the UFC may be undermined by the man who brought the brand back to the global spotlight, a chilling dose of irony and hubris that could have long-term implications not only for the fighters and fans, but also for the executives at TKO group.

Overall Grade: B-

Besides the McGregor wild card, it’s hard to see what else is in the future outside of the aforementioned TUF season, Grasso-Shevchenko 3, and Jones defending or unifying the title against Miocic and Aspinall, respectively. This grade will improve when pen hits paper for McGregor-Chandler, and it better be during International Fight Week at UFC 303 in late June. 300 was a can’t-miss opportunity for iron and notoriety to clash, but I can wait ‘til June.

The UFC has to, and I mean has to make sure that McGregor and Jones fight this year. The promotion’s biggest names not seeing much action during an anniversary year, even if the factors are in or out of their control, could hurt the bottom line for the leader in combat sports in the long run. 

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About the Contributor
Aidan Crooke
Aidan Crooke, Staff Writer, Sports
Aidan Crooke (he/him) is a sophomore sports communications major hailing from Lenoir, North Carolina. Crooke's work focuses on the UFC, NBA, and NFL, mainly in his work with Crooke's Cage. Outside of the Beacon, he can likely be found at a MMA gym or being an active member of Emerson Esports.

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