17 MMA thoughts, including why the Cyborg-UFC feud needs to end


It’s Monday, time for another edition of Ariel Helwani’s MMA Show, which airs live starting at 1 p.m. ET on Twitter and YouTube. After it ends, you can listen to the show via the ESPN podcast center.


I hope you got the fuzzy feelings of a Max Holloway fight week out of the way, because here comes Colby-mania! That’s right, arguably MMA’s most polarizing fighter is finally back this weekend against Robbie Lawler.

Covington hasn’t fought since June 2018, but it honestly feels longer than that. He’s going to bring the heat this week to make up for lost time, feelings be damned. I’m curious to see how it all plays out in Newark, New Jersey.

But first, here are some random thoughts on the week that was in MMA:

1. I always feel like I leave a Max Holloway fight week feeling good about the state of MMA. And this particular one couldn’t have come at a better time. With the two tragic deaths in boxing earlier in the week, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I was feeling a little down on combat sports in general last week. It’s hard to see incidents like that and then just quickly turn one’s attention to cage fighting. We’ve become immune to the violence and danger that comes with fighting, but last week those harsh realities smacked us all right in the face.

But then you get to Edmonton, Alberta, and you see Holloway and his son, Rush, and you see the way both Holloway and Frankie Edgar conduct themselves, and you’re immediately reminded why you love fighting so much. People like Holloway and Edgar make you feel good about this sport. I dare you to find someone who says otherwise. They really do represent the best that fighting has to offer both in and out of the cage, and it’s just a pleasure being around them leading up to a fight.

I do a segment every Monday called “Ariel’s mensches of the week.” For those who don’t know, a mensch is an old Yiddish term that essentially means a person of integrity and honor. I decided to start highlighting MMA’s menschen (the actual plural of mensch) in January because I felt there was too much negativity in this sport. MMA is filled with wonderful people, and I wanted to do my small part in showcasing them.

Well, Holloway and Edgar are lifetime menschen. They are two of the classiest, most well-liked fighters in the game and that was on full display this past week in Canada. Seeing both of them with their sons in Edmonton and the mutual respect between them was just what the doctor ordered.

Of course, in the end, Holloway won Saturday via unanimous decision. I thought he won all five rounds. Some were closer than others, but it never felt like he was in any kind of danger. He bounced back very nicely from the loss to Dustin Poirier in April.

And then Holloway did something subtle that I don’t think too many people noticed but which perfectly sums up why he is so special: As UFC commentator Joe Rogan was about to start speaking to him for the customary postfight interview, Holloway appeared to tell Rogan to talk to Edgar first. To be clear, that rarely happens. He didn’t care about gloating or rubbing it in. He didn’t care about reminding all the doubters that he’s still the featherweight king. He just wanted to give a legend the respect of speaking first. I loved that moment and pretty much everything Holloway did and said last week. Thanks for being you, Max.

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Frankie Edgar admits it’s hard to absorb his loss to Max Holloway, but he felt he had something to prove about being undersized. For more UFC, sign up here for ESPN+ http://plus.espn.com/ufc

2. On the flip side, you have to feel for Edgar. He’s been searching for that featherweight title for seven years and just can’t get over the hump. It was clear, once again, that he is just a little too small for 145. For whatever reason, he has always seemed against the idea of moving down to bantamweight. I get the sense he thrives on being the smaller guy in there. He likes being the underdog. It feels as though he views going down to bantamweight as a weakness on his part. But if he really wants another crack at a belt, I think he should listen to his head coach, Mark Henry, who was the first to suggest years ago that Edgar should move down. You wouldn’t want to see Edgar vs. Henry Cejudo? I’d be interested in that (if he can win a couple at 135 first, of course). Regardless, Edgar will forever go down as one of the very best to compete in the UFC. His legacy is firmly intact, even if he never wins another title.

3. I loved the fact that Alexander Volkanovski was in attendance Saturday night. I still can’t believe he traveled 37 hours to get there, but I think it was very important that he was there. Now the big question is, can Holloway be convinced to turn around on very short notice to fight him at UFC 243 on Oct. 5 in Melbourne, Australia? I personally think that’s a big ask. Holloway would have to start his training camp very soon, and that would mean four title fights for him in 10 months. It’s unfortunate because Holloway vs. Volkanovski would be the perfect co-main for that card under Robert Whittaker vs. Israel Adesanya. I’d love to see it there. But I fear the timing just doesn’t work out, and if I’m Team Holloway I’m either asking for a massive pay raise to do it or countering with Dec. 14 instead. Stay tuned.

4. If you didn’t watch Cris Cyborg vs. Felicia Spencer and just saw the 30-27 scorecards, you probably are thinking it wasn’t a very close and/or entertaining fight. Wrong. Very wrong. I loved every second of that fight. From the unknown Spencer weathering the early Cyborg storm to Cyborg overcoming suffering her first cut in a fight, it was high drama from the opening seconds. I have high hopes for Spencer. I think she is going to have a great career. Going into fight week, I was wondering if she was biting off a little more than she could chew — after all, she had only seven pro MMA fights on her résumé compared to Cyborg’s 23 — but I had a feeling she’d rise to the occasion once I saw her demeanor at media day on Thursday.

She stood in front of Cyborg with her hands on her hips, as if to say, “Come get some. I am not scared.” I loved it. And how about that chin? Holy smokes. No one takes shots like that from Cyborg. I don’t care if it’s the 2019 or 2014 version of Cyborg — those were hard, clean shots. Spencer ate ’em and never gave up. That’s one of those classic fights where both fighters’ stock rose afterward.

5. Make no mistake about it, Cyborg fought a great fight. She rebounded nicely from her first KO loss in December. And when you consider all the drama surrounding the fact that this was the final fight on her contract, I thought she looked great in there. If you don’t think she looked good, you’re choosing to gloss over just how tough Spencer is.

6. Most fighters in Cyborg’s shoes would have said afterward that they’ll deal with contract stuff later. But Cyborg and her team have never been the kind to shy away from drama. So there she was, walking around with a shirt that read “Cyborg vs. Nunes coming Jan. 2020” immediately after the fight. Cyborg is about to become one of the most coveted free agents in the history of MMA. I can see Bellator, Professional Fighters League, ONE and Rizin all being very interested in her services. So if I’m the UFC brass, I would have been thrilled to see her wearing that shirt. That means she wants to re-sign, right? And yet, why I do I feel worse about her chances of returning after Saturday’s postfight media availability?

First, the UFC tells her to take off that shirt before going to the news conference. Why? She just did a whole bunch of media, including the official ESPN+ postfight show, while wearing it. Then Dana White doubles down on his stance that Cyborg didn’t want the Nunes rematch. He also adds that Cyborg seems to want only easy fights at this stage of her career. When has she ever said any of this? What good does any of this do? Why not promote her to the moon? “She’s back! That rematch will be incredible! We promise we will do everything in our power to get it done!”

Is that so hard? It just feels like these two sides can never get on the same page. It has felt like a poorly thought-out arranged marriage from the get-go, and honestly, it’s getting tiresome. Cyborg should have been celebrated Saturday night. It was an inspiring victory, but that wasn’t the narrative afterward from the brass. Just promote her or not. But the games are too much at this point. I’m tired of it, and I’m sure the fans are, too.

7. It’s hard to listen to Cyborg talk about feeling bullied and having her feelings hurt over the years. I know she is being honest about all of this because I have talked to her about it on multiple occasions. I was there, prior to UFC 172, when jokes were made that she looked like Wanderlei Silva in a dress. I was embarrassed listening to that hateful rhetoric. I also think part of the hard feelings date back to her “feud” with Ronda Rousey, as well. But at this point none of that matters. Here’s hoping if she does in fact re-sign with the UFC that she can sit down and make amends with White once and for all. Hey, I’m all for a promoter vs. fighter feud. Everyone knows that. I loved Ben Askren vs. White. It made money for both. But this one feels different. It feels uncomfortable. Either fix the relationship once and for all or move on.

8. As I mentioned last week, UFC 240 was thin on paper, but I thought a few other performances stood out: Geoff Neal, Hakeem Dawodu, Gillian Robertson, Gavin Tucker, Deiveson Figueiredo and Erik Koch all impressed me. I was particularly impressed with Neal, who improved his UFC record to 4-0 and is one of the jewels of the up-and-coming Dallas-based gym Fortis MMA. Head coach Sayif Saud is doing a phenomenal job of building young talent there. The outfit doesn’t have contenders yet, but it will in the next two years. No doubt about that.

9. I have been down on the state of Canadian MMA for a little while now. I just haven’t felt like there was any new talent coming up that could contend for a belt in the future. But after seeing how Spencer, Dawodu and Robertson fought Saturday, I think the future is brighter than I’d imagined.

10. One last time: If you ever have an opportunity to visit Edmonton’s Rogers Place, do yourself a favor and go. It’s a phenomenal arena. Las Vegas’ T-Mobile Arena wishes it looked like that.

11. I’m numb to BJ Penn at this point. He has no business being in the Octagon, but I also understand that being in there helps keep his life in order. That said, there has to be a safer way. I don’t care who he is terrorizing. Fights shouldn’t be viewed as charity. This is very serious stuff.

I was talking to someone over the weekend who had never seen prime Penn. He had no idea how good Penn looked around 10 years ago when he was blowing through the lightweight division. Think about that. There are people out there who think Penn is a total scrub who just can’t win a fight. That’s mind-blowing. And sure, preserving one’s legacy shouldn’t be a reason to not fight. I get that. But there is absolutely no interest from the fan base to see him compete in there anymore. Isn’t that what prizefighting is all about? If you’re putting on fights no one wants to see and your fan base is openly rejecting it, what is the point?

12. Glad to see James Vick has decided to move up to 170 pounds. That’s a good move for him.

13. Mackenzie Dern gave birth in May. Her manager, Danny Rubenstein, told me last week she’s hoping to return to action in October. That’s five months after giving birth. Oh, and she’s also hoping to get cleared to fight at strawweight again. I suspect some people thought she’d take a long break after giving birth, because her commitment to the sport has often been questioned, but Dern is on the verge of proving a lot of people wrong.

14. Smart move by Bellator to add Nick Newell to its card in Bridgeport, Connecticut, next month. He will help sell a ton of tickets. His deal is for one fight and he’s on the prelims, but I don’t see why an impressive performance won’t get him another shot in the organization.

15. White said Saturday night that Corey Anderson isn’t next for Jon Jones because he has turned down too many fights. I thought the UFC should have gone with Dominick Reyes vs. Jones next, but Reyes was booked last week against Chris Weidman for Oct. 18. So who does that leave us with? Jan Blachowicz? Perhaps. But something tells me the UFC will give Daniel Cormier the hard sell after Aug. 17.

16. Remember I wrote last week that PFL needed to inject new life into its roster? Well, signing Brendan Loughnane is a good start.

17. It has somewhat flown under the radar, but Eddie Alvarez and Demetrious Johnson both return to action for ONE Championship on Friday. I’m curious to see how they both look, particularly Alvarez, who is coming off a loss in his ONE debut. That card also features the promotional debut of former UFC heavyweight Arjan Bhullar. I had high hopes for Bhullar in the UFC, but he still seems a bit raw. ONE could be a good place for him to develop for the time being.


Monday’s Helwani Show lineup:

1 p.m. ET: Weekend recap

1:10 p.m.: Eric Koch

He will discuss picking up his first victory in over three years in his welterweight debut at UFC 240.

1:25 p.m.: Geoff Neal

Neal will recap his thrilling win over Niko Price at UFC 240.

1:45 p.m.: Hakeem Dawodu

He will discuss his big victory over Yoshinori Horie at UFC 240.

2:05 p.m.: Gillian Robertson

Robertson will look back at her impressive win over Sarah Frota this past weekend.

2:25 p.m.: Nik Lentz

He will talk about his upcoming fight against BJ Penn.

2:45 p.m.: Freddie Prinze Jr.

The actor will discuss his love for MMA and his long history in combat sports.

3:15 p.m.: Cris Cyborg

Cyborg will recap her big win over Felicia Spencer and discuss her future with the UFC.

3:35 p.m.: Lou DiBella

The longtime boxing promoter will discuss a difficult week in boxing and what can be done in the future.

4:00 p.m.: Robert Whittaker

The UFC middleweight champion will preview his UFC 243 fight against Israel Adesanya.





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