The UFC has, over the course of its decades-long run as the front-runner in mixed martial arts promotion, put on dozens of cards billed to be some variation of “the biggest of all time.” It sometimes serves as a ploy to get people to buy in, while at other times stands as a genuine description of what can also be regarded as a masterpiece of quality matchmaking.
Saturday’s card, the UFC’s now-annual fall return to Madison Square Garden in New York City, fell into the latter category, a massive event among massive events. Bringing three highly anticipated championship fights to the Big Apple for one night of action, UFC 217 was expected by many to rival just about any other card in company history for the No. 1 spot on the list.
UFC 217 didn’t just need to be big on paper — it needed to live up to its high-profile billing. Far too many massive events have gone on to disappoint, existing in the minds of the fan base as just another night of Octagon action.
Despite having the weight of the company’s lofty expectations on its shoulders, UFC 217 delivered on just about every front imaginable.
“There’s something about Madison Square Garden, first of all,” company president Dana White said during the post-fight news conference. “Both times that we’ve been here it’s been awesome. But when you put together a card like the card we put together, you can’t always guarantee, when you look at fights on paper — like, ‘That’s awesome, That’s awesome,’ you can’t guarantee it — but, man, this one delivered. It’s just such a good card with so many good fights that even if you have three deliver in a big way, it’s a good night. But to have the entire card deliver the way that this card did tonight, it’s awesome. When this happens, it comes together, it’s fun.”
As noted, the night featured three championship contests, each carrying a greater deal of magnitude than the one that came before it.
First came the strawweight championship fight, a bout expected to provide then-champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk with her sixth straight title defense — a mark that would have netted her a tie with Ronda Rousey for the all-time UFC record among female champions. She faced Rose Namajunas, a valiant challenger who wasn’t expected by many to pull off the would-be incredible upset.
So, of course, Namajunas pulled off the incredible upset.
“Thug” Rose needed just a few minutes to prove her championship worth, flooring the defending titleholder twice in the opening round with a pair of lead left hooks. Namajunas made her second one count, pouncing on Jedrzejczyk to force the champion to willfully relinquish her title by signaling defeat with a tap of the hand onto the canvas.
Just like that, “and new” echoed its way throughout the world’s most famous arena. It was about as surprising of an upset as we’ve seen in recent years, rivaling Holly Holm’s win over Rousey, Cody Garbrandt’s win over Dominick Cruz and Michael Bisping’s win over Luke Rockhold.
It was also, surprisingly enough, just a sign of things to come.
Following Namajunas’ stunning championship moment was a bad-blood title fight between former training partners Cody Garbrandt and T.J. Dillashaw. A bantamweight championship contest that easily could have headlined its own pay-per-view card to some degree of success, this highly anticipated showdown was only the co-main event of the evening.
After nearly a year of back-and-forth between the two elite bantamweights, the time for jawing was over. In a moment many felt would never take place, two fighters who trained together at the famed Team Alpha Male camp in California were finally sharing the cage together. Garbrandt, the champion looking to defend his crown for the first time since stunning the former titleholder last December, and Dillashaw, the former champion eager to reclaim the throne he never felt he lost in the first place.
Two rounds into the fight, it was Dillashaw whose goal was realized. A counter right hook, one that landed in the midst of a frantic exchange between the pair of hard-hitting 135-ers, put Garbrandt down in a rare moment of combative vulnerability. Dillashaw followed the champion down to the canvas, providing the necessary follow-up blows to prompt the referee’s interference.
“And new,” for the second time in as many title fights.
With one championship fight left on the agenda, you can probably surmise where this is going.
At long last, it was time for the biggest fight the UFC had up its sleeve in 2017: the return of former welterweight king Georges St-Pierre. The Canadian superstar was set for his debut at 185 pounds, diving straight into the deep end for a blockbuster showdown with champion Michael Bisping.
Plenty of questions surrounded St-Pierre Saturday night, stemming predominantly from a four-year layoff from the sport. Most of them, however, were essentially derived from, “Can he actually do it?”
Three rounds into his night, and we got our answer in the form of a third title change at UFC 217. St-Pierre, now 36, looked remarkably effective in the opening round of the fight, cruising by with the use of his patented stiff jab and double-leg takedown combo. Just as the critics began to circle a seemingly exhausted St-Pierre in Rounds 2 and 3, the former welterweight kingpin landed a crushing left hook that sent Bisping to the mat. GSP followed through with devastating elbows, before finding an opening for a rear-naked choke that forced the British titleholder to lose consciousness.
Another incredible outcome on a night that offered far too many big moments to keep count.
The UFC delivered with a massive card. The fighters on that massive card delivered with epic moments of triumph. All that’s left to determine is whether the fans were actually there to witness one of the greatest nights in mixed martial arts history. Assuming we can take White at his word when he says the event cruised past the 1 million PPV buys mark, we can safely grant UFC 217 access as one of the greatest cards in the history of MMA.