UFC FIRST QUARTER THOUGHTS

By E. Spencer Kyte | Posted 2 months ago

Last weekend’s fight card in Atlantic City brought the first quarter of the UFC’s 2024 slate to a close, and mile markers like that feel like the proper time to reflect on what transpired and some of the takeaways from inside the Octagon so far this year.

This is going to be a little scattershot — a couple bigger talking points and then an old school “random thoughts” section to wrap things up — but I think doing stuff like this throughout the year is important because with the constant march towards the next card, we can lose sight of trends, forget about cool things that have transpired, and just miss opportunities to address topics we should be discussing more.

So here goes.

IT’S BEEN A REALLY GOOD YEAR SO FAR

In a vacuum, the action inside the Octagon so far this year has picked up right where we left off at the close of 2023, which is to say that things have been pretty damn strong.

Last year was the best year ever in the UFC in terms of the actual fights themselves, in my opinion, and through the first three months of 2024, it has felt like we’re humming along nicely heading into Q2 and a summer that could be full of marquee matchups.

Three new champions were crowned and another retained, setting up the fight everyone wanted to see in the first place. Contenders emerged in a couple divisions, a few old heads turned back younger hopefuls, a couple ascending talents passed their veteran tests, and first quarter gold and silver medalists in the Knockout of the Year competition happened on the same card.

We’ve had 11 shows, 138 fights, and for the most part, it’s been an entertaining, enjoyable start to the year.

But things don’t happen in a vacuum, and unfortunately, the MMA space is often focused on what they don’t like and how they would prefer things to be done, which means that the overall quality slate of action that has taken place has been overshadowed by constant complaints about events being held at the UFC APEX, shows failing to reach or eclipse the preposterously high expectations people have for them, and plenty of good things either being under-appreciated or overlooked entirely.

UFC 298, UFC 299, and UFC 300 represent the greatest three-event run in UFC pay-per-view history, and yet people want to lament the state of the Fight Night events stationed around them for being sub-standard, as if they cannot seem to recognize the correlation between the two.

And that’s only after a whole lot of people stopped being ridiculous about the UFC 300 lineup, which is — again, in my opinion — the best collection of fights from top-to-bottom that the UFC has assembled to date.

Folks have come around to embracing the overall greatness of the show now, but initially, the reaction to this card was essentially “these are all good fights, but it just doesn’t have that big wow factor,” which always makes me think of Brian Regan and Jerry Seinfeld’s conversation about how being “blown away” has somehow become the new standard of measure for all things entertainment.

“Everybody want to be blown away in everything,” Seinfeld says after Regan talks about having an appreciation for “pretty good” comedians and entertainment options that are generally solid.

“‘Didn’t blow me away!’” he continued. “That’s a complaint now.”

I related the minute I saw the conversation for the first time and still come back to it frequently in times like this because it feels apropos.

The bar has been set too high. Our inclination is now to find reasons and ways to tear something down and be critical, rather than to discuss the things we liked and just enjoy the experience.

It’s been a pretty strong start to the year in terms of the action inside the Octagon, and I just want to make sure someone says it.

MORE FOCUS ON MEANINGFUL ANALYSIS PLEASE

This is surely amusing coming on the heels of me talking about focusing on the action in the Octagon and worrying less about peripheral elements, but please, hear me out.

One of the things that has really stood out to me during this first quarter of the 2024 UFC campaign has been how much attention on the media / analysis / opinion side of things is given to folks that lack credentials.

I don’t mean “people that don’t get credentialed to UFC events,” though many of them don’t meet that standard either, but rather “people that don’t have a track record that merits paying attention to what they have to say.”

Every sport has folks trying to break in and make a name for themselves offering up their insights and ideas, but few give credence to those voices the way MMA does, and it’s confounding to me because it comes at the expense of actual meaningful, credentialed individuals getting overlooked all the time.

Note: I’m not talking about me here. I’m happy with where I fit in this space, know that I have the respect of my peers and the people I speak with on the regular, so the validation of the Internet masses isn’t something I worry about all that much any more.

While coverage shifted to being opinion-focused years ago and there is a proliferation of “talking head” shows that dominate the media landscapes in most sports, the people doing the talking have are worth listening to because they’ve either been covering the sport for years at the highest level or played professionally.

But in MMA, we give far too much time to YouTubers and IG accounts that are fresh on the scene or saying things for the sake of generating reactions (and clicks), rather than committing that attention to the people whose opinions and insights come from a place of experience,

knowledge, and — and I cannot stress this one enough — actually speaking with people involved in the sport.

I have never and will never be of the mind that “you have to have played the sport in order to have a valid opinion” because there are myriad ways to build knowledge and expertise, but you’re not sitting down with the men and women stepping into the cage, the coaches that are helping prepare them to make that walk, and the smartest people discussing the sport, I don’t need to hear from you and don’t understand why so many others seemingly want to either.

Give me the experts.

Give me the people putting in the work.

Give me the individuals that are focused on lifting up these athletes, advancing the way we discuss this sport in all facets, and are open to having thoughtful, intelligent, nuanced conversations about all things MMA.

If we elevate the discourse and acknowledge a greater number of meaningful, credentialed voices, it will elevate the overall coverage and turn down the volume on those that shouldn’t be getting amplified in the first place.

MORE HONEST ASSESSMENTS NEEDED

Earlier this year I wrote a column giving love to the tenured veterans, focusing in on Randy Brown, Jack Hermansson, and a couple others that have been fixtures in their respective divisions for some time, but never seem to garner the respect they deserve for the careers they’re enjoyed.

Now I want to take things a step further and address how we talk about these athletes more broadly, because I don’t think we do a particularly good job on most sides of it.

When it comes to talking about the best in a given weight class or historically skilled fighters, that part is easy, but just about everywhere else, we play it fast and loose with words like prospect and contender, while also trying to be delicate in how we assess others. It’s like we have a finite number of ways we’re comfortable speaking about these athletes, and straying outside of those parameters makes most people feel a little queasy.

Let’s get the most awkward one out of the way right off the hop: not everybody that steps into the Octagon is actually UFC caliber, and it’s both okay to admit that and not necessarily a bad thing.

Lots of people are comfortable saying this about the latest run of Dana White’s Contender Series grads that land on the roster after turning up in Las Vegas and winning in their audition, but few want to say it about the fighter that was a champion on the regional circuit, but clearly can’t cut it at the highest level.

Last weekend, Rhys McKee fell to 0-4 in the UFC with a unanimous decision loss to Chidi Njokuani. “Skeletor” has thrived under the Cage Warriors banner and is probably best suited to being the Cage Warriors welterweight champion, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, just like there is no shame in being the 12th best featherweight or someone in that mid-pack of any division that has a record that is close to .500 is a reliable hand.

And winning a regional belt — even a somewhat prestigious regional belt — shouldn’t mean you automatically deserve a look at the next level. We demand seasoning, poise, and experience from these DWCS grads, but frequently skip over those requirements whenever someone wins a belt in Cage Warriors, LFA or another solid outfit that has previously graduated champions to the Octagon.

Not everyone is a contender and not all contenders are created equal, so differentiating between them is a must; the same goes with prospects.

And we have to not be in such a rush to categorize these athletes and stick labels on them that we fail to give them the space and grace needed to learn, grow, develop, and reach their final form, whatever that may be.

Sure, Erin Blanchfield lost last weekend and we saw some of the holes in her game, but she’s also 24 years old, had won each of her previous six UFC appearances, and beat a pair of former title challengers in her two fights before that, so maybe chill with deciding that she’s topped out already.

If she has, topping out as a Top 5 talent is still pretty damn good too.

Lastly, we have to be more balanced and controlled when it comes to how we rate and react to wins and losses, which has been a point of contention with me for a while and will always remain that way. We all know a truly meaningful win or a bad loss when we see them, and just need to address them accordingly.

How beloved a fighter may or may not be doesn’t change the value, weight of any particular win or loss, so if we’re going to react to someone we like beating a below .500 fighter like it’s a big deal, we have to do that with people we don’t like as much too. Consistency is key.

RANDOM RAPID FIRE THOUGHTS

Magomed Ankalaev should be next in line to challenge for the light heavyweight title; he’s unbeaten in a dozen fights and merits a full camp opportunity to challenge for championship gold…

Joe Pyfer’s next fight is going to tell us a great deal about the Philadelphia-based middleweight and what his future holds…

Alexander Volkanovski shouldn’t fight again this year, and shouldn’t get an immediate title shot when he does return…

Robert Whittaker is an absolute savage…

Merab Dvalishvili could very well be the bantamweight champion before the summer is over; he looked so good against Henry Cejudo and his style is so difficult to contend with…

Brandon Moreno should be applauded for taking some time away…

Featherweight is in a weird position right now because there is no clear top contender and the people you could make a case for all feel like they’ve already had plenty of opportunities to prove their greatness…

Steve Erceg is way better than most people understand; he has a genuine chance to unseat Alexandre Pantoja from the flyweight throne next month in Rio…

The knee that Vinicius Oliveira landed on Benardo Sopaj is one of the nastiest shots I’ve ever witnessed in all my years of watching MMA; if it doesn’t end up as the Knockout of the Year, I’ll be surprised…

Jack Della Maddalena just might be the best welterweight in the UFC…

Sean O’Malley has a chance to build an incredible legacy for himself with the collection of potential challengers he could face if he’s able to hold onto the bantamweight title…

The amount of impressive, young talent in the UFC at the moment is astounding, and has me very excited for the future…

Chris Weidman should have been disqualified for poking Bruno Silva in the eye multiple times…

Referees need to be more diligent about taking points for fouls, accidental or not…

UFC 300 is going to be absolutely bonkers…

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