As the minutes wound down on last night’s UFC Fight Night main event, there was no hiding the resignation on Tyron Woodley’s face. The longtime welterweight champion, looking for a rebound nearly 15 months after losing the belt, was stuck in neutral. His wrestling had mostly remained holstered. His leg kicks were few and far between. His powerful overhand right, the thing that made him famous, repeatedly flung wide of its target.
Opposite him, Gilbert Burns looked sensational. He staggered the champion in the opening minute. He took down a guy who’d boasted the best statistical takedown defense in UFC welterweight history. He consistently connected with all of his offense. Between the two, there was a vast chasm, one firing on all cylinders and the other struggling simply to move forward. If you’d never watched MMA before, you’d be hard-pressed to watch the action and pick out Woodley as the former titleholder.
On Saturday night, Burns looked about as good as the welterweight division has to offer. That’s both a blessing and a curse for him. On one hand, he set himself up to face anyone in the division, up to and including current titleholder Kamaru Usman. On the other hand, his run comes in a division that is loaded with talent and doesn’t guarantee him anything more than an impressive notch on his belt. One needs to look no further than Woodley’s originally scheduled opponent Leon Edwards for that. Edwards has won eight consecutive fights in the octagon and was involved in one of the most notorious incidents of last year, a backstage scuffle with Jorge Masvidal. Still, he apparently needs to win another fight or three to finally get a crack at the belt.
The headline bout offered movement for the two individuals who participated and for the division, and its importance to those parties and to the sport meant something, but it was also hard to contextualize the shallowness of its consequence while pockets of America continued to erupt in unrest.
Sports at their best are a wonderful diversion from life’s daily struggles, and few do it better than the top mixed martial arts bouts, where their unbridled intensity demands your full attention. The athletes performing at the UFC APEX last night did their best under the most challenging of circumstances. Billy Quarantillo and Spike Carlyle put on a thrillfest, Mackenzie Dern took a significant step forward, Jamahal Hill announced himself as a player, and Burns put the welterweight division on notice. That they competed in front of an empty arena did not detract from their determination. In fact, they should be lauded for delivering at what felt like a singular moment in time.
With a global pandemic effecting nearly every part of everyday life, with cities around the country—including Las Vegas—experiencing protests that sometimes turned violent, with the world sometimes seeming as though it is on the verge of something cataclysmic, it is somewhat amazing to see these men and women ignore all that long enough to find a few minutes of excellence.
Never over the past 50 years have we seen so many Americans hurt, scared, sick or endangered. Whether it’s the ravages of the coronavirus, the instability of the economy, the anxiety of the upcoming election or the collective anger over racism that far too often goes ignored, there are so many visible wounds that are broadcast around the clock for all the world to see. It’s horrific to watch, and it almost demands you take diversionary breaks to protect your sanity, making the presence of pro sports welcome.
Still, it was hard to go too long without checking on either. Still, it was hard to go on without reminders of the outside world. They were fighting in an empty arena for a very obvious reason, after all. ESPN continued to scroll real-world protest reactions from the sports world, too. The UFC started the night with a graphic in memory of George Floyd, and ended it with the presence of Woodley, a Ferguson, Mo., native who passionately spoke as an activist after the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown.
There was no escape.
And frankly, there didn’t need to be. There are times to stick your head in the sand and ignore what is happening because it is largely inconsequential and there are times your attention is mandatory. This is one of those times.
Burns looked great last night and Woodley will have a long road back toward the title. That’s all you need to know about the headliner. Very quickly, their career paths will begin to work themselves out. The sports world always finds a way to hum along, even when the world around us doesn’t. The diversion of the greatest fighters and the toughest athletes in the world may not be necessary but it is needed, even if they take a while to pull our attention all the way back.