A disastrous debut will define the UFC Women’s Featherweight Championship and division, but maybe not forever

By Ty Reynolds @MMAtylander

UFC 208 turned out to be something of a memorable event, but not quite the way the promotion was hoping.  Debuting in Brooklyn, NY’s Barclay Center was already a rather large occasion for the company, so it only seemed fitting to not only include a title fight on the card to serve as the main event of the evening, but to take it that extra step and add some more history to the outing.

The idea that was settled upon and put into action turned out to be misstep, not only in hindsight but very predictably to most in foresight, and was anything but a good look for the still very green new owners of the company, WME-IMG.  As we all know, a brand new division was scheduled for the slot, the women’s 145 lbs. weight class, and a title fight was set.  This would’ve been fine had a little more thought been applied, but things got messy from the start.

The most glaring question mark about the decision is the competitors chosen for the chance to be the first UFC’s women’s 145 lbs champion.  The division’s most famous fighter, Cris “Cyborg” Justino, current Invicta FC Featherweight Champion and all around destroyer, was not booked for the bout even though she has competed in the Octagon in her last two contests, winning both with vicious ease.  Too be fair, she has made statements recently about taking time off to rejuvenate her depleted body after what she claims to be taxing weight cuts, and there is of course a potential USADA violation lurking over her head at the moment, so her exclusion from the bout isn’t absent of reason.  Not very good reason, though.

A delay in the inception of the division would’ve been the prudent choice, as any bout at 145 lbs for a new women’s strap needed to include “Cyborg”.  Anything less would, and eventually did, lead us to where we are this very moment, a terrible spot that should’ve been avoided.  A woman very few people consider the top women’s featherweight in the world was now ensured to be holding the UFC’s belt for that class, becoming its inaugural champion.  That alone is a huge blow to the new champion’s credibility, but matters only escalated before even that point could be reached, starting with the women who were pegged for the contest.

The two women who were chosen for the opportunity, boxing great and former UFC Women’s Bantamweight Champion, Holly Holm and Dutch kickboxing legend Germaine de Randamie certainly had the name appeal to fit the slot, but current circumstances made both very questionable participants, especially Holm.

While her pedigree is undeniable and her status as the first woman to ever defeat Ronda Rousey has made her a star in her own right, Holm was coming off of consecutive losses in the 135 lbs division and seemed to be more in need of a tune-up fight than a title fight in a brand new class.  The simple fact that a fighter could receive a title shot in today’s UFC coming off of consecutive losses, regardless of whether she entered a new class to accept it, was too much for many fans to overlook.  This was due to more than just lost fights, though.

Because of her recent record, a Holm victory would have immediately damaged the credibility of the belt, and there wasn’t going to be much there to begin with.  But that’s without mention of the fact that it would have made her only the fourth multiple-division champion in the promotion’s history.  Adding her name to the list of current and future Hall of Famer’s, including Randy Couture, B.J. Penn, and Conor McGregor, would’ve been a snappy addition to Holm’s resume, but let’s face facts, it would’ve watered down the mystique of the achievement.  Winning a second belt under those circumstances wouldn’t compare to the manner in which the others forced their names onto the list and an asterisk would’ve been applied to Holm’s inclusion.  The promotion would’ve surely ignored this, however, and pushed her as an equal to the previously mentioned champions, which would’ve only torn the wound open wider.  For the first time in maybe all of combat sports, as strange as it may sound, a former champion earning a second piece of gold would’ve likely become a negative outcome in the long run.

De Randamie, on the other hand, was at least coming into the bout with the momentum of consecutive wins, but is still considered inexperienced in the sport and had yet to pick up a truly signature win since making the jump.  Her spot in a title fight, especially in a division ruled by “Cyborg”, was almost certainly determined by name value, slight as it arguably is, not on de Randamie’s current merits within MMA.  A title opportunity was understandably seen as premature, especially when Invicta FC still had more worthy possibilities, like their new interim-145 lbs champion Megan Anderson, or Charmaine Tweet, before being knocked out by Anderson last month, of course.

With no “Cyborg”, Anderson vs Tweet should’ve been promoted to the UFC for the inaugural title bout, at least if the company cared about building their new division around the merit of it’s competitors.  But in no way, however, could Anderson/Tweet have served as a PPV main event.  The decision to promote Holm vs de Randamie showed that this was about business, not sport, so Anderson and Tweet never had a chance to be brought up. The reasoning behind naming Holm and de Randamie as the participants in the first ever UFC women’s featherweight title fight was purely based on money, and the ultra-knowledgeable fan base of the sport knew it from the very first second the bout was announced.

Regardless of the outcome at UFC 208, this division was already being erected on an unstable foundation.  The hype leading to the event reflected as much, as hardcore fans knew the game that was being played, leaving them far from enthused as the fight grew near, and the mainstream audience the UFC has grown to crave didn’t seem to take the bait of a Holly Holm title opportunity.  Come fight night, expectations were low, but no one could truly foresee just how shaky the new division’s footing would be after it’s debut.

The under card certainly didn’t help.  In fact, it failed in miserable fashion to gather any type of momentum that could be exploited by the women at the top of the card.  Out of 9 fights leading to the main event, only one, Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza vs. Tim Boestch, would end early. The Brazilian middleweight contender predictably picked up an easy submission victory via kimura in the opening round, but that was expected.  There was nothing especially exciting about it, outside of finally seeing a fight end by finish.  Even a co-main event featuring Anderson Silva couldn’t save the card up to that point, as arguably the greatest fighter in history struggled against Derek Brunson, and was awarded a highly controversial decision win.  The nature of the victory tainted the Spider’s first “W” in years and was indicative of the poor performance of the NYSAC throughout the evening, likely representing it’s most egregious judging offense in a night already saturated with officiating blunders.

By the time Silva’s bout had ended, most of those observing the event simply wanted the night to be over.  The Barclay’s Center was meant to be a grand stage for the crowning of a new champion, but turned out to be nothing but a platform for mediocrity, obviously not the environment envisioned when constructing the card.

The main event itself can only be described as disappointing.  Well, it can be described other ways, but disappointing is as kind of an adjective that can be found.  The action wasn’t altogether boring, but poor officiating once again played a role as Germaine de Randamie not once, but twice, clearly struck Holm after the bell had sounded at the ends of both the 2nd and 3rd stanzas.  It was the former offense that was the most brutal, a blow that clearly rocked Holm, but it was the second that will be remembered the most due to referee Todd Anderson’s abject failure in performing his duties by neglecting to deduct a point from the Dutch fighter.  This would prove to be a critical error, as Holm would fight back to secure the final two rounds, yet still fell on the cards with scores of 48-47.  With the rightful point deduction in place, the bout would’ve been ruled a draw.  No champion would’ve been crowned, but that would’ve been a better outcome than awarding the belt to a clearly undeserving de Randamie.

After essentially cheating her way to sending Holm to her third straight loss, a devastating blow to a fighter once perceived as possibly the next mainstream draw, de Randamie only poured salt in the eyes of the fans and promotion by stating that instead of facing a present Cris “Cyborg” Justino as soon as possible, she would likely find herself taking time off to deal with an injury she claimed had been nagging at her for sometime.  In other words, she refused to confirm her participation in the only bout that matters at this point in the division she is suppose to be the champion of.

Needless to say, the fan reaction to this statement was less than ideal.  “The Iron Lady’s” stock seemingly took an instant hit, not only from her less-than-clean performance, but also from her unwillingness to challenge “Cyborg” during the post-fight interview.  Any chance of de Randamie being considered something more than a placeholder disappeared with the performance and interview, as she essentially crumpled up her paper belt and tossed it into the seats of the Barclay Center like some unwanted souvenir.

It was a disastrous end to an already costly night for the promotion, and quite simply the worst outcome feasible in regards to getting the new division off the ground successfully.    Again, a draw would’ve been preferable as then at least “Cyborg” could’ve participated in the next attempt and had the opportunity to be named the first UFC Women’s Featherweight Champion, a title she deserves far more than Germaine de Randamie.  Unfortunately, that chance is blown forever now and the UFC’s top officials have only themselves to blame due to their shortsightedness and obvious greed.  Even Dana White was forced to basically admit as much in a backstage interview when he conceded that UFC 208 was not one of the promotions successes.

Far from it, indeed.  This event could turn out to be viewed as WME-IMG’s version of UFC 33, the infamous Zuffa event that was billed as the coming out party of the sport over 15 years ago, only to go down in history as an utter dud and a clear low point for the Fertitta’s company years before turning the business around.  UFC 208 isn’t that type of rock bottom event due to the different position the company enjoys today, but it’s no stretch to view it as an embarrassment to the new owners of the promotion.  That much can be safely assumed.

There is, however, reason to be optimistic about the future of the women’s 145 lbs division.  History does provide precedent within the company that will allow for some hope for the division in the coming months.  This would be far from the first time a new division has fallen flat from the onset of it’s existence only to recover and eventually emerge as mainstays of the sport in North America.

The lightweight division, now considered to be one of the deepest, most competitive weight classes available in the sport, once found itself in a similar position as the women’s 145 lbs class does now and in the same stage of it’s development.  Originally known as the Bantamweight title, Jens Pulver hoisted the belt for the first time in 2001, but was gone from the company just over a year later.  An attempt to crown a new champion proved futile as B.J. Penn fought Caol Uno to a draw for the vacant belt at UFC 41.  The entire class was abandoned in the UFC until 2006 when Sean Sherk defeated Kenny Florian at UFC 64 for the re-branded Lightweight Championship.  It wouldn’t stick, though, as Sherk was stripped after a single defense due to using anabolic steroids.   Finally, in 2008, Penn would claim the belt and legitimize the class with an 812 day reign that saw him boost his already massive star power by headlining several successful PPV’s.

Before the emergence of the great Anderson Silva, middleweight was also a bit of a floundering division.  Few remember Dave Menne, the first UFC Middleweight Champion in history, who won the belt in 2001 and lost it to Murilo Bustamante in 2002.  Bustamante, like lightweight’s Pulver, would exit the company as champion and it would be 3 1/2 years until Evan Tanner was crowned as the new 185 lbs. champion.  Rich Franklin would then provide some star power and stability after defeating Tanner, but it wasn’t until Silva blasted him for the belt and went on his historic run that the middleweight division was completely established in the company.

The process would take years for both weight classes to mature.  In the end, however, they became two of the UFC’s most beloved divisions, one due to Silva, the other due to Penn and later it’s ridiculous depth.  The same could very well happen with the women’s 145 lbs division, it’s just going to take patience.  And more refined planning than what it has received so far.

The first step will be to place the proper players at the top. There should be no more title fights in the class until “Cyborg” can be cleared and scheduled for a unification bout with current titleholder Germaine de Randamie.  This is essential.  Without “Cyborg” competing for the belt and either winning or falling in defeat, no other fighter can be viewed as the real champion.  She is the main piece that the UFC foolishly attempted to neglect, thus sabotaging the class before the first title fight could even occur.  If getting “Cyborg” back into the Octagon takes months or years, then the division should sit idle for months or years.  It’s that simple.  De Randamie can return to 135 lbs. or sit out, or become the next Dave Menne, essentially forgotten as a champion.  It doesn’t matter.

No “Cyborg”, no title fights. Period.

Once “Cyborg” can either be crowned or dispatched, simply fill out the division.  Merge Invicta’s 145 lbs class with the UFC’s and then search outside of the corporation’s umbrella.  Bellator still holds some key players who should be obtainable with the right timing, and other prospects are bound to pop up in that time.  This is an obvious step, but it still needs to be done with as much haste as possible.  Building challengers for the champion is as important as the champion themselves.  “Cyborg” can draw by simply being the monster that she is, but worthy challengers, not dominant champions are what really build a division in the long term.

Finally, sit back and watch as whoever, probably “Cyborg”, smokes the competition for some time.  She will build the prestige of the belt, and like Penn, Silva, and Ronda Rousey, when she inevitably falls the entire division will look ready, not just the woman who beat her.

This is a formula that has worked and will work again if only the UFC allows for enough time for the process to properly build to a conclusion.  Failing to implement even the most basic steps of this formula, like placing the proper fighter in the proper position, has resulted in embarrassment for the company and will do so again if the recipe isn’t followed.  These are lessons hard-learned by Zuffa and woefully forgotten by Dana White and the new regime of WME-IMG, but if they are willing to return to them and apply the patience needed, these are lessons that can save the UFC’s Women’s Featherweight Championship and it’s division despite the abysmal beginning of it’s history within the company.

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