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UFC 217, The Morning After: Left hooks and faith restored

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What you may have missed from last night

Georges St. Pierre celebrates in the moment of victory
Esther Lin

Mixed martial arts (MMA) is a sport of utter, unpredictable chaos. Sometimes that chaos means heartbreak, sometimes it means boredom, and sometimes, like last night at Madison Square Garden, it can mean an incredible, perfect night of fights.

A trilogy of title fights resulted in a trilogy of left hooks that in turn resulted in a trilogy of new champions. It was the most unlikely of outcomes- Georges St. Pierre knocking down and finishing an opponent for the first time since... UFC 65? That was over a decade ago, his iconic head-kick finish of Matt Hughes. Fully two generations of mixed martial artists have come and gone in that time, including GSP himself, returning to the Octagon after four years absence.

The setup, a title fight a division above his own against a brash, disliked champion, seemed nonsensical when it was made. It is still nonsensical (Is GSP really going to stick around to face Bobby Knuckles? I’ll believe that when I see it), but it looks like a stroke of genius now. St. Pierre now joins BJ Penn, Randy Couture, and Conor McGregor as a UFC champion in two weight divisions. His apologies on the mic for wanting to swear and for saying “balls” was the most Canadian, most GSP thing ever, and a far cry from what we saw last time there were three title fights at Madison Square Garden.

It was also right in line with the rest of the night, a series of triumphs for respectful martial artists over trash-talking competition. First, Stephen Thompson outstruck Jorge Masvidal, putting the bad taste of that second Woodley fight behind him.

Rose Namajunas knocked out the seemingly invincible Joanna Jedrzejczyk and told us all that she was no one special, and to hug each other.

Her teammate, Justin Gaethje, was crying:

I am so proud of you @rosenamajunas

A post shared by Justin Gaethje (@justin_gaethje) on

Then, TJ Dillashaw, who has taken an incredible amount of shit from Team Alpha Male for not remaining at Team Alpha Male his whole career, knocked out ultimate Alpha Male Cody Garbrandt. That was the moment that had me screaming at my TV. We all have biases, I was watching as a fan, and TJ is one of my guys. I didn’t believe he would get it done against the power and sheer speed of Garbrandt- but he did. And, like St. Pierre in the main event, he floored “No Love” with Garbrandt’s own money punch, the left hook.

I’m implying TJ was the respectful martial artist in this matchup. To be fair, there was plenty of testosterone on both sides.

None of the fighters who lost last night aren’t respectful martial artists at the end of the day. After the fight, win or lose, Garbrandt, Jedrzjeczyk, and even Michael Bisping (usually) have a sense of honor and fair play. The fighters who won, though, were the ones who weren’t recklessly slinging insults beforehand. They took the high road, at least compared to their opponents on the night.

If all TJ wanted was respect, it seems he finally got some.

What next? Whenever the title changes hands, it opens up a new horizon of possibility. Rose Namajunas could very well end up facing Jessica Andrade. Karolina Kowalkiewicz is smiling in anticipation. Joanna Jedrzejczyk, who took her loss like a true champion and martial artist, has options as well. She can move up to the nascent flyweight division, becoming an instant contender, or she can hang around and try to get her belt back. TJ Dillashaw has pretty clear options: either rematch Cody, or fight the winner of Cruz-Rivera. Before that, though, he has a superfight in his sights: dropping to flyweight to challenge Demetrious Johnson. In a division Mighty Mouse has more or less cleaned out, it’s an incredibly exciting matchup, and this time Johnson can have no reason not to take it.

Georges St. Pierre’s future remains less clear. Robert Whittaker was all smiles after St. Pierre won; for him, this could mean more than winning the lottery. A decade younger, he’s an incredibly difficult matchup for St. Pierre, and I’m torn on whether St. Pierre should try and pass some of his shine along to the next generation, or avoid what could very well be a brutal ass-whooping. If Anderson Silva somehow beats Kelvin Gastelum, that fight still has juice for GSP. But the most likely outcome is always the most lucrative: George St. Pierre vs. Conor McGregor.

That superfight has to be the most likely outcome here. It is by far the biggest fight on either man’s horizon. If St. Pierre vacates the middleweight belt and they meet at welterweight, I have no problem with it (on St. Pierre’s end. McGregor has to defend or vacate his own lightweight crown) If he holds it hostage to give McGregor an improbable, undeserved, farcical shot at the 185-lb. title, then we riot.

But that is all in the future. Nothing can change how perfect UFC 217 was (okay, almost nothing. Looking at you, USADA). It was everything MMA can be.

A large part of what made it so memorable is that UFC 217 so very easily could have been completely different. If Rose hadn’t landed her left hook knockout, Jedrzejczyk would probably have picked up the pace in subsequent rounds. Dillashaw, at a clear speed disadvantage, was saved by the bell after Garbrandt knocked him down at the end of the first. GSP was visibly feeling the pace in the second round, and Michael Bisping is a specialist in beating tired men up badly. Chaos so often takes. Last night it gave us UFC 217, the best night of fights in 2017.