After all the hype and bluster, one of the biggest mixed martial arts fights of the year ended not with a bang, but a whimper and rain of boos from the Madison Square Garden crowd.
Yet for the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the medical stoppage that surprised both Nate Diaz and Jorge Masvidal immediately presented a fresh challenge of how to balance business and competitive factors in a sport where matchups are made quite subjectively.
Masvidal defeated Diaz in the UFC 244 headliner on Saturday night, an event that wholly embraced spectacle, with appearances by President Donald Trump and Dwayne Johnson, the blockbuster actor who once wrestled as The Rock.
After the third of five scheduled rounds, the sellout crowd lustily booed as a doctor stopped the fight because of deep cuts around Diaz’s right eye. Masvidal was winning on all three judges’ cards at the time of the stoppage, but even he wanted to keep fighting.
“I don’t like to leave the ring like this with my opponent conscious,” he said.
Both fighters clamored for a rematch, but afterward Dana White, the UFC president, said such a fight “doesn’t interest me right away.” Instead, White hinted at a possible title fight for Masvidal, while the future for Diaz — long one of the UFC’s most entertaining fighters and outsize personalities — is less certain.
The 170-pound champion, Kamaru Usman, sat near the cage, a common move in a sport where marketing for the next fight starts immediately in the octagon after a bout ends Masvidal have shown themselves to operate unlike other fighters, who are focused on winning championships as quickly as possible.
Money and belts, it seems, don’t always line up.
For the UFC, where there are no rules about mandatory challengers, and lucrative fights can be prioritized over competitive ones, it can be difficult to forgo the possible riches of a rematch, especially considering Diaz is historically a huge pay-per-view draw.
At face value and for newcomers to the sport, it is difficult to understand the hype surrounding Diaz and Masvidal. Neither fighter was ranked in the top three of the division before the fight. Instead, the event was built around the ever-entertaining Diaz — who has fought just once in three years as he repeatedly feuded with the UFC — and the trash-talking Masvidal, who started in Miami as a street brawler who fought in online videos.
The only belt at stake Saturday was a profanely named title to declare the “baddest” fighter between Diaz and Masvidal, with Johnson handing out the belt.
Until a few months ago, Masvidal, 34, had not been close to headlining a pay-per-view event. He didn’t join the UFC until 2013 — after a decade of fighting for other promotions — and his record in the UFC was a pedestrian 11-6. He has never fought for a title.
But he rocketed to fame earlier this year with the fastest knockout in UFC history, one that reinforced both the beauty and the brutality of mixed martial arts. At a fight in July, he attacked Ben Askren at the opening bell with a stunning flying knee that rendered Askren unconscious in five seconds.
“If he had survived that, we were ready to whoop him for 14 minutes and 30 seconds until I would have ended him,” said Masvidal.
Masvidal’s rise comes as Diaz seems to be on the decline, and other popular UFC fighters won’t be around much longer. Daniel Cormier is near the end of his career. Ronda Rousey has essentially retired. Conor McGregor has fought once in three years, lost, retired, unretired and this week pleaded guilty to punching a man at a bar in Ireland (just one of the legal issues he faces).
But Masvidal also points toward a more organic way forward. By taking entertaining fights and winning entertaining fights in entertaining ways, even a later-career journeyman can become a headliner and attract eyeballs. And if he is willing to add some fuel to the fire — Masvidal seemingly lived inside of an ESPN studio this week, appearing on the network to boast almost constantly — all the better.
There were other, external signs that Saturday night was big for the UFC.
Trump, facing an impeachment inquiry ratcheting in intensity, traveled north to watch other people do the fighting for once. He entered the arena to a loud mixture of jeers and cheers, but fans soon after turned their attention to the fights they had paid hundreds of dollars to watch, not the president.
Trump saw Masvidal, a supporter of his, prance and preen as he landed a succession of punches and kicks on Diaz. Diaz began bleeding just one minute into the fight and was knocked to the canvas in each of the first two rounds. A black belt in jiujitsu, Diaz tried to goad Masvidal into fighting him on the ground, but Masvidal wouldn’t take the bait.
When Diaz did land blows, Masvidal seemed unfazed, blowing a kiss to the crowd as Diaz grappled with him in the first round.
The UFC event upstaged another big fight happening across the country in Las Vegas on Saturday night at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, where boxer Saúl Álvarez, known as Canelo, knocked out Sergey Kovalev to win a light heavyweight title.
DAZN, the streaming service showing the Álvarez vs. Kovalev fight, opted to delay its start until after Masvidal had defeated Diaz, conceding to the popularity of the UFC. As the delay grew to 90 minutes, Álvarez and Kovalev were shown relaxing on the leather couches in their dressing rooms, eyes closed with boxing gear fully on.
The UFC event was even shown in the MGM Grand to placate the restless boxing fans.
For 24 hours last week, however, it seemed like the fight might not happen. Diaz announced that he had tested positive for a banned substance, ruling him out. The U.S. Anti-Doping Association and UFC quickly clarified that while Diaz did have an elevated level of a banned substance in him, he had not committed an anti-doping violation.