It’s one of those concepts that gets thrown around a lot in sports: the best. The greatest. No matter how you say it, it comes down to success, importance and achievement. It applies as much to games, to events, as it does to athletes. Let’s not forget the Fight of the Century, or the Greatest Game Ever Played (the 1958 NFL championship). Even chess had The Game of the Century, between Donald Byrne and Bobby Fischer.
As fans, we’re obsessed with the best. The greatest. The biggest. Rightfully so: when plunking down hard earned cash for tickets or a pay-per-view, we want to be entertained.
Of course, not every event, whatever the sport, can be the best. We hope for it — especially in MMA, where there are no teams, no seasons and realistically, any card could overachieve and become the best. But realistically, events with an actual shot at being the biggest of all time are few and far between.
Coming up, however, is one that very much has a shot. On paper, it might already be the best, barring a shake-up due to injury. That, of course, is UFC 205.
The promotion has stacked the card for its debut in New York’s Madison Square Garden, and with good reason. New York is a fresh, lucrative territory. A second Vegas. MMA fans have been salivating at the thought of UFC 205 for weeks, if not more.
Yet is the event the biggest of all time?
First, consider what makes a card “the biggest.” Success, importance, achievement. To be successful, the card must entertain; to be important, the card must matter. Achievement? Well, what milestones were hit? What it really comes down to is a mixture of talent (as in fighters), and performances (as in outcomes). The latter makes it awfully hard to judge, since UFC 205 has yet to go down, but from a booking standpoint, well, there are plenty of comparisons to be made.
The obvious two, of course, are UFC 100, the promotion’s first big milestone event, and UFC 200. Those also happen to be two of the best-selling UFC events of all time. Numbers don’t necessarily mean an event is the biggest, mind you. Big ratings are certainly an achievement (if no one watches an event, can you really consider it as the biggest?), but that’s not all there is to it. It’s only one part of the equation.
UFC 100, of course, had Brock Lesnar vs. Frank Mir in their second bout, a heavyweight grudge match for the ages. That was prime Lesnar, and a still-relevant Mir. The other title fight on the card featured Georges St. Pierre defending his welterweight crown against Thiago Alves.
Keep in mind that at the time, multiple title fights on a card was something virtually unheard of. Early in the Zuffa era, UFC 33 featured three title bouts, including the inaugural middleweight title bout. Somehow, it still managed to go down as one of the worst cards in company history. UFC 65 would feature GSP and Tim Sylvia defending the welterweight and heavyweight championship, respectively, but discounting interim title fights, cards that were double-stacked were few and far between.
Absolutely none happened to have the two biggest draws of their era, something Lesnar and GSP represented at UFC 100 in 2009. Now that is an achievement. Look how hard it has been to repeat that feat.
Who else took part in UFC 100? Well, you had Dan Henderson and his crushing knockout of Michael Bisping. A young Jon Jones taking on Jake O’Brien. Mark Coleman, Jim Miller, T.J. Grant, Jon Fitch, Yoshihiro Akiyama, Alan Belcher and others. It was a stacked event.
Yet looking back at it, the top three fights really are what made the card.
That brings us to UFC 200. Oh, let’s not pretend nothing of note happened in between. Anderson Silva and GSP topped several great cards. Jon Jones and Alexander Gustafsson had probably the greatest light heavyweight title fight of all time at UFC 165 in Toronto. Hendo fought Shogun in a pair of classics, winning each. Bigfoot Silva and Mark Hunt battled in a superb heavyweight bout. Some Irish kid named Conor McGregor made a name for himself. Ronda Rousey convinced Dana White, and the world, that women belonged in the UFC.
Again, though, if we’re talking about biggest, at least on paper, the next candidate had to be UFC 200. At least until outright stupidity took over.
Originally, McGregor vs. Nate Diaz was expected to headline the show, and with a stacked undercard, the biggest draw in MMA probably could have elevated the card on his own. Plans were, after all, to have at least one title fight on the bill, and a who’s who of big names. Then McGregor blew off a press conference, and the UFC yanked him from the card (Diaz and McGregor would eventually have their rematch at UFC 202).
That bout was replaced by interim lightweight champ Jon Jones meeting his arch-nemesis, champ Daniel Cormier, to unify the belts. It didn’t have the same feel as McGregor vs. Diaz 2, mainly due to Jones’ personal struggles over the years, but it was a valid grudge match to determine, once and for all (or until a rubber match), who was the better fighter.
Then Jon Jones tested positive for two banned substances, and the fight went out the window.
The eventual addition of Brock Lesnar, coming out of retirement after four years to face Mark Hunt, and promotion of Miesha Tate vs. Amanda Nunes for the women’s bantamweight title to main event status helped prop up the card, but with neither Ronda Rousey nor McGregor on the bill, it was impossible for UFC 200 to be as big as its predecessor in UFC 100. Why? Well, the UFC managed to get its two biggest stars on UFC 100. At UFC 200, it had neither.
To be fair, points need to be given to 200 for having what is probably the best undercard of all-time. Where UFC 100’s prelims felt like a very good, maybe great, but not the best line-up, UFC 200 had something for everyone. The kid of the future was there in Sage Northcutt. Joe Lauzon fought Diego Sanchez. Jim Miller took out Takanori Gomi. Gegard Mousasi faced Santos. All in the first four fights. Dillashaw, Zingano and Hendricks also decorated the prelims. Even former heavyweight champ Cain Velasquez had to settle for opening the main card.
Yet that didn’t elevate UFC 200 to being the biggest of all-time. It didn’t help that following the fight, Lesnar tested positive for a banned substance himself, something that seemed to curse the card. No, UFC 200 was a great night, but biggest of all-time? Absolutely not. UFC 100 still held that title.
So we arrive at UFC 205, just a few events removed from the big night in July. One of the two biggest stars in MMA at the moment is present. There’s the rarely seen title fight trifecta in play, as the lightweight, welterweight and women’s strawweight titles will be on the line. There is, once again, a stacked undercard. On paper, it surpasses what we eventually got with UFC 200.
Against UFC 100? Well, it might just give that card a run for its money. If it holds together, it has a good shot at surpassing it.
Because while the UFC still can’t seem to get its two biggest draws on a single card, UFC 205 represents history in the making. It may turn out to be the first time a fighter has won belts in two weight classes and held them at the same time. That’ll happen if McGregor bests Eddie Alvarez. It is also not relying on simply the top few fights. Nearly every fight on the top half of the card will be significant.
Joanna Jedrzejczyk will look to solidify her spot as one of the greatest female fighters of all-time. Tyron Woodley will look to silence his critics. Miesha Tate, Frankie Edgar and Chris Weidman will look to get back in the title picture. Khabib Nurmagomedov will look to put a stamp on his claim to the next lightweight title shot. Tim Kennedy and Rashad Evans will face off in a loser-leaves-town match.
In short, there’s a heck of a lot to love about UFC 205. If it’s missing anything, it’s the return of Ronda Rousey, but that would be asking a lot. We can wait a few more weeks until UFC 207 for that.
So is UFC 205 the biggest card of all time?
As scheduled, yes. There’s no way to look at the three title fights booked — Alvarez vs. McGregor, Woodley vs. Thompson and Jedrzejczyk vs. Kowalkiewicz — coupled with the stellar undercard, and come to any other conclusion. There are simply too many big fights, and fights that matter. If you were going to introduce a non-fan to the sport, this would be the card. Success, importance, achievement. UFC 205 can score wins in all three areas, though we won’t know for sure until fight night.
Calling it the biggest card in history feels like dooming it to failure, but there’s no question the UFC has booked an incredible card here. In the end, it just might pull it off.