The pay-per-view portion of the show opened with one of the worst fights in UFC history and ended with one of the best.
And while a nearly 40-year-old ex-professional wrestling champion with no demonstrated MMA ability got his spot on the main card precisely because the UFC so badly needs pay-per-view sellers, it may have found a star it didn’t expect.
A couple of hours after Mike Jackson, an MMA journalist, thrashed CM Punk for three rounds in a fight that was as hard to watch as you might imagine, middleweight champion Robert Whittaker and Yoel Romero put on a fight to remember in front of a sell-out crowd of 18,117 at the United Center in Chicago in the main event of UFC 225.
Punk was much better than he was in his first shot at the UFC, when he lost to Mickey Gall in the first round of a 2016 bout in Cleveland. But he was beaten badly enough that he was transported to the hospital post-fight. Jackson, though, didn’t seem to take the fight seriously and didn’t go all-out to try to finish.
Afterward, when he was asked his plans, Jackson said he’d sit down to talk with UFC president Dana White. That conversation, if it ever happens, doesn’t figure to be pretty. White was fuming at Jackson for fooling around in the fight.
White didn’t try to hide his feelings at the post-fight news conference. Asked if he thought Jackson was trying to extend the fight to get more TV time, White seethed.
“Michael Jackson I’m not happy with,” White said. This guy was acting like a goofball tonight. You get this opportunity to fight CM Punk, and you’re doing, like, bolo punches to the body on top.
“Never looked like he was trying to finish the fight ever. Looked like he could have finished the fight a few times. Never tried.
“I got the sense he’s a complete [expletive] idiot. I couldn’t wait for that fight to end and I regret not putting it on Fight Pass.”
“I don’t know what that guy did for a living before we gave him the shot, but whatever it was, he needs to go back and do that again. He’s 0-2 as far as I’m concerned.”
White wasn’t as scathing of Punk, but certainly couldn’t see much of a career for the former reality TV star.
“The guy’s 39 years old. We gave him two shots, and he had a lot of heart tonight, and I think he should call it a wrap,” said White.
He was bailed out, though, by Whittaker, who not only agreed to fight after Romero missed weight on Friday, but who put on the kind of show that made people love mixed martial arts, and mixed martial artists, in the first place.
Whittaker injured a knee in his 2017 fight in Las Vegas with Romero, a silver medalist at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia. On Saturday, he broke his hand in the first round, but he fought ferociously the rest of the way.
He won a split decision over Romero in a Fight of the Night battle that had many of the crowd on its feet. It featured a fast-pace and brilliant action, made all the more remarkable by the fact that Whittaker couldn’t use his primary weapon, his right hand, for most of the fight.
“In the first round, I busted my hand and I cannot feel it up to my elbow,” Whittaker said.
He absorbed huge shots from Romero, who is hardly a classic striker but whose sheer physical power puts a lot of wallop on his punches. Romero knocked out ex-champion Luke Rockhold in February, showing the kind of power that can end a fight in a blink.
He landed against Whittaker, but Whittaker took whatever he had. Nothing was going to stop Whittaker, even though he conceded he knew what he was up against.
“Yoel hits like a truck and I just had to try and survive and make the comeback,” Whittaker said.
Whittaker hasn’t been mentioned as a potential successor to Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey as the UFC’s biggest pay-per-view draw. Since Rousey’s retirement to become a wrestler and McGregor’s extended absence, the UFC has been looking for that fighter who it could put on a card and almost guarantee a huge pay-per-view number.
The talent level up and down its roster is probably better than it has ever been, but no one has broken through yet.
Whittaker, after yet another impressive and exciting win, might be on that path. He certainly got White’s attention, who responded to a question about Whittaker’s lack of a fan base by saying, “He’s got a lot of fans in Australia.”
Whittaker, though, may be about to expand beyond his home country given his fan-friendly style, his frequent improvement and his refusal to give up.
“If he keeps fighting like he fought tonight, it’s going to go up quick,” White said of Whittaker’s star value.
That fight, and the interim welterweight title bout between Colby Covington and Rafael dos Anjos, which Covington won by decision, provided a stark contrast to the pay-per-view opener.
Punk got the fight because he’s demonstrated throughout his long and successful wrestling career that he can sell tickets and pay-per-views. He lives in Chicago and no doubt helped the UFC sell out the United Center on Saturday.
He didn’t take anyone’s spot on the card, so it wasn’t like he was costing a more deserving fighter a shot, but he just looked so out of place.
He tried – hard – and made it to the finish. It wasn’t pretty, though, and that’s not going to change given Punk’s age and talent level.
Whittaker, though, is a different story. He’s had all sorts of bad luck. He injured the knee in his fight with Romero last year, then missed a bout in February when he had first a staph infection and later chicken pox. If his broken hand keeps him out any length of time, it’s going to be a heartbreaker, because one can see him developing into an elite fighter as well as a star in front of our eyes.
He gave the card the fight it needed after its stomach-turning opener. I suspect, though, it won’t be the last great fight we see him in. The ability to remain healthy is his only serious question mark.
But when he fights, do yourself a favour and make sure you watch Robert Whittaker. It’s everything that makes fans love MMA in the first place.