<
>

Ariel Helwani's MMA thoughts: Don't doubt Jeremy Stephens' integrity

play
Bisping: Rodriguez vs. Stephens was over before it started (0:59)

Michael Bisping discusses what went down in the main event between Yair Rodriguez and Jeremy Stephens, which was ruled a no contest after only a few seconds. For more UFC, sign up here for ESPN+ http://plus.espn.com/ufc. (0:59)

We've got a supremely busy weekend of MMA coming up, highlighted by the UFC's debut in beautiful Copenhagen, Denmark.

This is a sneaky good card, which has flown under the radar. The headliner, Jack Hermansson vs. Jared Cannonier, is of interest because both have looked really good as of a late and represent fresh blood at 185 pounds. Hermansson, in particular, is one of the breakout stars of 2019. I'm also very curious to see Mark Madsen, who is a 2016 Olympic wrestling silver medalist and is a perfect 8-0, make his debut in his home country. In addition, the fight card is littered with names who are always fun to watch, such as:

Did you realize all of those exciting fighters were on the card? Like I said, it's solid from top to bottom. Every fight has an interesting storyline going into it.

In addition to that, Bellator has two cards this weekend -- one in Dublin, Ireland, and the other in Inglewood, California, which are filled with solid fights. The best of the bunch is the Patricio "Pitbull" Freire vs. Juan Archuleta featherweight title main event on Saturday night, along with the rest of the featherweight grand prix fights. Oh, we're also getting Lyoto Machida vs. Gegard Mousasi 2 and Antonio McKee fighting on the same card as his son, rising star A.J. Plus, Cage Warriors and LFA, among others, also have cards, too.

So. Much. MMA.

But before we get to all that, here are my thoughts from the week that was in our lovely sport:

The Lede

If you're one of those people who thinks Jeremy Stephens looked for a way out against Yair Rodriguez by faking an eye injury 15 seconds into their fight Saturday night, please consider this: Stephens has been fighting professionally for 14 years. That was his 45th professional fight. Throughout his 12-year run in the UFC, which is impressive in its own right, he has always been known as a guy who will fight anyone, any time. Sometimes to his detriment. As the great Jim Ross likes to say, Stephens is tougher than a two-dollar steak. The idea that Stephens, who just spent the last six weeks in Mexico preparing for this fight, which cost him $30,000, would make it all the way to the fight itself and then fake an injury is just absolutely absurd. I can't even wrap my head around this idiotic claim. Why in the world would he do this?

Full disclosure: I have never been scratched in the eye like that before, but I have seen enough fights to know that those can sometimes hurt more than eye pokes. I mean, just look at his reaction. He couldn't even open his left eye.

No matter how you slice it, the situation was unfortunate. I especially feel for Stephens because he only gets his show money as a result of the no contest and never got a chance to show what he could do against one of the game's young studs. His character is also being questioned, which is not right.

On top of all of that, he left the arena having to be shielded by security as fans were throwing bottles, cups and lord knows what else at him. Have you seen that footage? It's absolutely despicable. We have seen fans throw things here or there as a result of a controversial moment, but never quite like that. No one deserves that, and I hope those "fans" are ashamed of their behavior. I hope they woke up Monday morning embarrassed. I've never understood people who do this. It's one thing to boo, but to actually pelt someone down below because you're upset a sporting event went a certain way is just so bizarre to me. Hopefully we never see a scene like that again.

And then there's Rodriguez. Look, I completely understand his frustration. That was his first fight in 10 months. He was headlining his first show in his home country in front of lots of family and friends. That was an incredibly disappointing turn of events, especially when you consider it happened in the first 15 seconds, which means he most likely had a lot of pent-up energy that needed to be released. But, I don't think he handled that situation particularly well. If anything, I think he may have negatively affected it because once the fans saw how upset he was, that may have given them the green light to act the way they did.

Fortunately, he calmed down (I think Michael Bisping stonewalling his outburst before their interview in the Octagon helped bring him back to reality) and regathered his composure.

Just an ugly ending to an otherwise entertaining card.

So, what should the UFC do now? I think you have to run it back. Now you have a legit grudge match. Let Stephens heal and then book them on the next available card. It makes too much sense.

Credit where it's due

Herb Dean has been the subject of a lot of criticism this year, and often rightfully so. Simply put, he hasn't had a particularly great year. However, I thought he handled the situation in the main event Saturday night phenomenally well. He was calm and collected. He didn't rush Stephens to decide too fast and did his best to salvage the fight. We only seem to talk about refs when they mess up, so it's important to note that Dean was very much on point during that whole episode.

How?

play
0:27

Grasso nearly submits Esparza with armbar

Alexa Grasso appears to sink in an armbar, but Carla Esparza is able to maneuver her way free. For more UFC, sign up here for ESPN+ http://plus.espn.com/ufc.

I still can't believe Carla Esparza survived that armbar attempt in the third round of her fight against Alexa Grasso. Reminded me of Donald Cerrone vs. Benson Henderson 1 at WEC 43. If that fight were contested in PRIDE, where they scored fights based on the totality of damage and not round by round, I think Grasso would have won. I also wouldn't strongly argue against a 10-8 third round, which means the fight would have been a draw. But, I had it two rounds to one for Esparza. Grasso continues to improve, though, and I wouldn't be surprised if sometime soon she goes on a nice little run. Remember, she's only 26.

Bend the knee

The Brandon Moreno vs. Askar Askarov fight was a ton of fun to watch. I thought Moreno did enough to win, but I don't hate the draw result, either. But you know what I kept thinking about throughout that fight? This is all thanks to Henry Cejudo. I don't know if Cejudo will ever fight at 125 again -- those weight cuts take a toll on him -- however, he single-handedly saved that weight class with his win over TJ Dillashaw and his ability to get "over" with the fans afterwards. Heck, even Moreno himself was a casualty of the flyweight purge earlier this year and then was brought back because of what Cejudo did. It's remarkable. And ever since then, it seems like the majority of the flyweight fights have been all action. This division was a single result away from disappearing and now it's enjoying a renaissance, all thanks to "Triple C." I love it.

Speaking of Cejudo, is it me or is he on the longest victory tour of all time? I feel like no matter the location of the event these days, there he is in the front row, huffing and puffing while showing off that replica medal of his. It's good to be the king, I guess.

PENSAMIENTOS DE MÉXICO

I keep waiting for the best Irene Aldana to show up, and I think she did on Saturday. What a dominant win. ... That Steven Peterson spinning back fist KO -- just the seventh in UFC history -- is on my shortlist for knockout of the year. I mean, he countered a spinning back fist with his own spinning back fist. Incredible timing. ... That was the last fight on Paul Craig's contract. I think he proved he should stick around. ... Bethe Correia is really wacky, but I love it. You can never have enough wacky in MMA. ... Sergio Pettis should send his thanks to Triple C, too. Flyweight is where he belongs. ... That was Angela Hill's first stoppage in three and a half years and also her first in 12 UFC fights. Perhaps this will propel her to go on a run because I've always felt she's better than her now 10-7 record suggests. ... Anyone else notice Jorge Masvidal's logo on the sombrero he was wearing? Nice touch. And I love that he got his own entrance. The man can do no wrong these days.

Nothing to worry about

play
1:37

Masvidal: Diaz is a different caliber fighter

Jorge Masvidal and Nate Diaz share mutual respect for each other at their press conference as the two are set to square off at UFC 244. For more UFC, sign up here for ESPN+ http://plus.espn.com/ufc.

If you listened to last week's episode of The MMA Reporters, you heard me say I suspected Thursday's UFC 244 news conference was not going to be very exciting. And wouldn't ya know it, it wasn't. Now let's be very clear here: the location and the setting were magnificent. Jorge Masvidal's suit was tremendous. Heck, even the "parental advisory" poster was great. But the actual news conference itself? Bit of a dud, right? You know why? When it comes to news conferences, both Masvidal and Nathan Diaz are counter punchers. They like to sit back and wait for their opponent to lead the dance. That's what made the first Conor McGregor-Nate Diaz news conference so magical. McGregor was the aggressor, and Diaz counter-attacked. So, given their demeanors at news conferences, I had a feeling it would feel a bit flat. Add in the respect both seem to have for each other, and, well, you saw what happened. But, again, let's be super clear here: that news conference didn't dampen my excitement for this fight at all. In fact, just seeing them there together made it feel very real and made me more excited.

It's not often these days that a fight breaks through the MMA bubble and speaks to the "mainstream" audience. This fight has broken through. No doubt about that. I never would have thought this particular matchup had it in it to do so, but here we are, and it's a wonderful thing to see two guys who have paid their dues -- and then some -- garner this kind of attention. Nov. 2 can't come soon enough.

Two down, one to go

So Max Holloway vs. Alexander Volkanovski for the UFC featherweight title is official for Dec. 14 in Las Vegas. I am very much looking forward to this fight. I don't know who is going to win but I'll just say: don't sleep on Volkanovski. Yes, this will be the biggest fight of his career, but I have been very impressed with his overall skills and durability. He will be a tough out, no doubt, for Holloway.

That's title fight No. 2 for this card. I maintain this fight should have happened at UFC 243 in Melbourne, Australia, next month, but alas, I've already talked about that enough. As you probably know, already booked for the card was Amanda Nunes vs. Germaine de Randamie for the UFC women's bantamweight title. The current plan is to add one more title fight, but that fight isn't locked in and the promotion is currently exploring multiple options, sources say. The UFC is still holding out hope the third title fight will serve as the main event. Fights discussed have been a Stipe Miocic vs. Daniel Cormier 3 heavyweight title fight, Kamaru Usman vs. Colby Covington for the UFC welterweight title or a Jon Jones UFC light heavyweight title fight. There's also a chance none of those fights happen and they end up with two title fights. Stay tuned.

No news

Speaking of the Usman vs. Covington fight, there's still no update there. The UFC has now put it on the back burner in hopes of making Miocic vs. Cormier 3. If they can make that one happen -- and it's certainly not a formality because Miocic is nursing injuries -- they'll likely delay the 170-pound title fight and worry about it in the new year.

Conor watch

The addition of the second UFC 245 title fight all but ensures that Conor McGregor won't be on that card. McGregor wants to fight on it, though, but financially, it doesn't make sense for the UFC to put him on a card with multiple champions on it because then they'll be forced to pay more in pay-per-view points. That said, McGregor's return feels imminent. My hunch is he fights early in 2020 and more than once next year, too. Time to get back to work.

Be safe, Suga

Rashad Evans, as first reported by ESPN's Brett Okamoto, is coming out of retirement. I was recently talking to Evans, who became a vegan recently, about how good he looked these days. Sometimes when a fighter walks away from active competition they let themselves go, but Evans looks phenomenal. He seemed to be in a good spot and at peace, so I was a bit surprised to hear he's coming back. But I shouldn't be, of course. This is the fight game. No one stays retired. Unfortunately for Evans, he's lost his last five in a row. His last win was six years ago against Chael Sonnen at UFC 167. It's been that long. He's turning 41 on Wednesday, too. I certainly wish Evans, one of the good guys in this sport, all the best, but we all know history and father time are not on his side. Hopefully he's doing this for the right reasons and is booked against fighters his own age and caliber.

Smokescreen

I don't buy for a second that the UFC is currently interested in booking Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Georges St-Pierre next. I think this newfound interest surrounding the fight is simply a warning sign to Tony Ferguson to let him know they have options in case negotiations, which haven't really started for that fight, go haywire. That's the fight to make and everyone from the UFC brass to the fans to St-Pierre himself knows it.

A nod to "The Hitman"

With the UFC finally coming to Denmark this weekend, I'm reminded of the greatest Danish MMA fighter ever: Martin "The Hitman" Kampmann. Kampmann went 11-6 in the UFC and is the only Danish fighter to have more than one win in the UFC. And he wasn't just some guy on the roster. No, he was a perennial contender who could hit really, really hard. His knockout of Jake Ellenberger, who was on a six-fight winning streak and close to a title shot at the time, back in 2012, was probably his most impressive win. His two fights against Carlos Condit are classics, as well, in addition to his notable victories over the likes of Thiago Alves, Rick Story, Paulo Thiago, Jacob Volkmann, Thales Leites and Jorge Rivera. He also almost famously screwed up the UFC's plans to book Jake Shields vs. St-Pierre at UFC 129 in Toronto months before that historic stadium event, but he ended up losing a razor-thin decision to Shields at UFC 121. It's been a while since I watched that fight, but I still think Kampmann deserved to get the nod.

Kampmann won't be fighting this Saturday -- he retired almost four years ago. However, his presence will most certainly be felt. He currently trains fighters in Denmark and will be in Madsen's corner, among others.

Hear and there

Glad to see Bellator sign Nick Newell to a long-term deal. Well-deserved and long overdue. ... Before booking Greg Hardy vs. newcomer Ben Sosoli on Oct. 18 in Boston, there was brief talk of doing Hardy vs. Todd Duffee, sources say. However, Duffee's eye won't be healed in time after last week's Jeff Hughes eye poke. I'd like to see that fight one day. ... USADA suspended David Branch for two years last week, retroactive to May 24 because he failed an out-of-competition drug test for Ipamorelin, a substance that mimics growth hormone. I reached out to Branch to get his side of the story, but I didn't hear back. I bet there are a lot of recently suspended fighters who were jealous of the fact that the UFC cut ties with Branch right away. ... Poor Calvin Kattar. He goes from being booked against Zabit Magomedsharipov in his home state of Massachusetts to now having to fight Magomedsharipov in Magomedsharipov's home country of Russia a few weeks later. Tough luck. ... Best wishes to England's Cal Ellenor, who was forced to withdraw from Friday's Bellator main event against James Gallagher after several recent medical checks revealed he is dealing with brain illness. According to Ellenor, scans revealed he has a gap in his frontal lobe and three black spots in his brain that have recently developed. It appears as though his promising career is now over.

One last thing

My favorite story of the weekend is the return of Nicolas Dalby. If you're unfamiliar with his story, Dalby, who was released from the UFC in 2016 after going 1-2-1, fell into a deep depression three years ago and dealt with alcoholism. After seemingly hitting rock bottom, he was able to overcome that and went unbeaten in his last four fights in Cage Warriors, which led to him recently getting re-signed by the promotion. And wouldn't ya know it, he's from Copenhagen, so he gets to return in his hometown. Dalby is a really interesting guy. He once e-mailed the UFC with suggestions on how to make fight week run smoother and then decided to shadow the operations team prior to UFC 199 three years ago to get a better appreciation for what they do.

I'm honestly not sure if he would have been re-signed if the UFC wasn't running a show in Denmark, but who cares? I believe it was the Roman philosopher Seneca who once said luck is when preparation meets opportunity, and that is exactly what happened to Dalby.

Monday's Helwani Show lineup:

1:00 p.m. ET: Weekend recap.

1:05 p.m.: Carla Esparza will look back at her hard-fought win over Alexa Grasso and discuss what's next.

1:25 p.m.: Jeremy Stephens will talk about the controversial ending to his fight against Yair Rodriguez and will update us on how his injured eye is feeling.

1:45 p.m.: Leon Edwards will discuss where he stands amid the drama atop the welterweight division.

2:00 p.m.: Martin Kampmann will talk about the UFC's return to Denmark and the role he played in the rise of Danish MMA.

2:20 p.m.: Comedian and MMA superfan Joey "Coco" Diaz will discuss Diaz vs. Masvidal and his love for MMA.

2:40 p.m.: Jack Hermansson will preview his main event fight against Jared Cannonier this weekend.

3:00 p.m.: Jorge Masvidal will talk about his unlikely breakout year and his UFC 244 headliner versus Nate Diaz.

3:35 p.m.: In his first interview since UFC 241, Daniel Cormier will address his fighting future and talk about his recent loss to Stipe Miocic.