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Trading Shots: Grading the UFC’s debut on ESPN, from the action to the presentation

Did the UFC deliver on its promises in its debut event with ESPN? Retired UFC and WEC fighter Danny Downes joins MMAjunkie columnist Ben Fowlkes to discuss in this week’s Trading Shots. * * * * Downes: Ben, the first night of the ESPN era had a little bit...

Did the UFC deliver on its promises in its debut event with ESPN? Retired UFC and WEC fighter Danny Downes joins MMAjunkie columnist Ben Fowlkes to discuss in this week’s Trading Shots.

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Downes: Ben, the first night of the ESPN era had a little bit of everything. Donald Cerrone proved the ol’ “Cowboy” can still hang with these young guns. Not only did he finish Alex Hernandez, but it looks like he’s about to make some of that McGregor money.

Greg Hardy’s octagon debut certainly didn’t silence his critics – he was disqualified in the second round for an illegal knee. Plus, he didn’t exactly show contrition in the post-fight news conference.

Then we had the main event. Henry Cejudo only needed 32 seconds to put away T.J. Dillashaw. Dana White called the stoppage “horrible,” but it seemed all right from my perspective.

Knockouts, controversy, broken arms and the usual MMA weirdness. What more could you want? Were you satisfied?

Fowlkes: On the whole, I was pleased with UFC on ESPN+ 1. I don’t think I should ever have to watch any ads on a streaming service I’m paying for, but it was still an improvement on the barrage of Farmers Only commercials and in-studio filler we became accustomed to with FOX Sports.

Unlike others, I had no trouble with the stream at all, which is really saying something from the dismal Internet connection in my frigid Montana basement office. Aside from being forced to roll my eyes at Stephen A. Smith and his bizarre speech patterns from time to time, I found it to be an enjoyable viewing experience.

I do wonder, though, how the sheer number of fights relegated to an online streaming service will change audience engagement. The plan for this year is 10 events on regular ESPN, 12 events on pay-per-view, and 20 events on ESPN+. That’s a lot of eggs in the online basket. If you’re one of the people sitting on a free trial right now, did Saturday night’s event convince you to let it ride?

Downes: My streaming conditions were not as fortunate as yours. Mine didn’t stabilize until right before the Hardy fight, so I missed a lot of the action and Stephen A. Smith commentary leading up to that.

I remember when we discussed the launch of UFC Fight Pass a few years ago. If we’re comparing the two streaming services, ESPN+ is a tremendous improvement. Perhaps that’s a low bar, but it’s the only real comparison we can make.

First of all, we actually know how many fight cards will be shown. Will they be more like last night or like a fight night in the 11th largest city in Brazil? Time will tell, but it seems like the UFC and ESPN are both heavily invested in making things work.

I’ll keep my subscription going once the free trial ends, but we both know you and I aren’t the target demographic. Even if every one of the “wildmen” make the move to ESPN+, would the powers that be consider that a success? I think not.

I’m not one to tell people how to spend their $4.99 per month. While the number of subscribers and value for the money are important, it misses the larger question. Sometimes what’s best for business and what’s best for the sport are two different things. There’s a scenario in which the UFC and ESPN make a lot of money and consider their business deal a success while the sport is ultimately harmed.

One of the running themes of the last few years is how fans are skipping more and more events and the number of bankable stars has decreased. The level of competition is at its peak, but the athletes are more anonymous than ever. The argument is that having the promotional weight of ESPN will help build stars, but we thought the same thing when WME-IMG came into the picture.

Couple that with “big” ESPN’s declining subscription rates, and there’s no guarantee the fighters will gain much more exposure. We know Dana White will get his TV time, but who else? In a few years, Stephen A. Smith may be the least of our worries.

Fowlkes: I’ve wondered about that too. With ESPN’s power and reach, you’d think it could really spotlight individual fighters and tell some of their stories in a way that will connect with mainstream sports fans. But you’re right, we also thought the UFC’s new owners at Endeavor would do more to use their entertainment industry leverage to that end, mostly because they explicitly said they would do exactly that.

If there’s a reason to think ESPN will succeed where Endeavor has barely even tried, maybe it’s because they have different goals. Endeavor wants the UFC to be as profitable as possible, whether through increased revenue or just decreased costs. But ESPN wants viewers. Maybe it will discover that it has to sell people on the fighters, because ain’t nobody paying five bucks a month to see Dana White.

I still think ESPN can do a lot for this sport. Being on SportsCenter still has a value. Getting your highlights mixed in with all the stick-and-ball sports grants a sheen of credibility. Maybe a few more people give this a chance and discover that they like it.

Then again, maybe the cover charge just to get in the building and see the product ends up turning them away, while it’s just us hardcores tuning in for Fight Night events from the Czech Republic that feel a long way away from the star power we were promised.

For complete coverage of UFC on ESPN+ 1, check out the UFC Events section of the site.

Ben Fowlkes is MMAjunkie and USA TODAY’s MMA columnist. Danny Downes, a retired UFC and WEC fighter, is an MMAjunkie contributor who has also written for UFC.com and UFC 360. Follow them on twitter at @benfowlkesMMA and @dannyboydownes.

MMA’s week out of the cage: Best of 10-year challenge, NBA stars attend UFC Brooklyn

Social media has become a significant part of the sporting landscape. But few, if any, professional sports match the level of interaction and personal access provided by MMA. In an individual competition in which nearly every athlete is chasing the same goal of financial success and championship glory, it’s...

Social media has become a significant part of the sporting landscape. But few, if any, professional sports match the level of interaction and personal access provided by MMA.

In an individual competition in which nearly every athlete is chasing the same goal of financial success and championship glory, it’s important for fighters to provide insight into their lives in order to connect with fans and gain followings.

Although the life of a fighter often can be mundane and repetitive, there still are moments of interest that take place outside the cage, ring or training room. Here are some of the most interesting of those occurrences from the past week.

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The 10-year challenge

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Gregor Gillespie wants booing UFC Brooklyn fans to trust him in the future

nt" BROOKLYN, N.Y. – Gregor Gillespie thought his win over Yancy Medeiros was just fine. But the unbeaten lightweight took some umbrage with the fans at UFC on ESPN+ 1 on Saturday night. Gillespie (13-0 MMA, 6-0 UFC) stopped Medeiros (15-6 MMA, 6-6 UFC) late in the second round...

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BROOKLYN, N.Y. – Gregor Gillespie thought his win over Yancy Medeiros was just fine.

But the unbeaten lightweight took some umbrage with the fans at UFC on ESPN+ 1 on Saturday night. Gillespie (13-0 MMA, 6-0 UFC) stopped Medeiros (15-6 MMA, 6-6 UFC) late in the second round with a TKO, but he still heard the boo birds.

“I know this is a drinking crowd (in Brooklyn),” Gillespie told MMAjunkie after the fight. “I’m from New York – I know how we are here. We want action. We want blood. But I heard a few boos out there, and that hurt my feelings a little bit.”

UFC on ESPN+ 1 took place Saturday at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. The main card streamed on ESPN+ following prelims on ESPN and ESPN+.

Gillespie thinks because it took him a little while to get things done, the fans were just being impatient. What he wants out of them next time is their trust.

“I don’t know if (the fans) were booing me, or booing Yancy, or the lack of activity,” he said. “But I’ll say this: I’ve been doing this a long time. I’ve been competing at a very high level, whether it’s wrestling or it’s fighting, for a very long time. You’ve got to trust me: I’ll get you your finish. You’ve got to bear with while I do what I’ve got to do before the finish.”

Gillespie only has gone into the third round twice in his pro career,and he won decisions in both of those fights. The first was a Ring of Combat lightweight title defense in 2016 before he signed with the UFC.

When he got to the big show, he needed 15 minutes to beat Glaico Franca in Brazil – the first time he had to fight out of New Jersey, let alone the States.

But since then, it’s been nothing but finishes for the 31-year-old wrestling standout. He has three knockouts and a pair of submissions, plus three post-fight bonuses over five straight stoppage wins.

And now people are taking notice.

“I felt like I was a legitimate contender six fights ago,” Gillespie said. “There’s one thing I’ve always been able to do, and it’s compete and win.

“Yancy’s definitely fought a lot better guys than anyone I’ve ever fought. He’s beaten better guys than anyone I’ve ever fought. He was up a weight division and came down.”

But Gillespie isn’t going to call anyone out. He’s not going to talk trash about his future opponents. In fact, he doesn’t even want to answer questions about his future opponents.

Just let him go out there and do his thing, get his finish – just be patient with him – and then plan his next fishing trip.

“You don’t have to go out and swing wildly,” he said. “I feel the power bar on the guy draining. Let me ride it … let me ride it … let me ride it. All right: Now it’s time to ground-and-pound. Now I’ve got the position where I can hit him. I didn’t have that position … Trust me when I say I’ll get you your finish. I have patience – I know when that time to go is.”

For more from Gillespie, check out the video above.

And for complete coverage of UFC on ESPN+ 1, check out the UFC Events section of the site.

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