Starved of star power, the beginning of 2017 for the UFC was a complete contrast to the craziest, most unpredictable and most important year in the history of the promotion in 2016.
But after a cold start, the year is ending in red-hot fashion as UFC 218 followed on from the thrilling events of 217 and 216 in providing emphatic knockouts and back-and-forth brawls.
Topped out by Max Holloway becoming the first man to beat Jose Aldo twice to retain his featherweight title, a myriad of narratives helped to shape one of the cards of 2017.
Here, we look at the four things we learned as the UFC saved some of the best for Detroit.
THE BLESSED ERA LEADS THE NEW ERA
Perhaps it’s because the spectre of Conor McGregor lingers over the 145lbs division but the promotional push for Holloway has been short of thrust.
When you consider the depth of marketing the UFC has invested in the likes of Sage Northcutt, Paige VanZant and Cody Garbrandt, you can’t help but feel Holloway has been left shortchanged.
His performance on Saturday not only provided justification for more of the spotlight, but also why the 25-year-old deserves to spearhead the new generation.
Indeed, the ‘Blessed Era’ leads the new era.
Robert Whittaker (26), Kelvin Gastelum (26) and Rose Namajunas (25) are all exceptional young fighters creating waves.
But Holloway stands apart with his livewire fighting style married to an ebullient personality which deserves a superstar promotional push.
Riding a 12-fight win streak, he now owns consecutive beatings over Aldo and is a certain contender for Fighter of the Year.
The Hawaiian is only getting better, too, with the claim of division’s best ever surely not far away.
NGANNOU WON’T BE STOPPED
Francis Ngannou launched Alistair Overeem into the air and in the process gave his own title ambitions lift off.
The 31-year-old Cameroonian slept Overeem with a violent left hand and his presence in the division has awoken the UFC’s land of giants.
It took a little over 90 seconds for Ngannou to connect with Overeem’s chin and when he did, the Dutchman’s head
defied physics to remain on his shoulders.
With six straight stoppages, Ngannou is hurtling towards champ Stipe Miocic with a speed only matched by that of his hype train.
It was the kind of scorching performance which means only the title fight makes sense and it will surely be one of the most anticipated clashes of 2018.
Miocic has more tools than other fighters in the division, but if a shot like the one which froze Overeem in time lands, there’s simply nothing he can do. If Ngannou can’t be stopped, he might be the only man no-one will want a title shot from.
ALVAREZ’S CONFIDENCE FROM CHAOS
After the devastation of defeat to McGregor was followed by the controversy of a ‘no contest’ with Dustin Poirier, Eddie Alvarez was fast losing relevance at the top of 155lbs.
But the ‘Underground King’ responded emphatically with one of the performances of the year to stop Justin Gaethje.
The whirlwind clash was a welcome deviation from fights which promise so much but in the end delivered little. In reality, with their forward-pressure style, a war was only ever going to be the outcome and they didn’t disappoint.
Gaethje’s brutal leg kicks hallmarked the early stanzas, but the former champ’s work to the body gradually wore his man down.
Battered, bruised and bloodied, the pair entered the third session in bits but Alvarez summoned the energy to banish ghosts of past to land a huge knee of the chin of Gaethje for the stoppage.
Now, Alvarez will surely cast his eye to the year’s ending clash between top contenders Khabib Nurmagomedov and Edson Barboza.
INSANITY AT ITS BEST
Insanity is perhaps the only word fitting to describe Yancy Medeiros’ win over Alex Oliveira on the prelims.
With a comeback to rival Darren Elkins’ bonkers bout with Mirsad Bektic, a first round which is a contender for the best of the year and a fight which overall delivered pure savagery, Medeiros came out on top with a third-round stoppage.
It was beautiful brutality, the Hawaiian surviving two knockdowns in the opening round and yet still managing to bust the Brazilian’s nose open. In the end, Medeiros’ measured approach countered Oliveira’s all-impact style.
A Fight of the Year contender even before Alvarez and Gaethje stepped foot in the Octagon.
Michael Bisping has been the ultimate company man but in Shanghai the company failed the man.
It’s stating the obvious now, of course, but the Brit’s rapid return to action after being choked unconscious by Georges St-Pierre three weeks ago in New York was just way too soon.
But in a sport of dire consequences, the dangers are very real and this was a fight unnecessary at every level.
For Bisping, he saw the bout as a cathartic exercise and a mechanism to release the demons of defeat to GSP. In reality patience was all he required.
The plan to retire in the UK when the promotion returned to London next March was both fitting and fair.
The 38-year-old would have had time to recover physically and mentally following the loss of his middleweight title and the tributes for a Hall-of-Fame career would have been in celebration rather than mourning.
Regardless of the mitigating circumstances, a two-fight losing skid less than a month apart in which he was left unconscious both times is a terrible look for all.
It’s incredibly short-sighted on the UFC’s part and the hypocrisy is maddening when you consider on one hand their attempts to clean up the sport – think USADA – but then on the other allow a fighter to compete three weeks after being knocked down, repeatedly elbowed and then choked out.
It’s one step forward and two back straight into the dark ages. Bisping is a warrior in every sense of the word but the UFC abandoned their duty of care.
Granted, the shot he took would have levelled anyone as Gastelum uncorked a one-two with pin-point accuracy in the first round. The head of any middleweight would have snapped back because his speed, precision and power is lethal.
But the one-two combination was as heavy as the one and two losses Bisping has now suffered and it leaves us shuddering at the thought of what’s next.
“I just want to say congratulations to Kelvin Gastelum,” Bisping said post-fight. “Job well done tonight. I was enjoying myself, and he caught me with a good shot.
“God bless Kelvin. He’s young. I’ve done this for a long time. I’m getting old.”
Kevin Gastelum with the brutal combo to KO Micheal Bisping! 😳🔞 pic.twitter.com/Bhj2B7zSSM— Tips To Top (@TipsToTop) November 25, 2017
Bisping is aging quick in a sport which ruthlessly waits for no man.
There was talk Yoel Romero could send him off into retirement given the intrigue behind their bitter feud but a fight that tough would be akin to the send off for an inmate on death row.
UFC commentator Dan Hardy’s suggestion of Lyoto Machida makes sense, as does a rematch with Vitor Belfort. Both represent winnable fights against opponents no longer relevant at the top of the division.
But the summit of 185lbs is exactly where Gastelum belongs.
The 26-year-old has firmly put his suffocating defeat to Chris Weidman in the rearview mirror and has established himself as a title contender.
“I heard Robert Whittaker needs a main event over in Australia for February and I’m up the challenge,” Gastelum said in the post-fight press conference. “You guys say I beat up all the elderly, and Robert Whittaker is definitely not an elderly, he’s probably my age, so I’m up for the challenge.
“Anything can happen in the sport of MMA, you know. I feel like Robert Whittaker and I should be next. We’re two young guys who haven’t even hit our prime yet, and I just beat the guy who was the guy so I think I should be next.”
A scrap between two young hungry athletes at the top of their game is what this sport should be about. Hopefully in future the company recognises that.
BISPING’S RETIREMENT PLANS
Fighting Romero in a retirement fight is a horrific prospect but their feuding backdrop is an element of interest. Still, it’s the worst possible match-up for Bisping and should be avoided.
A winnable fight with the context of Bisping’s heavily damaged eye caused by a vicious Belfort headkick in their first fight.
The Dragon has lost four of his last five fights and at 39 is also in the twilight stage of his career. A recognisable name and a fight which would allow Bisping to showcase his striking.
Evans presents another opportunity to right a previous defeat and having lost four straight – two since moving down to middleweight – it’s not a dangerous bout to take.
The UFC needed it’s marquee event of the year to deliver and it did so in the biggest way possible.
New York City has the Midas touch for the promotion with their second trip to Madison Square Garden equalling, if not surpassing the thrill of UFC 205.
Indeed, from top to bottom UFC 217 contained every element which makes MMA so unpredictable and intoxicating.
Three title fights produced three new champions, with two familiar faces reunited with gold while another was welcomed to titlist’s row for a first time.
Here are four things learned from a phenomenal card.
Dominick Cruz was the first to doubt the “cage rust” claim after he returned from an injury layoff to reclaim the bantamweight title.
Georges St-Pierre abolished the myth.
After a four-year hiatus, the Canadian idol returned to MMA a division up from the one he dominated and at the age of 36, yet looked better than ever to choke out Michael Bisping for the 185lbs title.
Poised and powerful, GSP looked utterly serene with only a second round cardio dip the sole blemish.
Bisping’s boxing ability led many to believe the former welterweight king would adopt a tentative approach but in the first round he outboxed the Brit.
Credit to the deposed champ who sliced St-Pierre up with hellish elbows from the guard in the third session.
But the release of blood unleashed a killer instinct in the challenger and after landing a huge left hook, the Montreal native swarmed then strangled Bisping to get the victory.
Post fight, the 36-year-old talked down the possibility of remaining at middleweight having become just the fourth fighter to claim belts in two divisions, but on the basis of this performance, he looked bigger and better than ever.
T.J. Dillashaw displayed an evolution of his revolutionary striking style to stop former Team Alpha Male team-mate Cody Garbrandt and in the process thrust himself into the pound-for-pound discussion.
In the end, ‘No Love’ lost and no love was lost between them but putting fierce emotions to one side, Dillashaw reclaimed the bantamweight belt he felt he’d never relinquished with a savage second-round knockout.
Having been dropped in the first session, Dillashaw recovered, regrouped and then rattled the champ with a stinging right hook before pummeling his head into the canvas when Garbrandt hit the deck.
His arsenal is ever expanding with the weapons of old have been sharpened to form a fighter who is the perfect embodiment of a modern mixed martial artist.
The 31-year-old’s smooth stance switching is taken MMA striking to a new level and Dillashaw himself is embarking on the upper echelons of the sport.
It’s now three straight wins, with a credible argument that’s actually 13 given the narrow nature of his two split-decision losses, and with the No1 pound-for-pound Demetrious Johnson square in his sights, Dillashaw is a serious contender to the prestigious title.
Rose Namajunas was the biggest underdog on the card yet showed Joanna Jedrzejczyk the loudest barks can come from inside the Octagon rather than out of it.
The entire build-up to their 115lbs title fight had been dominated the Polish champion’s trademark trash talk.
Mental warfare is Jedrzejczyk’s frontline weapon but Namajunas displayed an unerring level of calm to brush off the personal barbs.
Ultimately, the 25-year-old talked with her fists and they were loud and clear as she flattened the feared and previously unbeaten Jedrzejczyk with a first-round stoppage.
The magnitude of her victory cannot be lost in the simplicity of its nature. Jedrzejczyk had defended her title five times and was targeting a women’s record-equalling sixth defence.
The Pole would have tied Ronda Rousey and the parallels between her shattering shock loss to Holly Holm and Jedrzejczyk’s to Namajunas are hard to get away from.
But in contrast to Rousey, the former strawweight queen handled her defeat with complete class.
She voiced a determination to reclaim the belt and like fellow perennial winners Conor McGregor and Dominick Cruz, the 30-year-old spoke impressively in defeat.
We live in an era of knee jerk reactions perpetuated through the rapidity of social media but despite the rawness, UFC 217 is among the best cards ever.
UFC president Dana White was restrained enough to say one of the best, reluctant to get caught up in the whirlwind nature of the card.
But for the first time ever, three belts changed hands in the same event and quite literally from top to bottom, entertainment was served and devoured.
Only two bouts needed the judges and one of those was an elite display of striking as Stephen Thompson dominated Jorge Masvidal.
Ovince Saint Preux produced a contender for KO of the year, Namajunas for upset while GSP strengthened his claim for GOAT status.
The card evoked a rollercoaster of emotions and is alongside UFC 205 and UFC 196 as the best ever.