'Was it the best card ever?' Flashy KOs, champs dethroned and a legend's return put UFC 217 in rarefied air

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist

NEW YORK — Less than half of the 18,201 fans who crowded into Madison Square Garden on Saturday to watch three reigning champions lose their belts in one of the most remarkable nights in the UFC’s history were in their seats when Ricardo Ramos and Aiemann Zahabi opened the show.

Ramos knocked Zahabi cold with a perfectly timed spinning elbow in the third round. That brutal finish set a tone that continued throughout the night, leading to not-so-outlandish speculation that UFC 217 might have been the greatest fight card in the promotion’s history.

“You hear me say that this sport is about those, ‘Holy-[expletive]’ moments,” UFC president Dana White said, grinning broadly. “Well, this was the holy-[expletive] card.”

Indeed it was. And while the vicious knockouts on the preliminary card by Ramos, Ovince Saint Preux and James Vick were plenty noteworthy in and of themselves, this show had a bigger meaning.

Three champions — strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk, bantamweight champion Cody Garbrandt and middleweight champion Michael Bisping — lost their belts in upsets that ranged from mild to shocking.

Georges St-Pierre, right, of Canada, celebrates after defeating England’s Michael Bisping, left, in a middleweight title bout at UFC 217. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

It was jaw-dropping when Rose Namajunas, who had been thrashed and submitted by Carla Esparza in a previous bid for the title on Dec. 12, 2014, stood toe-to-toe with Jedrzejczyk and knocked her out.

Namajunas, who was taunted relentlessly by Jędrzejczyk throughout the promotion, dropped the Polish champion early in the first round with a right hand, but Jędrzejczyk survived. It was only momentary though, as Namajunas caught her with a left hook that put her down a second time.

Always a great finisher, Namajunas wasted little time in putting the finishing touches on the fight and denying Jedrzejczyk the opportunity to tie Ronda Rousey’s UFC women’s record for most consecutive women’s title defenses.

Namajunas spoke before the bout about mental-health issues that plagued her family — her father suffered from schizophrenia — and how she wanted to be an advocate.

The win was significant for her, given that she defeated an opponent some were starting to suggest was the best female fighter in the UFC’s history. But she took it very much in stride, knowing her journey to the top was filled with bad days and scary nights. Jedrzejczyk taunted her before the fight mercilessly and Namajunas barely responded.

At the weigh-in, when Jedrzejczyk got in her face and shouted and called herself “The Boogeyman,” Namajunas placidly recited The Lord’s Prayer.

“I had nightmares and dreams and old memories haunting me,” Namajunas said.

She stared them down and told a powerful story in the biggest professional moment of her life. And afterward, she wasn’t so much exultant in victory as she was attempting to use her newly found bully pulpit for a good cause.

“MMA has been through a lot of trash-talking and things like that, people not being true selves or being honest,” Namajunas said. “I don’t know, maybe they feel the need to entertain, but I’m sick of it. I’m sick of the hate and anger. We have a duty as fighters to be a better example and show honor and respect.

“It takes a lot of courage to get in that cage no matter who you are. I try to set an example that way for the rest of the world. There is so much negativity. Everywhere you look, it’s negative. I’m trying to be that positive light as much as possible. I’m not perfect, either, but we need to figure out a way to make the world a better place.”

Rose Namajunas (R) celebrates after knocking out Joanna Jedrzejczyk during their women’s strawweight title fight at UFC 217. (AP)

It’s in a familiar place with St-Pierre once again wearing a championship belt. In one of the most remarkable feats in combat sports history, St-Pierre returned to the game he once ruled on Saturday after nearly four years on the sidelines. St-Pierre walked away from the UFC after a controversial win over Johny Hendricks in Las Vegas on Nov. 16, 2013, unhappy with the pressure he felt and his belief that many of his opponents were using performance-enhancing drugs.

He not only returned to the sport after a four-year layoff, but he moved up a class in the process. But he made the return look like old times by catching middleweight champion Michael Bisping in a rear naked choke in the third round to become just the fourth UFC fighter, after Randy Couture, B.J. Penn and Conor McGregor, to win a title in a second weight class.

St-Pierre set it up with a beautiful left hook that he used after seeing what he thought was a hole in Bisping’s game on tape.

“I studied Michael’s tape, and I knew he had a problem with shots from [his] right,” St-Pierre said. “So I faked on his left side to attract his attention and I struck him on the right.”

Bisping went down hard and St-Pierre followed. When St-Pierre didn’t get the quick finish with his ground-and-pound, he created a bit of space between himself and Bisping.

It was a ploy on St-Pierre’s part. He’s known as “Rush” now because of his penchant as a younger fighter to try to end fights so quickly. He may not be quite as explosive or as athletic as he was as one of the great physical specimens in his early days in the UFC, but he’s decidedly smarter.

And when he moved away from Bisping, he correctly calculated that Bisping would begin to move to get to his feet. He did, and St-Pierre immediately took his back for the fight-ending choke.

“It was a trick,” St-Pierre said of the fight-finishing sequence. “I kind of like to put traps in. I have more experience [than I did before] and a few years ago, I was trying to force things. I think the best way in fighting is to set up traps so when your opponent steps in, you get him.”

Dillashaw capitalized on his experience to overcome Garbrandt and reclaim the bantamweight title he’d lost to Dominick Cruz by a narrow decision last year. Garbrandt lifted the title from Cruz at UFC 207 in a runaway victory that had pegged him as a star.

His first defense came against Dillashaw, his former teammate, friend and training partner. The two had a bitter rivalry with Garbrandt claiming Dillashaw was a liar, that he intentionally tried to injure fellow teammate Chris Holdsworth and that he offered members of Team Alpha Male performance-enhancing drugs.

A defiant Garbrandt said he wouldn’t retract his pre-fight words. He congratulated Dillashaw but said they remain enemies and wants a rematch.

“I stand behind everything I said about T.J.,” Garbrandt said. “I give him credit for going out and capitalizing on a mistake, but I’m the better fighter. I’ll go out and put in as much work as I have to to get my title back.”

T.J. Dillashaw (L) celebrates after beating Cody Garbrandt during their bantamweight title fight at UFC 217. (AP)

He shouldn’t expect it anytime soon if Dillashaw has anything to say about it. Dillashaw and White were hawking a champion-versus-champion match that would pit him against flyweight king Demetrious Johnson.

Even if that doesn’t happen, Dillashaw beamed broadly and said Garbrandt doesn’t deserve it.

“He’s new in this sport and he’s going to have to work his way back up,” Dillashaw said.

That may not sit too well with Garbrandt, but Dillashaw earned the right to gloat. He avoided becoming another of one of the many knockout victims when he survived a late first-round assault from his former teammate that dropped him with seconds remaining in the round.

For that, he credited his ability to take a punch.

“I really do believe you can condition your chin,” he said.

It was a wild night with a lot of great fights and jaw-dropping moments, as well as many eye-opening comments after the fight.

It might not have been the best fight card ever, but if it wasn’t, it wasn’t far off.

“Was it the best card ever? Man, that’s hard to answer,” White said. “We do so many cards. But I know this: Not many of them suck. There aren’t many of those. This was a great one, but for me to say it’s the best ever, it’s hard.”

White said indications are that the pay-per-view did well over 1 million. So in addition to being a great night of fights, it was also a big night for the business.

Fans, though, care about fights, not business, and they were left with memories they won’t soon lose after one of the UFC’s nights to remember.