urijah-faber-scott-jorgensen-3.jpgUFC President Dana White might not want to admit it, but you know there had to be a moment during the Cat Zingano vs. Miesha Tate fight where he allowed himself to wonder, why didn’t we do this sooner?

By this, of course, I mean women’s MMA. And by sooner I mean back when White was saying that there weren’t enough good female fighters to build a division around. White freely admits now that it was Ronda Rousey who changed his mind (even though one fighter still doesn’t prove anything about the depth of a division, but fine), though Zingano and Tate must have made him question whether he shouldn’t have broadened his view a little earlier.

On Saturday night at The Ultimate Fighter 17 Finale in Las Vegas, Rousey couldn’t do much more than smile and wave from a cageside seat while Zingano and Tate stole the spotlight with what was obviously the most exciting and fiercely competitive fight on the card. Rousey – and, to a lesser extent, Tate – might have kicked open the door to the UFC, but it’s the talented female fighters who come streaming in after her who will help keep the path clear for future generations.

Zingano and Tate got nowhere near the level of pre-fight press and aggressive UFC hype that Rousey did for her debut. They were the third fight down the card on a TUF Finale event, behind a men’s bantamweight fight with uncertain stakes and the finale of a reality TV show competition among UFC hopefuls. That they delivered a great fight probably shouldn’t surprise us. That’s been the M.O. of the women’s division for years. They get fewer opportunities to shine, but they don’t waste many of them.

It was the same when Zingano and Tate got their shot. They gave us two and a half brutal, bloody rounds, and they did it without any help from the superstar who finally convinced the UFC to give them a chance. It’s when you think about what the card would have looked like without them that you really start to understand why the UFC, which continues to battle injuries and late scratches and the demands of a hectic TV schedule, should be glad that it has them to lean on now. When you think about all the other fight cards that could have used a similar boost, what you really wonder is why it took so long.

The difference between illegal, legal, and close enough

The Internet outrage machine known as Twitter lit up with a furious stream of back-of-the-head complaints following Travis Browne‘s elbow-tastic knockout of Gabriel Gonzaga. Then, just as things started to cool down, Zingano landed a very borderline knee to Tate’s head as part of what would prove to be the fight-ending onslaught. So now we have to ask: Were these blows illegal?

Maybe. Possibly. They were pretty close, which, let’s face it, in this sport makes them essentially legal.

I went back this morning and watched both fights in super slow-motion, thanks to the magic of DVR. Near as I could tell, Browne started off his elbow attack with legal strikes that landed just behind Gonzaga’s ear. As Gonzaga went limp and listed off to the side like a big, hairy ship sinking into a watery grave, behind the ear definitely became the back of the head, even the base of the skull. Is that illegal? Yep. Was the fight already effectively over by then? Sure.

I’m not sure what we want the referee to do about that. It’s the same with the Zingano-Tate fight. Replay shows Zingano launching the knee while Tate has both hands on the mat. One of those hands clearly loses contact with the canvas before the knee lands. The other? Well, it’s close. And if it’s close when we’re watching it in slow-motion replay for the eighth time, what can we really expect of the ref who has to make a decision in real time? If it’s close enough that we can’t be sure, isn’t that close enough to let it slide?

Maybe not in another sport. If this were a goal-line play in football, there’d be no reason not to pause the game and look at it from every conceivable angle between plays. What does the camera in the blimp have to say about it? What about the brand new Ford Tough SquirrelCam we just installed last week? That’s a luxury you have in a sport where pauses are already built in. You can’t do that in a fight because stopping the flow of action even for an instant necessarily alters it in a way that cannot be unaltered. That’s why “possibly illegal” usually becomes “close enough to legal.” That’s why, if we can’t tell it’s illegal right away and at full speed, most of the time we have to let it slide. It’s fine for us to debate it with GIFs and endless replays later, but if there’s even room for that much debate, expect the tie to favor the offender.

In non-title fights, Faber still seems unstoppable

The more I see the now 33-year-old “California Kid” beat up on bantamweights who aren’t UFC champions, the more of an appreciation I gain for the two guys who are. Urijah Faber is still a problem for about 95 percent of the 135-pounders in the world. He could probably also put a whooping on the majority of 145-pounders. He just can’t quite do it against the fighters at the very top of either division – guys such as Dominick Cruz, Renan Barao and Jose Aldo – which tells you how good they really are.

Against Scott Jorgensen in Saturday night’s main event, Faber proved that his physical tools haven’t eroded one bit. His fight IQ is as sharp as it ever was and might even be getting sharper with age. He went up against a very tough, very game bantamweight, and had him looking frustrated and ready to fold up by the fourth round. Now what’s the UFC supposed to do with him?

There’s already some Faber fatigue due to how many title fights – interim and otherwise – he’s been in over the past few years. He never loses when there isn’t a belt on the line. Then again, the last time he won in that situation was 2008. If you feed him a top contender to determine whether he gets to have another go at gold, you risk knocking off a fresh challenger in favor of a rerun.

But if you can’t beat Faber, how are you going to become champ? We talk about gatekeepers in MMA like it’s an insult, but that’s not always the case. Right now, Faber guards the entrance to the bantamweight elite, and getting past him would really mean something for an up-and-coming 135-pounder. I’m just not sure what that does for Faber, who still seems to be having fun heading into his mid-30s, but who might not be satisfied to be a championship prerequisite indefinitely.

The trouble with the TUF hype machine

We spent weeks hearing about how terrifying and how dangerous “TUF 17? finalist Uriah Hall was. He ran through the reality TV show tournament, literally breaking faces as he went, and when it came time for him to fight in the live finale, you got the sense that the UFC had already filled out the paperwork to get him his complimentary motorcycle in a timely fashion. Thing is, there’s still the little matter of this one last fight, and no one told Kelvin Gastelum that it was just a formality.

Dana White said he thought Hall wasn’t mean enough to his former teammate, that he broke down mentally in his big moment. The unstated assumption there is that he’s still the better fighter, which is a bit of a leap to make since he didn’t, you know, win the fight. You can see why the UFC was excited about Hall, and why it in turn tried so very, very hard to get us excited. The problem is, putting that much energy into one half of the finale fight leaves you flatfooted if the other guy wins.

Hall looked good in short bursts on Saturday night. That monster we saw on “TUF” was in there somewhere, but for some reason, he didn’t come out to play. Maybe it’ll be different once he gets some more seasoning in the UFC, or when he gets the chance to fight a stranger who he has more reason to want to hurt.

Maybe it’ll also make us think twice the next time the UFC tells us it has located the meanest, nastiest, scariest guy in “Ultimate Fighter” history. Seriously this time, you guys. Just wait and see.

For complete coverage of The Ultimate Fighter 17 Finale, stay tuned to the UFC Events section of the site.

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