A few years back I was covering a mid-level regional MMA show in Michigan. Organization at shows below the Bellator and UFC like these tend to vary in their organization and accommodations, so I was pacing after interviewing a winner post-fight back to the seat I had carved out at a table some rows back.

The fight going on at the time was a women’s match, of what weight class I couldn’t tell you. What I can recall is a vivid memory of, as I was walking to my seat, one of the participants turning, then spitting out of the cage, leaving one of the color commentators working cage side with a great big crimson stain on his white dress shirt. As someone who has several years of doing commentary, I contorted my face with some look of relative disgust and thought of how glad I was to not be on the broadcast for once.

Expect the unexpected in the fight game. The moments that no one sees coming are the kind that allow it to permeate the conversation of traditional sports, even if briefly.

Generally, that premise is also what makes boxing and MMA captivating sports to watch. At a time where your sport is only as popular to a certain audience as its ability to manufacture highlights, MMA’s growth in popularity has leveled off some, but not enough to keep ESPN from locking down the domestic rights to UFC for five years beginning in 2018 for $1.5 billion, one that’s since been extended by two more years.

On July 6, Jorge Masvidal knocked out Ben Askren, a highly touted undefeated welterweight in a five seconds, a UFC record. At UFC 236 in April, the first event held after ESPN also became the exclusive pay-per-view provider for the organization in the U.S., a double main event for two interim title belts both went the full five rounds (25 minutes), but were each spectacular bouts. A month later at UFC 237, the main event ended spectacularly as Jessica Andrade won the UFC Women’s Strawweight Championship with an emphatic KO slam. A mix of spectacular fights that have gone the distance and random violence have made for what has to be defined as good viewing, even without some of the promotion’s best draws in recent years like Brock Lesnar and Conor McGregor. 

Boxing, meanwhile, has also produced several very watchable spectacles. On June 1, 25-1 underdog Andy Ruiz Jr., who stepped in for a challenger who was replaced after failing a trio of drug tests, defeated Britain’s undefeated unified heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua in one of the sport’s biggest upsets ever. On top of the legitimate eyes on the fight, it reportedly set an online piracy viewership record of more than 13 million worldwide. Manny Pacquiao’s defeat of formerly undefeated champion Keith Thurman on Fox Sports PPV on July 20 reportedly did 500,000 buys, roughly 200,000 more than the network’s first boxing PPV event in March. Anything that keeps “Pac-Man” relevant is good for business.

Carving out time to watch fights with more and more events every year can be tough, but like me, I imagine most who made the effort to watch on the weekend of the Pacquiao-Thurman bout chose the PPV. It didn’t produce fireworks, but it was entertaining.

More hardcore fans may have tuned into ESPN’s broadcast the night beforehand of headlined by two fights that paired undefeated boxers. In the co-main event, super lightweight Maxim Dadashev was pitted against Subriel Matias in a title eliminator, or one that offered the winner the right to challenge IBF champ Josh Taylor. I didn’t watch the fight then, but I did for this column.

Boxing Hall of Famer Buddy McGirt, who has trained world champions like Arturo Gatti, Antonio Tarver and Sergey Kovalev, recently began working with Dadashev, and the language barrier between McGirt and the Russian fighter seemed apparent after Round 1. McGirt was offering strategy on how to quickly go to the body when closing distance on Matias, called a “seek-and-destroy” fighter by the announcing team early.

That didn’t seem to matter through four rounds, when Dadashev looked like he could emerge a winner, but more so after seven, when he was appearing at times to just try and survive the power of the Puerto Rican. By Round 9, Matias had taken over, and by Round 11 the conversation of whether Dadashev needed to continue or not was presented on commentary by Timothy Bradley.

“Max, I’m going to stop the fight. … You’re getting hit too much,” McGirt told his fighter in the corner between Rounds 11 and 12. Dadashev shook his head in denial. “Please, Max, let me do this. If I don’t, the referee’s going to do it,” McGirt continued to appeal as other members of Dadashev’s corner translated to him.

It worked, and the fight was stopped before the final round. The announcers applauded McGirt for having his fighter’s best interests at heart. It was not enough. Dadashev collapsed, then vomited on a stretcher before he was taken to UM Prince George’s Hospital Center in Maryland. The 28-year-old died Tuesday morning from brain injuries.

The day before the fight, Dadashev told at least one reporter that he was reading children’s books to assist his English, and that after the fight he would send documents to obtain his green card.

Prizefighting takes on many shapes of unexpected. Some are thrilling, others disturbing. Maybe most alarming was how ordinary the punishment Dadashev took seemed comparable to numerous other fights that turned lopsided that I’ve observed over the years. Ultimately, it was a parting, harrowing reminder of what most fight fans already knew: that the unexpected that is sought can come in forms both satisfying and unsettling.

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