Why UFC 217 might prove to be the most important fight card in company history

NEW YORK -- It didn't take long following Saturday's fantastic UFC 217 card at Madison Square Garden for the comparisons to begin as to where the card stands historically. 

In just the promotion's second visit to "The World's Most Famous Arena," a trio of UFC titles changed hands on the same night for the first time in history as the loaded card somehow delivered above its lofty expectations as the best on paper card of 2017.

For as good as the undercard was in terms of delivery -- and it was, with a mixture of knockouts and bizarre finishes -- the final three bouts raised the drama and electricity to a fever pitch inside the arena. 

Rose Namajunas snapped one of UFC's most dominant recent title reigns when she crushed unbeaten strawweight queen Joanna Jedrzejczyk in almost stone-cold fashion. Bantamweights Cody Garbrandt and TJ Dillashaw then traded knockdowns and palpable hatred in a high-speed chess showdown that ended with a second stunning knockout

Former welterweight king Georges St-Pierre then added the cherry on the sundae by moving up to middleweight and exploding late to submit titleholder Michael Bisping in a suspense-filled and highly tactical thriller. In the process, he became just the fourth two-division champion in UFC history while tying Bisping for most career victories inside the Octagon.

By the time GSP, with blood dripping from his face, calmly walked across the cage with an unconscious Bisping behind him, soaking up the moment of having returned from a four-year retirement without missing a beat, the collective refrain was to question whether that was the best night in UFC history. 

The question was asked of Dana White at the post-fight news conference and the UFC president was largely noncommittal. 

"I always say that this sport is all about 'holy s---' moments and this was the 'holy s---' card," White said. "Every time I got up to walk over to the Octagon, the whole row behind me was saying, 'Holy s---.' No matter how much of an expert you think you are, this sport is crazy. I don't know?" 

Pressed for a more detailed answer, White began to share some of the specifics: With an attendance of 18,201, the card produced a live gate of $6.2 million, which makes it the third-best in MSG history (UFC 205 last November tops the list). He said it was also trending to do "way more" than one million pay-per-view buys. 

Still, White wouldn't pull the trigger as to calling UFC 217 the very best. 

"It's one of the best ever," White said. "To sit here tonight after watching the card, it's [easy to say that it's] probably the best card I've ever seen. But to think back over the past 15 years, we've done some badass cards. I can count on one hand how many shitty cards we've had. But to call this card the best ever? It was one of the best cards ever."

The conversation regarding best ever typically centers upon the same group. Many prefer the landmark UFC 100 in 2009, which saw title victories from Brock Lesnar and St-Pierre, along with a chilling knockout of Bisping by Dan Henderson in their first meeting. Others prefer the overachieving UFC 116 card (topped by Lesnar's rally to submit Shane Carwin) or UFC 129 (topped GSP and Jose Aldo defending titles in Toronto). 

Then there is a whole other group of contenders in a separate category: those headlined by Conor McGregor. That group contains a handful of great cards from UFC 189 and 194, to the pair of cards (UFC 196 and 202) headlined by McGregor's battles with Nate Diaz, with both setting new UFC PPV records. Not to mention UFC 205 last year at MSG, which itself featured McGregor among its trio of title fights. 

"There's something about MSG, first of all," White said. "Both times we have been here have been awesome. When you put a fight card together, you can't always guarantee that it will be awesome, but this card delivered. Even if you have three [fights] deliver in a big way, it's a good night. But to have the entire card deliver, it's awesome. When it comes together, it's fun."

On a straight comparison of importance, drama and entertainment, UFC 217 compares favorably with any in company history. There was no shortage of trash talk during the buildup and delivery in terms of action. And when you add in the venue and star power of those in the marquee, it becomes difficult to argue against it. 

Still, if you're not ready to commit fully to UFC 217 being the best card in company history, there's an argument to be made that it could go down as one of its most important considering the timing. 

After five PPVs sold more than one million buys in 2016, UFC has seen numbers fall considerably this calendar year with Saturday being the first to exceed the threshold. The company has also battled a lack of star power as McGregor, Rousey, Garbrandt and Jon Jones all sat out the first half of the year. Jones, meanwhile, failed a second straight drug test upon his return and faces a lengthy suspension. 

Saturday's card delivered huge numbers financially and created the kind of buzz which can become contagious in the fight game. With UFC's seven-year TV deal with Fox up at the end of 2017, that could prove to be an important development. 

Yet White was quick to shoot down any talk about how badly needed the success of the card was, or that this has been a down year financially. 

"Whose indications of that? People that don't know what the f--- they are talking about?" White said. "This is the best year by a long shot in the company's history. Boom. Ronda didn't fight, Conor didn't really fight in MMA, Jon Jones fought once. Anderson Silva, Chuck Liddell, the list goes on and on. The business is kicking ass.

White was pressed to reveal whether his comments about a record-breaking 2017 included the money UFC made taking part in the promotion of McGregor's boxing debut in August against Floyd Mayweather. Although final numbers have not been announced by Showtime, the fight is expected to have finished as the second biggest in PPV history between four and five million buys. 

"It's counting all the money that we made in the last 12 months," White said. "You can't take [Mayweather-McGregor] out, it happened."

White hedged his argument by mentioning that McGregor would've fought twice in the Octagon had UFC not joined him in the promotion of the boxing match.

"Who cares that it's a boxing match?" White said. "It's revenue that the company made that we spent four months using our resources to promote."

You can call UFC 217 whatever you prefer. But it's a card that won't soon be forgotten, producing no shortage of compelling storylines including the historic return of GSP, the launch of a new star in Namajunas and the escalation of an incredible rivalry in Dillashaw-Garbrandt.  

CBS Sports Insider

Brian Campbell covers MMA, boxing and WWE. The Connecticut native joined CBS Sports in 2017 and has covered combat sports since 2010. He has written and hosted various podcasts and digital shows for ESPN... Full Bio

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