Back in the day, when Strikeforce was hosting events with an incomplete collection of not-yet-UFC stars, each fight card carried a strange feeling of no tomorrow. I don’t mean like they were going to cease operation at any minute (though that moment did arrive later on), I mean there was very little thought of what the stakes were for big fights. If it was a title fight, for instance, there was too often nobody waiting in the wings for the winner. If a prospect was piling up some wins, there was no obvious next opponent.

Veterans of the game were rooting around like vagabonds all over the Strikeforce roster, looking for action, a one-night stand, anything.

It was slapdash, haphazard matchmaking, which wasn’t what the MMA audience craved. MMA fans were used to dealing in the UFC’s way of doing things, which centered on the ever-evolving theme of “what does it all mean?” Context was everything. Story lines. Hook baiting. The best fight the best. The UFC had effectively turned its audience into a pack of greyhounds chasing the mechanical rabbit around the track on an endless loop. We always needed to know who was next, what was next, and why it mattered. The combined sense of future and past made the present for big events feel enormous.

Of late it seems like the UFC of 2021 is a little aimless. Too many fighters are careening off in directions that aren’t very predictable or are just hard to justify. Worse, once a fighter jumps off the rails and into the wilds of the unforeseen, they too often don’t come back. Or in some instances, they come back changed, like they met with some hard truths while on that Ayahuasca trip in Peru.

I suspect that Conor McGregor had a lot to do with this.

Once preferential treatment (and boxing forays) became a thing and the pursuit of multiple belts was in vogue, the narratives we’re used to began spilling all over into the margins. We follow one man on a historic lark, why not watch Nate Diaz and Jorge Masvidal fight for the Baddest Motherfucker title? The “one-off” idea is pretty good for a night of debauchery, but it’s not what made the UFC so great. The UFC used to market to the sustained Attention Span. That’s not so much the case, anymore.

This whole thing came clear at UFC 259 on Saturday night. Middleweight champion Israel Adesanya was “chasing history” by moving up to challenge Jan Blachowicz for the light heavyweight title. It didn’t feel greatly historic because we’ve already seen McGregor, Henry Cejudo, Daniel Cormier and Amanda Nunes occupy the space of champ-champ before him, leaving his own personal adventure to be more like something greatly incredible. Izzy was “daring to be great,” to use his own words.

But it’s a bittersweet pursuit, this constant quest for two titles. In most of the previous champ-champ cases, things turned pretty complicated pretty immediately. The needle got kicked off the record, somebody got spurned, entire divisions got hijacked. McGregor was the worst offender. He won the featherweight title in 13 seconds against Jose Aldo, but then jetted off to lightweight (which detoured into a two-fight series with Nate Diaz at welterweight). When he beat Eddie Alvarez to get that second title, he jetted off to boxing for a match with Floyd Mayweather.

What did he leave behind him? Chaos. Fuming Twitter feeds. Feelings of envy and abandonment. Contenders with their pockets turned out. Jose Aldo holding long, often one-sided conversations with lint. All kinds of loose ends. The champ-champ never paid alimony when he bolted.

It wasn’t all that tidy with Cejudo, either. In his case he resurrected the flyweight division which was actively being shuttered after Demetrious Johnson’s reign, before bolting for bantamweight. He left the window open for a flyweight return — thus keeping everybody there in limbo — but had no intention of doing that. Then he won the bantamweight title, defended it once against a line-jumping Dominick Cruz, and abruptly retired. All that dickering led to Jose Aldo somehow cutting the line at bantamweight to fight against Petr Yan for the vacated belt, which had everybody wondering just what in the hell was going on?

Go back and read that fucking previous paragraph. I’m telling you, it was exhausting just to write it.

What. A. Mess.

Cormier’s jump to heavyweight while holding the light heavyweight belt was understandable, because the LHW division was already pretty jacked up due to Jon Jones’ constant upheaval. That whole thing was laborious, but the dual champion thing didn’t help things. It just replaced the target — the simple pursuit of a title — with a swirling vortex.

If there is one instance where it’s worked, this champ-champ thing, it’s with Amanda Nunes. She pretty much cleaned out the women’s bantamweight division, which was always the requisite that Dana White put forth during those years when people pined for a Georges St-Pierre-Anderson Silva megafight. The move to the ghost town of featherweight was just kind of the only move left. She went there and smoked the great Cris Cyborg, and became the woman’s GOAT. Now she finds herself in a no-woman’s land, yo-yoing between the two. She’s not really holding up anything, because she visits both weight classes enough for regularly scheduled beatings.

Which brings us back to Adesanya.

Some would say he’s cleaned out the middleweight division after beating Paulo Costa, and that could be the case. But this whole thing was sidetracked from the word go. The light heavyweight champion Jon Jones vacated his title which gave way to Jan Blachowicz, who defeated Dominick Reyes to win it. Reyes, you might remember, beat Jon Jones at UFC 247 in a fight the judges insist he lost. We somehow ended up with Blachowicz and Adesanya for the light heavyweight title, a fight that nobody even came close to imagining when the pandemic started a year ago.

Adesanya came up short in his bid. It was a little anticlimactic, if we’re being honest. Blachowicz left all that transcendence to squirm under his weight. Maybe it was for the best.

If Adesanya had won the second belt, what would that mean? Would he go back to middleweight? Or would he fight Glover Teixeira, the man who has earned the next crack? If there was a silver lining in Adesanya’s loss, it was that the two divisions in question got back in business. Blachowicz has Teixeira, which is where it should be headed. And Adesanya says he’s headed home to 185, where he remains the most sublime feature of the class.

“I’m going back down to 185 and I’m going to rule that bitch with an iron black fist,” he said afterward. He actually handled the loss very well. And even though he didn’t make “history” by getting that second belt, he still has the first. Every middleweight within shouting distance could hear those words, and it was music to their ears.