During his time in WWE, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson performed at Madison Square Garden more than 30 times. Some of the biggest moments of his career happened inside the "world's most famous arena," long recognized as the pro wrestling giant's unofficial home arena.
When Johnson agreed to be the bearer of the belt in the BMF title showdown at UFC 244 between Jorge Masvidal and Nate Diaz, he felt a weight of responsibility in promoting the fight and making the moment feel as big as it could possibly be.
What he didn't expect were the memories and emotions that came flooding back -- memories that stretched all the way back to 1996, when he was "just a punk kid rookie who had so much to learn, and so much to earn."
The Rock jokes he can take Stipe Miocic
Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson addresses if he has ambitions to fight in the UFC and jokes that he can take two-time UFC heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic.
"I had this rush of thought of how I've walked that backstage and those hallowed halls of Madison Square Garden so many times," Johnson said, on Monday's Ariel Helwani's MMA Show. "[I had] the same flashes of thoughts that I went through as a wrestler. Making sure that my timing was right in the ring, the cadence was right, making sure that [I remembered] all the highlights and high spots of a match -- especially if we had to go 30 minutes, 45 minutes sometimes -- all that was going through my head.
"What I realized is I had an even greater, profound level of respect for the fighters who not only walked those hallowed halls of Madison Square Garden -- [but for] MMA fighters who walk that walk before every fight," Johnson said. "I had the luxury of knowing what the outcome would be in pro wrestling. It doesn't take away from the physicality of it -- you're still getting suplexed and thrown around by 300-pound men, and all these injuries that you have to deal with -- but this idea that the fighters don't have that luxury."
Johnson walked out toward the Octagon with his WWE theme blaring out of the MSG sound system, and thrust the BMF title into the air, as he had so many times before with WWE titles. He did it with the utmost enthusiasm, which he also brought to his role in the buildup to the BMF title, with the intent of making sure Masvidal and Diaz cashed in as much as they possibly could.
"Because fighters have a finite window of time, I always want to make sure the fighters and the wrestlers are getting as much money as they possibly can," Johnson said, "because that's the bottom line. Of course, there's passion, there's drive, but at the end of the day I want them to secure the bag.
"If I can help raise the bottom line, then I've done my job."
Johnson held on to that BMF title and looked on as Diaz and Masvidal spent three rounds proving why they each felt worthy of the moniker. When the ringside doctor stopped the fight before the fourth round because of a cut over Diaz's eye, Johnson walked back toward the cage feeling the same way many fans did.
"I think like the fighters and a lot of fans, I wanted the fight to continue," Johnson said. "I was surprised by the stoppage. But I was very careful not to say I disagreed with it. I'm not a doctor, and I'm not in there, and I don't see what the doctor saw."
Despite a chorus of boos inside of MSG for the doctor's decision, Johnson enjoyed the moment and the opportunity to wrap the BMF belt around the waist of Masvidal, his friend and fellow longtime Miami resident.
As the crowd started to file out and Johnson and Masvidal returned to the backstage area, they shared a few moments in which Johnson, one of the highest-grossing movie stars in the world, tried to convey some advice for Masvidal as the latter's spotlight continued to grow.
"I reminded him what an incredible opportunity this is -- to take advantage of it, continue to work hard, as, of course he is going to do," Johnson said. "He loves to talk s---, as we all do down in Miami, because it's what we do. But he also has a cool, sharp, smart wit about him, and he's got his head in the right place. His head being in the right place [has him] wanting to do everything he can to impact his own bottom line, and impact the company's bottom line."
Johnson also talked about his appreciation for fighters to turn things around in a hurry in MMA, and conveyed how impressed he was with how Masvidal has handled his recent star turn.
"I also just reminded him that he has this really cool, calm humility to him, which I think is very unique. A lot of fighters try and find this balance of self-promoting themselves, as well they should, but also have this bit of humility, because that's the basis and the grounds and the foundation of MMA -- it's having that discipline and having a little bit of humility.
"He said, with a smile, 'Man, I've always got that.' And he said, 'Look, I'm going to need you now at every fight, you're my good luck charm. I'm going to have to find you.' And I said, 'You're not going to have to look hard, man, I've got your back.'"
Nick Diaz wants to return
Nick Diaz ready to return to the Octagon
Nick Diaz sits down with Ariel Helwani to discuss his brother Nate's loss to Jorge Masvidal and his potential return to the UFC.
Stipe Miocic more interested in boxing Tyson Fury than facing Daniel Cormier a third time
UFC heavyweight champ Stipe Miocic is not that intrigued by a third fight with Daniel Cormier, who said that's the one fight he wants before he retires.
Miocic and Cormier split their first two fights with Miocic scoring a fourth-round KO on Aug. 17. Miocic said eye pokes and punches in that fight and previous ones led to a torn retina.
"I got done with the fight and was seeing spots in my eye that I never saw before," Miocic said Monday. "It didn't feel right so I went to the doctor, and he said you have a tear in your retina.
"It was like dark floaties in my eye, it's gotten better, but it's still there."
Miocic, 37, can do some stretching, but not a lot more. He'll visit the doctor in a month to see about a timeline for a return.
When he's ready to return, Miocic's interest has turned away from MMA.
"Tyson Fury is coming in the mix now, I hear," he said of boxing's lineal heavyweight champ. "I like a new challenge."
Miocic said he's 100% more interested in fighting Fury than Cormier.
"I'd love to box him," Miocic said. "He's a great fighter. He's a good dude, and I think we'd put on a good show.
"With DC, I didn't fluke knock him out, I beat him. I decisively beat him. The first fight DC caught me with a punch in the first round. But second fight I won. I didn't get lucky. Right now, [a Cormier fight] doesn't really intrigue me. More with the Tyson Fury, I like that."
Cormier, 40, told Helwani's Show in September: "I'm gonna fight this guy again. My intention is to fight him in the right way. ... It has to be against Stipe, no one else matters."
Ngannou looking for a fight
In the past year, Francis Ngannou has spent just 2 minutes, 22 seconds inside the Octagon. He wants back inside the cage ... or even a boxing ring.
Ngannou (14-3) said on Monday that the fight he wants more than any other is a rematch with UFC heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic, who defeated him via unanimous decision in January 2018.
If not that, he'd be open to a heavyweight bout against light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, or a two-fight series with lineal heavyweight boxing champion Tyson Fury -- one fight in MMA, one in boxing.
Regarding his UFC heavyweight championship ambition, Ngannou believes he has earned another shot at Miocic. That 2:22 he has spent in the Octagon over the past year, after all, covers three stunning victories -- a 45-second TKO of Curtis Blaydes in November 2018, a 26-second KO of former UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez in February and a 1:11 TKO of another ex-champ, Junior dos Santos, in June.
But Ngannou recognizes that after Miocic knocked out Daniel Cormier in August to win back his belt from the man who had taken it away a year earlier, the UFC immediately began planning for a trilogy bout. Ngannou hopes he will be next, and in the meantime, he wants to remain active.
The 33-year-old Cameroonian, now based in Las Vegas, said he has not heard from the UFC with a plan for him, so he and his manager intend to visit promotion president Dana White.
"Hopefully this week we're going to have some news," he said. "It's very frustrating. Right now I don't even know how to express my feeling."
Ngannou, No. 3 in the ESPN heavyweight rankings, said he would be open to fighting seventh-ranked Alexander Volkov, who defeated Greg Hardy on Saturday in Moscow, or No. 6 Derrick Lewis, who beat Blagoy Ivanov a week earlier. Lewis owns a victory over Ngannou in a dreadfully uneventful fight in July 2018. "Maybe we can do a rematch," Ngannou said.
Another intriguing potential opponent would be Jon Jones, who has talked about challenging himself by moving up a division.
"If he moves up to heavyweight, yes, that would be great. I would do that," Ngannou said. "Recently, they were talking about Anthony Johnson. Yes, I would take that fight, man. That's a big fight. I think that's the best option right now beside the title fight. But what can I do? It's not up to me. We are not in the same weight class."
And then there's a fighter who is in Ngannou's weight class ... but in a different sport. He recently saw footage of Tyson Fury training MMA with UFC middleweight Darren Till and came away impressed.
"He's good. He's good with his elbow," Ngannou said. "Obviously, he's a great boxer. Even the way he moves in there, it's perfect."
If Ngannou gets booked against Fury, would that play out in a boxing ring or the Octagon? "Both," Ngannou said. "I want to return the favor in the ring. I would like to fight him in the ring either way, if he comes to MMA or not."
Ngannou says he's "100% sure" he will pursue boxing.
In preparation for that eventuality, perhaps, Ngannou recently was seen in a video clip getting boxing instruction with former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson. It was a thrill for Ngannou.
"I always looked up to Mike Tyson as the best heavyweight ever," he said. "I would like to be like him, like to hit like him, to have the technique that he has."
Some of that technique appeared to be transferring from "Iron Mike" to "The Predator" in the brief video clip. "He gave me some tips, some techniques, some things to do," Ngannou said. "Actually, that's in secret. I'm going to use it when I fight against Tyson Fury."
Rose Namajunas ready to fight again
Emotional Namajunas has found the passion to fight again
Rose Namajunas tells Ariel Helwani that she had lost her passion for fighting, but now feels reinvigorated after taking time away from the sport.
Namajunas, who was knocked out after being slammed on her head in the second round, said that she was considering retirement at 26 years old.
After being out of the spotlight since that loss, Namajunas joined the Helwani Show and opened up about her feelings toward her career. She said it was an emotional decision, but she plans on fighting again in early 2020.
"I lost the passion for martial arts and fighting -- mainly for fighting," a teary-eyed Namajunas said. "I found my passion again. I went back to Minnesota to see one of my coaches from early on in my amateur career -- Greg Nelson. He's just like a huge inspiration for me.
"It's been tough. I think the reason why I wanted to retire was because this isn't a job where you can go in half-assed and not be fully passionate about what you're doing. There's been times where I've not been totally confident in myself going into a fight and then I just pull it off or get through it."
A hefty part of what had "Thug" Rose in the doldrums, she said, was how the pressure of being a UFC champion weighed on her.
It consumed her life, sucking the joy out of being on top of her sport.
"I made it into everything I didn't want it to be," Namajunas said. "I didn't want the belt to define me and all I did was make it define me and that's all that was on my mind every day. ... It turned into a shackle and chain."
So what exactly is next for Namajunas? While many champs that lose their belts plead for an immediate title match, the same can't be said for her.
She's willing to be patient and said she'd accept a fight before getting to face new 115-pound champion Zhang Weili, who knocked off Andrade in August.
"I always want to fight the best and clearly she is right now," Namajunas said of Zhang. "I want to test myself against her, but at the same time whether that be this next fight or get a win under my belt and then go after that, I have no preference at the moment. It doesn't matter who I fight, but you should always have your eye on being the best."
Tyron Woodley wants to fight in January
Former UFC welterweight champion Tyron Woodley hasn't fought since losing his belt to Kamaru Usman in March at UFC 235. After dealing with a hand injury that scuttled a rematch against Robbie Lawler -- the man whom Woodley originally beat for the welterweight title in 2016 -- Usman is "itching" to fight again and expects to step back into the cage again in January.
While that would seemingly rule out a welterweight title fight against Usman or Colby Covington, who battle for the belt at UFC 245 in December, Woodley is keeping a close eye on that one.
"My perfect scenario, to be honest, I want to fight the best the UFC has to offer right now. I want to fight Colby, I want to fight Usman, s---, I want to fight Israel Adesanya after I wipe out the division."
Woodley even posited a superfight with Khabib Nurmagomedov, but was particularly interested in the possibility of battling against Adesanya, the reigning UFC middleweight champion.
"He's a beast. I like Israel. I legit took a picture with him and I hardly ever take a picture with anybody. It's like when I fought Carlos Condit. I was such a huge fan of Carlos Condit, I watched him for so many years. I was so pumped to get ready to fight him because I knew the danger he brought. I feel the same way about Israel."
Still, none of those options seems viable for a January fight. Highly regarded Leon Edwards has been a name floated, and while that could potentially be a high-risk venture, Woodley wanted to make it clear he's anxious to take on all comers, and soon.
"I'm not ruling out nobody. Anybody that's breathing and bleeding can get it."
Demian Maia has "at least two more fights"
Demian Maia has two fights left on the UFC contract he signed prior to last month's victory over Ben Askren, and the 42-year-old Brazilian (28-9) might not be finished with fighting when the deal is done.
"Let's say I win and they say, 'OK, you can fight for the title,' then I would re-sign the contract," he said on Monday. "If I win and they don't let me know what's going to happen, then I probably would stop."
Maia is on a three-fight winning streak, following three defeats in a row -- including losses to Kamaru Usman and Colby Covington, who will meet Dec. 14 for Usman's welterweight championship.
Maia's scouting report on the title fight: "There's one thing that can change this fight: [Covington] is very good at making you angry. As you can see, he is doing that with Usman. Usman is getting out of his mind. For Usman, it's very important to keep calm and don't try to go in there and hurt Colby. Try to go in there and win the fight. Because if [Usman] gets in fight mode and not in competition mode, I think Colby has a bigger chance to win. Colby is always trash-talking, but for him it's the way he does it. It doesn't change his mindset. What he does is something like what [Conor] McGregor does."
Katlyn Chookagian on being the No. 1 contender
A bummer of a circumstance, but Chookagian, who solidified herself as the division's top contender with a win over Jennifer Maia at UFC 244, said the UFC has discussed a pay-per-view title fight with her for early 2020.
Chookagian is confident that she can drop a major bombshell by defeating Shevchenko, who has become one of MMA's most dominant fighters.
"I think every girl she's fought in the division is really tough and aggressive, but I don't think they have high fight IQ," Chookagian said of the 125-pounders. "I think my style frustrates people and makes them look not as good as they are."