This past Saturday's UFC on FUEL TV 6 brought with it a variation of an age old question: if an aging legend of mixed martial arts gets knocked out in spectacular fashion and nobody is around to watch it on television, does he make a sound when he falls down?
OK, I'm exaggerating here, but only slightly. Ratings for the UFC on FUEL series have thus far been far below average compared with other UFC programing. If you're generous with the numbers and include both the abysmally low original afternoon airing of UFC on FUEL 5 and the later showing that actually beat it in the ratings, so far the series average for UFC on FUEL is a measly 209,800 viewers. In comparison the series low Ultimate Fighter rating a few weeks back that led to the UFC making the call to slot Jon Jones and Chael Sonnen as next season's coaches was 624,000 viewers. That's a whopping 66% less than what was considered an absolutely disastrous number for TUF.
Granted, an apples to apples comparison is impossible when you're looking at a show that airs on a cable juggernaut like FX verses one on the low penetration FUEL but the issue remains that not many eyeballs are tuned into these cards. The early morning start time of Saturday's show is guaranteed to make it the lowest rated in series history.
The UFC on FUEL series was an inconvenient wrinkle in the company's contract with FOX. From FOX's perspective they wanted to rebrand FUEL as a UFC-centric network in hopes it would help them get more cable clearances for the station. So far it hasn't made a huge difference.
What it has done, however, is put the UFC in the unenviable position of having to sacrifice big names to headline cards virtually none of their audience will see on television in order to draw fans to the live events. If Saturday night was indeed the end of Rich Franklin's career - or the final curtain call for the 40 year old Cung Le for that matter - it's a shame more people didn't witness such a historically significant moment.
If Le and Franklin haven't stepped into the Octagon for the final time, here's hoping from here on out they are featured in a more prominent role than the main event of a show only a fraction of the UFC's audience can see. Given their stature in the sport both men deserve a bigger spotlight on the golden years of their career than that afforded by FUEL TV.
Now on to a look at the highs and lows of the UFC's debut foray into the Chinese market.
Highest High: Cung Le knocks out Rich Franklin in highlight reel fashion
During the early going Franklin looked to be in vintage form whereas Le seemed slower and more conservative than the Cung Le of old. All of that changed in an instant when Le caught Franklin coming in with his hands down and landed a beautiful overhand right that starched the former middleweight champ. It was a reminder of just how quickly the complexion of a fight can change in this sport and also how electrifying a great knockout can be after a night - or morning depending upon which hemisphere you were viewing the show from - filled with decisions.
The obvious question emerging from this fight though is what's next for both men? Le is famous for a flashy style that is increasingly harder to execute with age. He'll be 41 next spring and is has plenty of options outside fighting. A one punch knockout over a big name like Franklin sounds like as good a topper on his career as any. It's certainly a much higher note to walk out on than most fighters his age are able to manage.
Franklin also doesn't have much left to prove. He's made something of a reputation for himself as the UFC's ultimate utility player due to his constant willingness to step up and take one for the team. If it wasn't for his title reign running headlong into the brick wall known as Anderson Silva he might have gone on to be the middleweight kingpin for some time, but that's merely a hypothetical at this point. The reality is that since early 2009 "Ace" has only beaten two men: a sadly glass jawed Chuck Liddell and two victories over Wanderlei Silva long after "The Axe Murderer" had reached his expiration date.
By all accounts Franklin is one of the good guys in mixed martial arts and it would be nice to see him go out after getting his hand raised one last time. Reality, however, isn't always so ideal. Ultimately whether or not he continues is a question only Franklin himself can answer. He's certainly earned the right to call his own shot given all he's done for the UFC.
Lowest Low: Referees Marc Goddard and Steve Perceval go standup crazy
Evidently these two temporarily forgot that the whole "mixed" part of mixed martial arts equation by definition entails a fight can be decided on the ground if one of the combatants decides to take it there. All night long these two were quick to stand up fighters who were doing work on the ground as soon as the fans in attendance got restless.
Perhaps nowhere was this more egregious than in the first round of the Alex Caceres vs. Motonobu Tezuka contest. Tezuka spent a little over a minute and a half in the north/south position on top of Caceres before Goddard got antsy and stood them up. Goddard denied Tezuka a chance to implement his game even though he was in an advantageous position with plenty of time left to work. In the end it may not have mattered since Caceres went on to win rounds two and three handily, but there is an argument to be made that Tezuka might have taken the first if he had been allowed more time to work on ground.
If this was an isolated incident it would have been one thing, but this was a pattern throughout the night. It felt like one of those old cartoons where a good and bad angel float on either side of conflicted Donald Duck's shoulders and take turns whispering advice in his ears, only in this case you had an angelic Carlson Gracie on one of Goddard's shoulders pleading with him to let the fighters determine the outcome of the fight getting shouted down by a demonic Julian Lane drunkenly screaming, "Make them bang bro, make them bang!"
Assorted Highlights and Lowlights
Gomi mentioned leading up to the fight that he had spent a lot of time working on his conditioning and wrestling in an attempt to be able to better implement his striking game, and boy did it ever show. He fought hard for three rounds and, even if he didn't look quite like the Fireball Kid of old, he moved with a visible swagger and confidence that has been lacking from most of his UFC run. Danzig for his part took the fight to Gomi and according to a lot of people did enough to win the fight. Two out of three judges saw it differently however and it went down as a win for Gomi, but neither man had anything to be ashamed of after putting on a great back and forth battle for three rounds.
Lowlight: Tiequan Zhang
You know when you can tell your home country isn't a hotbed of mixed martial arts? When the ostensible best fighter in the land gets sonned by a TUF also-ran. Zhang has heart and a pretty sweet nickname in "The Mongolian Wolf" but not much else in the way of tools necessary to succeed against the best in the world. Everyone knows the reason the UFC hasn't cut him yet is that he's the only Chinese fighter on the roster, but how long can they justify keeping him around with a straight face given his performances in the Octagon? Surely there must be at least one mixed martial artist better than Zhang in the world's most populous country, right?
Urushitani has long been one of the best 125 pounders in the world but John Lineker was better than him in just about every way in Macao. The 22 year old Lineker out muscled the 36 year old Urushitani and beat him to the punch throughout the fight. Quickness is one of the first things to go for a fighter and in these lighter weight classes speed is the name of the game. Timing may not have been on Urushitani's side as the UFC started their flyweight division just as he was beginning to slow down with age, but Lineker appears to have a lot of upside if he can continue improving the technical aspects of his game. With at least five to six years before he reaches his athletic prime it will be interesting to see where Lineker goes from here in the wide open flyweight division.
Highlight: Overall show
Maybe it was the uncharacteristic month off between UFC shows but this event really hit the spot. It wasn't the most spectacular show ever, but there was still plenty to like. From a main event featuring perhaps the best one punch knockout of the year to a card filled with gritty, hard fought battles it was a fun way to spend a few hours on a Saturday morning (or a late Saturday night/early Sunday afternoon as the case may be for those of us who can't get FUEL TV and have to rely on streaming sites to keep up with these cards). Sometimes that's all you need - well other than for your cable provider to pick up FUEL that is.
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