Saturday represented one of the greatest nights in combat sports for the entire 2012 calendar year. Sure, boxing's biggest fight turned in a sensational knockout, but UFC and FOX proved they were capable of producing a greatness all their own.
There was much to love from UFC on FOX 5, but not everything is laudable. Let's look back on the weekend's action to separate the good from the bad, the winners from the losers and the signal from the noise.
Most Improved: UFC and FOX
By virtually all indications, the fifth event in the UFC on FOX series was a success. The event sold out locally, turned in solid if unspectacular ratings, intrigued hardcore and casual fans alike, was expertly selected to take place on a date when there wasn't too much television competition for key audiences from other sports (boxing notwithstanding), featured the proper fight to headline a FOX card (namely, a title fight in a division that doesn't pull big pay-per-view buy rates), and expertly used aging but well known veterans who give way to rising stars and talents. A little luck with the undercard action and voila, this was a much better event than the last two rather lackluster or misused opportunities on FOX.
Challenges remain. Oversaturation is still a problem. These kinds of ratings are expected for every event. But if nothing else, UFC is learning what will and won't sell on this platform. FOX is also doing more than just plugging UFC events during NFL games. This, more than any other, demonstrated the two parties are getting better at working together for common interest.
Hardest to Watch: B.J. Penn's loss to Rory MacDonald
Speaking for only myself, that was hard to watch. I mean really hard to watch. Penn was the first fighter I truly gravitated to through the years of watching MMA. His one-time unmatched offensive capabilities were buttressed by an ability to absorb damage, although he rarely ever took much of it through a long portion of his career. His skin never cut, his chin never rocked, his body rarely touched.
Now even that is gone, or at least hugely compromised. MacDonald was able to nail with Penn with a left elbow from boxing distance, something that wobbled the once-great Hawaiian in the first round. Perhaps I am romanticizing the past, but I cannot recall another instance where Penn was ever visibly hurt in such a way that early in a fight. And that particularly brutal shot was complimented with a barrage of expertly placed left hands to Penn's liver and midsection. A midsection, mind you, that is slightly more doughy than it should be for his own good.
In his storied professional career, Penn's never been on the receiving end of a CTE-inducing concussive knockout. I also have no idea if that's what is next should Penn elect to not retire. But it is fairly obvious his best days are behind him. Worse, he's turtling from pain in a way he never used to. Whatever else it means, it portends a future with much more of it.
Best Use of Physical Tools, Adequate Preparation and Executed Game Plan: Benson Henderson
The UFC lightweight champ is an utterly sensational fighter to watch work his craft. I could heap superlative after superlative on his effort on Saturday night, but I'd like to focus on something he doesn't get enough credit for in terms of his in-cage performances: discipline.
Everyone agrees Henderson is a talented and dedicated athlete. There is little doubt he trains properly, takes care of his body and expertly readies himself for all of his bouts. How else can someone who fights frantically and with devastating effect, yet still breathes through his nose at the end of five rounds be described otherwise?
But it's also true his aggressive style of fighting is often regarded as something short of reckless but not quite calculated. His win over Diaz should begin to change that. Yes, there was back and forth, but Henderson's win is a consequence of understanding what would work against his foe and sticking to that in all of it's various iterations. Among them: leg kicks, wrestling from around the waist, pressure against the fence, standing above Diaz's guard while firing crushing body punches, keeping a relentless overall pace forcing Diaz to react. Henderson's handiwork exemplifies that moment when preparation meets execution.
I'm curious to see how an eventual rematch with Anthony Pettis goes. A bout with Gilbert Melendez could be excellent as well. But I fail to see anyone in the division giving him fits. He's always had the physical gifts to succeed. Now he's demonstrating a fight IQ that should give every lightweight in the game a reason to take him seriously.
Most Reckless and Negligent: Benson Henderson
As great of a person or champion many of us believe Henderson to be, please stop defending this act of fighting with a toothpick. There is none for it.
For starters, it's illegal, which is sufficient to end all debate (more on that here). And even if it weren't, it's irrationally reckless and otherwise indefensible. This would be true even if Henderson were training alone, much less in close quarters with another person.
The damage he risked imposing on himself and Nate Diaz is absolutely real. He could've swallowed it, which could do life-alternating damage to his esophageal or stomach lining if not outright kill him. He could've punctured some portion of his mouth or even Nate Diaz's face, hands, feet and the like. And for what? The purpose of having a good luck charm? Hint: Henderson's win over Diaz was anything but luck.
And if you're strange enough to think "hey, these guys are fighting for a living. They do damage to each other. What's the big deal?" makes even a slight bit of sense, a) I pity you and b) you're profoundly wrong. Recall that while a combative sport, we actually do as a fighting community place limits on what's allowed in professional competition. There is such a thing as the Unified Rules and they exist for reasons that are beyond reproach at this point in the sport's humane evolution. There is risk and then there is too much risk and then there is violence without any purposeful meaning. Henderson fighting with a toothpick in his mouth is the worst of all these possibilities.
This isn't Cirque du Soleil or street performances. I don't care if Henderson can simultaneously cook paella, juggle flaming bowling balls and jump on a pogo stick all while keeping a toothpick in his mouth. This is prizefighting. We have rules, many of which exist for the safety of our combatants. There is no functional purpose to keeping a toothpick in one's mouth while there is huge risk. It was wrong, dangerous, reckless and negligent of the champion to fight that way and it should never happen again.
Greatest Need for Continued Improvement: Alexander Gustafsson
Mauricio 'Shogun' Rua maintains to this day he had an off night against Jon Jones. That, he claims, explains more than anything else why he lost his title. Sure, Jones is good, but Shogun 'knows' he's better than that. And maybe that's true. But what's also true is an elite champion often has the ability to make an otherwise capable contender appear feeble and helpless in the wake of their attack. Maybe Shogun had an off night, but either way, Jones was on.
Which brings us to Gustafsson. He absolutely deserved the decision win against Shogun and was notably better late. But for someone who is supposed to be a threat to Jones, it appeared push of that narrative is a bit premature. Gustafsson is enormously talented and performed ably, but I was looking to see a relatively commensurate performance to what Jones turned in against Shogun. That simply wasn't the case.
The Swede didn't use his reach as well as he could've and was too hittable for my liking. He was a touch flat footed as well, something Jones would have a field day exploiting. Again, this isn't to bag on Gustafsson. I enjoyed his consistency in the third round. He proved to be the better fighter. But there's more work for him to do. He's still improving as a fighter and the best way to ensure development as well as his worth as a title contender is to have him face other stalwarts of the division. A win over Henderson or Machida is better evidence he can do more with the clear gifts he has. That also gives him more time to hone his skills.
The kid's got potential. He's a star in the making, but he does need more time.
Least Likely to Make FOX Execs and FCC Flacks Happy: Nate Diaz
I, too, find it impossible to reconcile the idea watching two trained fighters expertly battering each other is somehow egregiously worse for the human condition than watching one of said trained fighters give the middle finger to the other. But, thems the breaks.
Impossible to Ignore: Manny Pacquiao vs. Juan Manuel Marquez 4
I'm a firm believer the big ticket boxing events on the same day as UFC events do not substantively impact UFC's television ratings. What they might do, however, is overshadow UFC events or force media comparisons with those aforementioned huge boxing matches. And those aren't really moments where the UFC has to gain much.
UFC's outings on FOX are almost if not outright pay-per-view level shows, but they don't feature their absolute marquee stars. That means going head-to-head with Manny Pacquiao or Floyd Mayweather starts UFC from a disadvantageous position in terms of scale and significance. That leads to one of two outcomes: UFC is drowned out in the flood of media coverage devoted to the boxing events or is criticized for not being able stand up to boxing's greats while MMA is broadcast on network television.
Ultimately, maybe none of this matters. The ratings show no evidence they're affected by boxing's mega shows. But I am hesitant to say these dates are optimal. Living in the inevitable shadow of MMA's kissing cousin yields little upside for the UFC.