For the first time since the deal with FOX began, the UFC got exactly what it needed from all its main card fighters: action. It couldn’t have come at a better time.
Like a slumping baseball team trying to make it through the summer, the UFC limped into Los Angeles on the heels of the company’s worst pay-per-view event in recent memory. Soon it found itself struggling to hype up a network fight card opposite the TV goliath that is the Olympics, and without the aid of a title fight or a crossover star. The solution? Just declare the main event to be a number one contender bout. Instant high stakes. Except when that idea prompted a swift and vocal public backlash, the UFC needed a plan B.
This is how we arrived at a fight night where the top four competitors on the card were told that they not only needed to win, but win impressively. They fought like they got the message loud and clear. So did the other four guys on the FOX broadcast, who had nothing more to gain than the usual promise of paychecks and bonuses. The end result was the best single night of MMA action that the UFC has put forth on FOX, and right when it needed it most.
As UFC president Dana White pointed out in post-fight remarks, some nights are always going to be better than others when you’re in the business of live, unscripted combat. Obviously the UFC believes it can coax out a few more good nights with the promise of money, career opportunities, or both. On Saturday night, that plan worked perfectly. I just can’t help but wonder if that's always going to be such a good thing.
For instance, take Ryan Bader. Even White expressed surprised that the former All-American wrestler didn’t shoot for a single takedown against karate master Lyoto Machida. After getting soundly outstruck in the first frame, his solution in the second was to charge forward in kamikaze fashion -- directly into one of Machida’s right hands.
"I think Bader wanted to try and knock him out," White told reporters following the post-fight press conference.
Can you blame him? He’d been told just a few days earlier that he could earn an instant title shot if he notched the "most impressive" win. As he told me when I spoke to him on the week of the fight, "I think ultimately the fans want to see knockouts. You think you’ve got to go out and knock someone out for it to be an impressive win."
So Bader went looking for the knockout against Machida, and he found it. Unfortunately for him, he was the one waking up on his back when it was all over.
It’s a strange thing to put into an athlete’s mind, to tell him that victory alone isn’t enough. It’s not something that happens in most other sports. If you win the World Series with low-scoring pitching duels, your fans aren’t going to complain that it wasn’t enough fun to watch, just like the commissioner isn't going to encourage you to try and hit more home runs next year. But professional fighting is all about putting butts in seats, and it always has been. Telling fighters to do their part to sell tickets seems both realistic and reasonable, but it also seems like a tactic that can’t help but encourage some modes of fighting while discouraging others.
Is that necessarily a bad thing? I’m not so sure. Fans put that pressure on fighters as it is. Anyone who’s ever heard the boos start up as soon as fighters get stalled in a clinch knows that the paying public is not shy about voicing its displeasure. Fans want action, promoters want to please fans, and fighters want to please both promoters and fans. It’s a simple little ecosystem that develops all on its own. At the same time, a fighter like Bader had to know that wrestling his way to a decision win wouldn’t get him a title shot, regardless of whether it was his best chance for victory.
I don’t want to overstate the case here, since for all I know Bader might have fought the exact same fight without the title shot sweepstakes hanging over his head. And Brandon Vera, who redeemed himself and reignited his career even in defeat against Mauricio Rua? He almost certainly would have fought just as hard with or without the potential to earn a crack at the belt. Plus, there’s Mike Swick and DaMarques Johnson, as well as Joe Lauzon and Jamie Varner, all of whom put on gutsy performances without any extra motivation to entertain.
But it’s still worth asking ourselves what we do to the sport when we put too much pressure on fighters to be entertainers. If the end result is a night like the one the UFC had on Saturday, it’s hard to complain. Remember the UFC on FOX 2 back in January, when the UFC took heat for loading the card with wrestlers who turned in one lackluster decision after another? Back then we said that the UFC needed more exciting fights to lure new fans, so how can we possibly complain when an event delivers exactly what we asked for?
We can’t, or at least we probably shouldn’t. But we should also at least be aware that what makes this sport so fun and unpredictable is the same thing that makes it at times infuriating and confounding, and that’s the strange alchemy that happens when two fighters of varying backgrounds and skill sets get together to try and figure out who has the winning recipe. Some nights the process will be more fun to watch than others, but we should be careful about pushing for any sort of homogenization purely for the sake of entertainment. We might get what we ask for, but we might not be so happy with what we do to our sport over the long haul.