Saturday's UFC on Fox 9 offered fight fans much to love. There were excellent fights, superb finishes by respected veterans, the showing of a dominant champion and much more. Yet, there was also a lot to dislike. Judges refused to score a beating 10-8, many fights went to a decision and the main event was rather brief.
It's time to separate the good from the bad, the winners from the losers and the signal from the noise from UFC on Fox 9.
Best Upshot: Demetrious Johnson's ascendency
For the most part, they key to Johnson's abilities was his capacity to take away his opponent's game. If you're a good puncher, he'd find a way to minimize that. Strong submissions? He'll make you try something else. Great wrestler? You're not going to wrestle with him because he'll make you do something else.
It's also true he had other abilities of his own. He could strike, wrestle and work jiu-jitsu to the extent it was needed and he could score points or accrue damage. He could blend all three quite masterfully, actually. Yet, as much of a talented fighter as he was, the real lynch pin of his game was in the adjustments he made to take away the opponent's best chance of winning.
I don't think he'll ever truly get away from that, but there's no arguing Johnson's didn't turn a corner on Saturday. Making his opponents compete out of their comfort zones will likely be something that comes natural to him, but now he can add fight-ending threats to his arsenal. It's not merely about his opponents fighting another way; it's about them not fighting at all because he's found a way - suddenly and perhaps violently - to end it.
To some extent, Johnson did this before he got to the UFC, but the deeper waters makes that sort of thing harder to come by. Finishing high-level opposition is no automatic task. But as he develops, Johnson has demonstrated the same eye he's shown towards evaluating the weaknesses of his opponents, he can shed on himself. He's distilling out the impurities, fight by fight, and the scary thought is he's got plenty of time to let this process carry on. It's time we call it like it is: Johnson is one of the game's most dominant champions.
Most Important Reminder: MMA business reporting isn't going away
I saw some push back from readers who objected to the idea the ratings for Saturday's event should be published or even considered news. Some others wondered what the MMA media's 'obsession' is with business reporting given that reporters covering other major sports don't seem to focus on it nearly as much. I think this requires some comment.
For starters, there's a value to reporting on the business side of the sport. In fact, it's one of the media's best methods to gauge the health of promotions (and the sport generally), the popularity of fighters and what television programming is resonating with fans. I'd argue it's the most informative tool against the spin of any promoter. Anything that keeps them more honest than they ordinarily would be is of major benefit.
There's also a reality to it, namely, other sports reporters in other sports don't engage in it as much because there's often very little need. Football and the NFL are popular enough such that obsessing over numbers would be a waste of everyone's time. That is not the case in combat sports. The sports themselves, with boxing being an exception, are much more prone to boom and bust cycles, historically speaking. Promotions also come and go at an alarming rate even in a boom period. Very few actors in the space are drawing a profit. Keeping tabs on that seems more like due diligence and less like an unhealthy obsession.
It's true MMA media reporters (this writer included) sometimes fumble through the numbers to interpret what they mean. We often over or understate the value of live gate receipts or replay ratings. Those criticisms of MMA media are true. They are not, however, the norm. Covering the business side of mixed martial arts by the media is a net benefit. It's time to stop hand wringing over it.
Surprisingly Great 2013 Award: Urijah Faber
I wouldn't vote Faber as my fighter of the year, but seemingly out of nowhere, it's not insane to suggest he at least deserves to be part of the conversation. Four wins in a calendar year, two of them against ranked opposition with three finishes. That's a fairly incredible achievement. It's even more remarkable when you consider Faber, whose offense is predicated on speed and reflexes, is approaching 35 years of age. This is all a testament to Faber's ability to take care of his health, both physical and mental. Faber is an athlete who prefers actual water from coconuts over processed Pedialyte. He's also a fighter who never lets victories or losses serve as referendums on who he is or what can happen. That, ladies and gentlemen, is what you call one hell of a competitor.
Presumption Most In Need of Examination: UFC on FOX exposure leads to pay-per-view buys
Here are the facts as we understand them. The jury is still out on whether exposure for headliners or main card fighters on the FOX shows has resulted in a measurable uptick in pay-per-view buyrates. That's the case both for the UFC generally and the particular fighters pushed on those shows.
We have to be careful about drawing conclusions on this issue one way or the other. It could be the case that fighters like Benson Henderson aren't the type to organically develop a pay-per-view purchasing fan base, no matter what the level of exposure. That could mean the very talent the UFC believes could benefit from FOX exposure won't be able to deliver once they move behind a pay wall, no matter how wide reaching the exposure.
It could also be the case that the number of shows the UFC puts out a year has created a consumer base far more willing to pick and choose which events they watch. When you consider that, generally speaking, the quality of the free shows is exceptionally high, the instinct to purchase a pay-per-view won't be as strong. The free content has to serve as an enticement to buy the transactional content, but when the free content is so good, is that really necessary.
No one knows. Certainly I don't. These are all just hypothesis. What we know for sure, even in a year where pay-per-view sales have aggregately climbed (almost exclusively due to existing, well-established pay-per-view stars) since the previous year, there's no clear evidence (yet) exposure on network television for the UFC in this era has produced any measurable climb in pay-per-view buys.
I note all of this because a) it so far hasn't worked out for FOX headliners like Henderson and b) after Saturday, do we really believe Johnson is ready to begin pulling in buyrates north of 300,000? Johnson's a mega talent and worthy of every bit of admiration he deserves, but is there any kind of palpable feeling in the community the exposure he's benefited from can turn him into any sort of a draw? Can it really improve the numbers he'd pull were it not for the FOX deal?
Intuitively, the answer is yes. From an evidentiary standpoint, however, we can't draw a conclusion despite being nine events into the experiment.
No one is arguing the FOX deal isn't a clear net win for all parties, fans included. What we must continue to examine, however, is whether or not the future of the UFC will be as intertwined with pay-per-view as it is today.
Delightful Surprise Award: Zach Makovsky
All we can ever ask of fighters is that they maximize their time and ability if they wish to compete at the highest level of the sport. More often than we'd like to admit, we do not see that. Or, sometimes out of pity, we heap praise on a fighter who ultimately fell short of their own goals by noting there's virtue in how hard they tried. Makovsky is one such fighter who deserves our praises, yes, but needs no pity. He does deserve, however, a bit of recognition. As a bantamweight, Makovsky had achieved some notable wins, but had also fallen badly short. He was in need of reinvention. And somewhat unfairly, he'd been labeled as a one-time Bellator champion who'd been cast off from the organization.
All along the way, though, Makovsky continued to refine and improve the way he trained. He reevaluated how he wanted to compete and In the process, dropped a weight class, proved the drop was not just a place where he wouldn't be too small, but could bring the rest of the skills he'd been long developing into harmony with one another. The result was a UFC debut against an established, respected veteran that ended up as an upset win for Makovsky. Moreover, he didn't just eek by, but showcased the kind of skills we saw flashes of at bantamweight.
It could just be me and it's fine if it is, but I'll always love stories of fighters who were almost forgotten about who later made a lot of noise by continuing to work when no one was looking while using their failures as launching points for success. That's Zach Makovsky and he's finally in a position where he can trade uncertainty for brightness as it relates to his future.
Time to Go Nominee: Cody McKenzie
I don't want to belabor the point, but it needs to be said it's time for the UFC to part ways with McKenzie. He's a spirited character, but lacks the tools necessary to be competitive in the Octagon and the professional know-how to present himself to a viewing public. As Dana White mentioned, the UFC has some culpability in not doing enough quality control before McKenzie wore gym shorts to the Octagon. However, one has to wonder what type of professional athlete has no instinct or awareness that pulling such an act is not in anyone's best interests.