The most obvious thing when looking at Saturday night's second installment of the World Series of Fighting was to make a comparison with the other promotion battling for the No. 2 spot on the U.S. scene: Bellator.
Bellator comes in with the obvious huge advantage, which really should be insurmountable. They are owned by Viacom, and have a regular Thursday night slot on Spike TV. WSOF runs every few months on NBC Sports, a far lower rated station. Bellator's concept is to take largely up-and-coming and lesser-known fighters, and put them in a tournament format, with the idea the format will create new stars that then challenge for championships.
WSOF is relying on former UFC fighters, and name fighters from the end of the Japanese heyday. This has its advantages in immediate name recognition, but as Saturday's event from Atlantic City, N.J. showed, some obvious disadvantages of using fighters whose heyday was five or more years ago. In most cases, there is a reason those fighters aren't in UFC today.
The main event was strange to begin with. Anthony 'Rumble' Johnson (16-4) is a physically talented fighter who would be in the UFC today, possibly as a star, except he continually had issues making weight. Part of that issue was trying to drain himself down to welterweight, a class he was far too big for even though at times he did make weight.
The other issue was a lack of weight management between fights where he'd often get up to 225 pounds and then have to cut to make 170. Eventually, he was ordered to move to middleweight. Once again he got heavy between fights. In his last UFC outing, his body shut down when he tried to cut, and he ended up 11 pounds over weight. He lost to Vitor Belfort and was cut.
WSOF put Johnson in a weight class he wasn't going to have trouble making, heavyweight, against the company's best known fighter, former UFC heavyweight champion Andrei Arlovski (19-10). The fight made little sense going in, as both scored impressive knockouts in different weight classes on the first show. And even though he won the fight, Johnson has a frame too small to be fighting heavyweights, which he immediately pointed out after it was over. Still, Johnson wasn't fat at 230.5 pounds, notable for a guy who did on several occasions make 170. But he didn't appear to be at his optimum weight, looking somewhat bloated in the face.
What ended up happening was a fight that had some entertaining stand-up action. Johnson was quicker and landing the more solid punches. He dropped Arlovski twice at the end of the first round, and just as it appeared it was over, the bell sounded to end the round.
Johnson's corner continually urged him to keep the fight standing. So, naturally, Johnson's strategy in the next two rounds was to beat Arlovski to the punch, rock him, and try and take him down, a strategy that was doing no damage. Arlovski has always been known for his takedown defense as a heavyweight. While Johnson is a good wrestler, once winning the junior college national title, he's not a heavyweight wrestler. This created a unique stall situation of Johnson not getting takedowns against the cage for most of rounds two and three, although he was able to get Arlovski to his back once in each round.
Johnson after the fight explained that his right hand and his shin hurt from landing on the bigger man, as to why he didn't listen to his corner and abandoned a standing game that was working well. He indicated his weight class is light heavyweight.
"These guys are too big," he said, noting heavyweight wasn't his idea to begin with and he was just doing something asked by the promotion. "If World Series of Fighting asks me to do it, I'll do it."
But the question is who at light heavyweight does Johnson face next.
An obvious potential name is Quinton 'Rampage' Jackson. Jackson's UFC contract expired and Jackson has said he won't renew. While Jackson would provide WSOF with by far the biggest drawing card the company could have, the question is if a guy who was unhappy in UFC making more than $1 million per fight, would come in for anything less than breaking-the-bank money. A seven-figure payoff on an NBC Sports television contract on the surface makes no economic sense. There is an argument you go for a name like Jackson, lose money on the deal, with the hopes it draws fans to the product.
Whether Jackson is the right call is very much debatable. But building around Arlovski, as WSOF did for its first two events no longer seems viable.
Arlovski's UFC career ended in 2008. His contract expired and he signed a deal with Affliction that called for a fight purse that would gradually increase to $1.5 million, ridiculous numbers, as Affliction's rapid demise showed. UFC decided against trying to match it. At one point, he then lost four fights in a row. Today, Arlovski is fighting for a fraction of that figure, as he earned $60,000 in his win over Devin Cole on the first WSOF show.
His performance here ends any illusion that at 34, and with seven career knockout losses, and a possible broken jaw in Saturday's fight, that a high-profile return to the top tier is happening.
Booking Arlovski, who at least scored a first round knockout on the first show, made sense. Booking Paulo Filho was more questionable.
Nobody watching Filho vs. David Branch would ever believe the Brazilian is the same fighter that in 2006 and early 2007, people argued whether he or Anderson Silva was the best middleweight in the world.
Filho (23-5) is the poster boy for the fighters who collapsed shortly after they left Japan when the U.S. became the epicenter for the sport. With Filho, there were enough warning signs dating back years, substance issues and bizarre behavior, that made him a risk and destroyed his career.
Perhaps his lone fight last year, a 47-second knockout win over a long-past-his-prime Murilo "Ninja" Rua convinced people otherwise. There was even fear during the week that Filho, battling anxiety issues, may not even arrive.
And while he was there in body, that's all he was. The only thing notable in his fight with Branch (12-3) is that somehow, while being on his back taking blows in three one-sided rounds, offering little defense, was that he managed to last three rounds in a fight. But it was sad to watch as announcer Bas Rutten kept calling on the referee to stop it since Filho was doing little to defend himself.
There were also some positives of the show. Throughout the night, they promoted the next date, June 14, and with it, the debut of the company's lone proven top-ten fighter, Jon Fitch. Fitch, 35, was arguably the most controversial cut in UFC history. They were strongly pushing that Fitch was likely to face Josh Burkman (25-9), who scored a first round finish with a knee to the head of Aaron Simpson (12-5).
Burkman, who goes back to season two of The Ultimate Fighter, has gone 7-1 since being cut by UFC in 2008. Burkman dominated Simpson in a way no fighter in UFC ever did. He hurt him in the stand-up game with punches and knees, and stopped the one-time Olympic hopeful's wrestling game.
While not brought up on the broadcast, Burkman's first UFC loss was in 2006 to Fitch, via second round choke. But when asked about a rematch, that would be the biggest fight of Burkman's career, he gave a strange response.
"I think I deserve a title shot," Burkman said, seemingly not going with the announcers line about the winner facing Fitch on the next show, and with Fitch in the ring ready for a face off. "I beat Gerald Harris and Aaron Simpson. I think I've earned my title shot. I think Fitch needs to earn his shot, and then we can fight for the title."
Fitch stood there, looking confused by the situation.
As of right now, WSOF has no championships, and if they were to create a title, Fitch would make sense to be in the match.
As for Simpson, at 38, going down the way he did makes one question his future. Simpson, small for the middleweight division he'd been fighting in for his entire career, nearly finished a tough Mike Pierce in his last UFC fight, dominating the first round before losing in the second. The way Burkman took Simpson apart would seem to indicate Burkman's game right now is at UFC caliber, or age caught up with the former Arizona State mat star.
Besides Burkman, the bright spots on the show were the fighters who had never had a shot at the big-time before. Justin Gaethje (8-0), a lightweight, showed an impressive stand-up game against veteran J.Z. Cavalcante (17-7-1). Gaethje stopped Cavalcante, who back in 2007 was considered among the world's top lightweights, in just 2:27 with a deep cut in the forehead.
After the fight, announcer Bas Rutten came into the cage and asked Gaethje about fighting Fitch.
Gaethje, confused, said, "He's a 70 (170) pounder." Rutten, realizing immediately he was supposed to ask that question to the winner of the next fight, with Burkman and Simpson, said, "Yeah, I'm mixing people up."
Marlon Moraes (10-4-1), a bantamweight Muay Thai champion from Brazil, who knocked off former WEC champion Miguel Angel Torres on the first show, made it two in a row, finishing Tyson Nam quickly with a right high kick.
WSOF is going to need the former name fighters to garner attention for their shows so the newer names can be seen by enough people to where they'll garner a following. But maybe not so many of them, because it becomes a sad night watching the 2006 All-Star team getting blown off the court.