We've still got more than a week to go before Anderson Silva returns to the Octagon and meets undefeated Chris Weidman at UFC 162. But the longest reigning champion in UFC history jolted the mixed martial arts world out of a bit of a lull during Tuesday's news conference with a string of curious comments about his future.
That's just one topic MMAFighting.com senior editor Luke Thomas and I discuss in the latest edition of The MMA Roundtable. We also discuss Bellator's ratings, rumors things are out of control at the TUF house with Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate, and the latest on fighter pay issues.
1. What should we make of Anderson Silva's comments at Tuesday's press conference that he's already accomplished everything there is to accomplish in this sport and the wins and losses no longer matter? And what might that mean at UFC 162?
Doyle: If we've learned anything from Anderson Silva interviews over the years, it's that the greatest pound-for-pound fighter in MMA history layers his words in public as well as he does his offense in the cage.
Silva still hasn't signed his next contract. If he plays coy about his future and puts up a front like he's noncommittal about what happens going forward, he's signaling to the UFC that he doesn't feel he needs the company as much as they need him. Hell, Silva was even talking Tuesday about fighting Roy Jones Jr., something which hasn't been discussed in quite some time.
The middleweight champ also enjoys playing mind games with his opponent. It's nothing new: I remember at a pre-UFC 77 press event, during which Rich Franklin looked gaunt, Silva made a point of walking over to the food spread in front of everyone and eating cookies, just a couple days before he had to make weight. Last year, he chose the "threaten you with grievous bodily injury" route with Chael Sonnen on a pre-fight media call. This time? Maybe he's trying to get into Chris Weidman's head and get him to drop his guard somewhat by musing that he's not sure if he's still the fighter he used to be.
And, sure, maybe Silva's being straightforward to a degree, as well. Even he has to acknowledge that time catches up to everyone. One of these days it will be him, as well. And he's accomplished nearly everything worth accomplishing the sport.
Part honest assessment, part negotiating ploy, part head games with an upcoming opponent. As always, when Anderson Silva speaks, you have to peel away the layers to get at what he's actually saying.
Thomas: Dave's on the money here. In the run-up to both fights with Chael Sonnen, Silva looked to the be the straight man to Sonnen's jokester. The truth is, though, Silva has his own history of making quirky, cryptic or plainly false statements on any number of issues.
I would just caution that the statement could be an honest one without him saying he's punting on trying too hard to win. Silva's right: his legacy is in tact. He doesn't need to win to justify his place. Obviously if he went on a ten-fight losing streak, that'd change the equation a bit, but let's take it one fight at a time.
In other words, Silva could also be brushing off legacy talk while not losing sight of his own competitiveness. He may not be changing his attitude once the cage door shuts, just noting that the outcome on July 6th has nothing to do with it one way or the other. And you know what? He'd be right.
2. Bellator had disappointing ratings for both its June 19 card and the premiere of Fight Master. Is this just a one-time blip, or something that needs to be addressed?
Doyle: I'm inclined to give Bellator somewhat of a pass for this one. Remember last summer, when UFC on FOX ratings took a dive and half the MMA community fretted this meant the sport was set to take a nosedive? You don't hear that talk much anymore, do you? People just don't watch TV over the summer as much as they do the rest of the year. And it didn't help that the June 19 event went head-to-head with a Stanley Cup which did some of the best television ratings hockey has ever done in this country.
Still, though, there are lessons to be learned here. Bellator drew steady ratings on Thursday nights before the season ended in April. You can't just take a live event series which had built an audience and a following, have those live events disappear for two months, then bring them back on a random night with little fanfare and expect the audience to still be there. Spike needs to start pushing Bellator's eventual move to Friday nights now and keep at it until it's drilled in fans brains to tune in for the new timeslot.
As for Fight Master, Bellator and Spike's best bet is to stay the course and hope the product builds over the course of the season. At least in the early going, the coaches are the focal point of the show. Randy Couture, Frank Shamrock, Greg Jackson, and Joe Warren are all known to MMA fans. But if you step outside the MMA bubble for a moment, the only one of the four with a high mainstream recognition quotient is Couture, whose profile has diminished since he retired from active competition. That's not enough to guarantee a huge audience among casual fans from the get-go.
But the debut effort was a critical success, and if they're able to maintain the show's quality, then casual fans and word of mouth should spread. All they can do is continue plugging away.
Thomas: I have a bit of a different take. I've long believed Bellator, for a number-two promotion, did not and does not have a quality issue. For their place in the sport, the quality of the product is very, very high. Not perfect, but who is? The problem is that there's an enthusiasm gap with MMA fans.
Bellator's product for a long time felt like it existed outside of the normal MMA space, as if it occupied it's own universe adjacent to but not inside of MMA. And the reason for that is they decided to tour casinos much, much more than their contemporaries when they first began. My belief is that this helped them stay afloat financially and develop organizationally (look at how far they've come), but it somewhat dulled their promotional instincts and abilities. If you're not forced to create enough sizzle to get media and live gate attendance fight in and fight out but only worry about whether the product has its own integrity, you're not going to develop that part of your promotional game as much.
That brings us to today. Bellator has a sensational product, but fans don't seem to be responding in proportion. Not yet, anyway. They historically haven't been paying attention and are now being asked to. As I've said before, Bellator's arrival on Spike is the beginning of their development, not the culmination of it.
It's true the time off and time slot weren't great last Wednesday. It's also true, I believe, that the strong lead-in programming they received on Thursday night somewhat camouflaged the enthusiasm gap I'd been discussing. On Wednesday last week, it was laid bare a bit more.
My recommendation? Bellator should make pleasing, recruiting and meeting fan needs the central focus of their organization for the rest of this year. I know they already care about their fanbase, but I mean with renewed vigor. That's their best hope for closing this enthusiasm gap and creating a clear course towards longevity.
3. Meisha Tate vs. Ronda Rousey just seems destined to be a drama magnet. Tate posing in ESPN's 'Body Issue' is already causing controversy. Just how much of an over the top drama is TUF 18 going to be and will that detract from the show's efforts to build a real women's division?
Thomas: Without having seen a second of what's happened during filming, it's tough to say. On the whole, however, I'm not too concerned.
For starters, it's not as if the UFC is new to this process. This is the eighteenth season of their reality franchise. While I think the show is long since past the point of clever permutation, at this point they know how to avoid pitfalls.
I'd also submit that no matter what's happening on the set, we'll only get to see what UFC and FOX choose to show us. I don't think they'll pass on 'juicy controversy', so to speak, but they might admit more than a few scenes or statements that could make the show appear in a bad light.
With those considerations in mind and with the caliber of talent rumored to be a part of this cast, I have a hard time believing that even heated controversy will end up causing backlash, poor ratings or some other form of regrettable reception. When you put match good fighters in bouts of consequence, you more often than not get the action you're looking for. I expect the fights to be strong. As for the drama, it's not as it hasn't been wild and over the top before. We're sort of numb to it all. The use of both sexes among cast members could make things problematic, but this far out, I say there's little to worry about.
Doyle: By this stage of the game, we've heard the "This is the wildest TUF ever!" or "There's a fighter in the house who is Silva, GSP, and Jon Jones combined!" claims during the tapings so often that when you hear it these days, you tend to dismiss it out of hand.
This time might be different, though. It's no secret what Rousey and Tate think of one another: Their hostility before and after their Strikeforce title fight last year was a crucial factor in helping turn the rise of the women's bantamweights into one of the sport's biggest stories of 2012.
That said, unless things in the house have devolved into a Junie Browning level of madness, it's hard to imagine whatever controversies do inevitably arise spiral to the point that it actually damages the women's bantamweight division. For one thing, women's MMA has already gained a foothold and a reputation for exciting fights, something that should only be bolstered when both Liz Carmouche and Julie Kedzie appear on the July 27 UFC on FOX show.
The quality of the women fighters in the house is rumored to be solid. If the words are true, then Rousey's stardom and feud with Tate are the hook which is drawing in viewers; and they stick around to see the competitors show what they can do. So long as the antics aren't so bad they're a turnoff, it seems a basic win-win situation.
4. John Cholish complained about fighter pay. Jason "Mayhem" Miller has recently spoken about it, too. Add Tim Kennedy to that list. Cholish believed fans could have a big impact on creating change. Isn't the lack of any movement on the issue proof that unless the fighters act in their collective interest, nothing will change?
Thomas: Yes, it is. It absolutely is. This idea that media pressure or fan revolt is going to somehow substantively change the climate where fighters are able to negotiate for more money is complete and utter fantasy. How long has it been since Cholish asked fans to began speaking out? And what has happened since then in terms of achieving substantive change? Nothing. Keep waiting for a bus that's not going to show up. Let me know how that works out.
I have bad news (or good, depending on your perspective) for fighters: the only ones who can up your bargaining power and assure more employment guarantees or preserve employment rights is you. That is, the collective 'you'. And the only way for any of you to get there is for one or many of you to fall on your swords to make meaningful change possible for future generations. Some of you with a lot to lose are going to have to risk making profound sacrifices to create an environment where fighters leverage their aggregate power. That's an unfortunate reality, but the cycle to this process is unavoidable.
I don't say any of this flippantly. I gather what I am saying is tough news to swallow if any choose to accept it all. I also will admit once fighters have acted together for mutual benefit, fan sentiment or media exposure could help to punch the ball through on the goal line. But the yeoman's work can't be done by anyone or anything else. This is a goal for fighters that can only be achieved by fighters. The media and fans cannot get you what you need or deserve.
Doyle: I agree with Luke's basic assessment, but I remain skeptical this will ever happen. I know I repeat myself whenever the topic of fighter pay comes up. But, the only people who have the leverage to pull off the sort of move that could create effective collective fighters' actions would be for the few guys at the top of the chain, the ones who are in fact making millions of dollars between their pay-per-view cuts and their big-name sponsorships, to use their pull to help the people on the bottom of the card. And it's hard to blame someone like, say, Anderson Silva, who is reaping the benefits of years and years of his own work, to put what he's earned at risk to help the John Cholishes of the world. Especially when, no offense to Cholish, but neither the UFC nor the fans have blinked since he announced his retirement.
That's what it would take to effect change. It's not going to happen from public pressure. Hell, as a society, we revere out first responders who keep us out of harm's way, or the teacher who acts heroically during a school shooting, then we turn right back around and cut their pay and benefits. If we do this to cops and firefighters and teachers, can you really see a groundswell of support to help fighters with their pay? It has to come from within, and sorry to be pessimistic, but, well, they've given us plenty of reason to be so.