While winners Demetrious Johnson and Rory MacDonald are clearly top-of-the-line fighters, UFC 174 overall was the rare case of a UFC pay-per-view show that had little interest going on, and when it was over, gave viewers who skipped the show little reason to second guess that decision.
UFC 174 had a lot working against it when it came to public interest.
It was three weeks since the last UFC pay-per-view. It's another three weeks before the biggest show of the year.
From a marquee standpoint, Ali Bagautinov, who was the challenger for the flyweight title in the main event, was probably the least known headliner on a pay-per-view show in the modern era. Champion Demetrious Johnson had never drawn on pay-per-view on his own. There were no major stars on the undercard. It could be easily argued that the most well-known fighter on the card was Andrei Arlovski, who hadn't fought in UFC in six years.
Dana White likes to say that you can't judge a show until after it happens. The problem with that is on a pay-per-view show in particular, when spending significant money to see the show is involved, people judge whether they are going to buy it or not before. But very often, these type of shows deliver. You only have to go back to UFC 173 for a show with a main event with little star power that delivered an unexpected title change and the end of one of the most impressive streaks in MMA history. When that show was over, whether you were excited coming in for the show, there was plenty of excitement coming out.
Saturday night in Vancouver had none of that. The main card had either one-sided fights, or a close fight where the first two rounds resembled an extended intermission. And that fight ended up as the latest in the weekly frustration of current MMA scoring.
Johnson's combination of speed, conditioning and technical brilliance did open up questions as to where he stood in the mythical pound-for-pound rankings. He's currently ranked No. 4 in the UFC ratings, behind Jon Jones, Jose Aldo and Cain Velasquez. But fans were leaving the Rogers Arena while a title fight was taking place, something that almost never happens at a UFC event. That speaks volumes.
Even scarier was the measurable public apathy. The night of a UFC pay-per-view show, UFC Google searches generally range from 200,000 to 500,000. A weaker show may fall under the 200,000 mark and a big show will top 500,000, and sometimes even hit a couple of million when you have the pay-per-view shows that flirt with the 1 million buy level.
Last month's Bellator show topped 100,000 buys. UFC 174 didn't register on Saturday, and the lowest registering searched for item was 20,000 searches. That is an unheard of level for a pay-per-view event. Basically that means few cared coming in, and nothing that happened on the show when word got out made them care any more. It would not be a surprise for this to wind up as the least purchased UFC pay-per-view event since the company exploded in popularity in 2006. And if it's not, it would be a shock for it not to be at least close to the bottom level.
The UFC, in running so often, has become very patterned since you pretty much have to be when there are constant shows. The advertising is almost always based on the title fight if there is one on the show. In almost every case, the title fight is the most important. On this show, to the live crowd, the main event was Rory MacDonald vs Tyron Woodley, but that's also because MacDonald was a native of British Columbia.
The co-main event, a key fight is the deep welterweight division, wasn't strong enough from a marquee standpoint to pick up the slack as far as selling the show to a mainstream audience.
But the key thing to take out of Saturday was that MacDonald came across like a bonafide star. He looked so good against Woodley, in dominating him standing for three rounds, that he had to open up questions as whether he deserves the next welterweight title shot, and if he's the best guy right now in the division.
The winner of the Robbie Lawler vs. Matt Brown fight is in line to face Johny Hendricks in the fall. If by some remote chance the two stink up the joint in a fight, which given who we are talking about is not something you should bet on, or if the winner gets hurt, which can happen, MacDonald is completely viable as the next title contender. And if not, he should be no more than one more win away.
In recent weeks, we've seen judging decisions that make you shake your head like Rampage Jackson over King Mo Lawal and Will Brooks over Michael Chandler on the May 17 Bellator show. And then there was last week's Ross Pearson vs. Diego Sanchez decision that simply defies any logic. In all three cases, those decisions were on the judges and not the system.
With Arlovski vs. Brendan Schaub, it was the textbook case of the main flaws of the ten point must as it's currently used.
The first two rounds had little action, so much so that I thought you could easily call them both 10-10 rounds. While a 10-10 round is allowed, judges are strongly encouraged never to use it. Having spoken to judges on many occasions, even when they feel a 10-10 round is warranted, the pressure is strong that they will almost always pick a winner. In my own mind, I'd have liked to have scored the fight 30-29 for Schaub with two 10-10 rounds, but given the way fights are scored, I had it 30-27, but was very aware in coin-flip rounds like one and two, it was possible to go with Arlovski in one or both and he could win.
In round one, both men landed five significant strikes. Schaub had a 10-6 edge in significant strikes in round two, but none of those strikes were all that significant. Round three was Schaub all the way, and not close. For the fight as a whole, Schaub was the easy winner, which is why people were in disbelief when Arlovski's hand was raised. Judges Sal D'Amato and David Therien scored the close rounds for Arlovski, and the nature of the scoring meant that overrode the one-sided Schaub round, where he had a 15-1 edge in significant strikes.
As long as we have this system, we will have fights like this.
Let's look at how Fortunes Changed for Five stars of Saturday night's show:
DEMETRIOUS JOHNSON - The only flyweight champion in UFC history put on a performance that may have been lost on a lot of fans, but wasn't on insiders. Most expect his next opponent to be John Dodson (17-6), who knocked him down twice and won two of five rounds in their Jan. 26, 2013, meeting. Dodson does have the power to end a fight, but Johnson (20-2-1) is technically at another level and feels like he's improved more of the two since the first meeting.
But Dodson finished John Moraga and is the logical contender. Johnson made it clear he wouldn't turn down the challenge, but didn't seem excited by the prospect of it either.
"Obviously, it's up to the UFC," he said. "Sean Shelby and Joe Silva do a great job matchmaking. They found Ali Bagautinov out of Russia. There are a lot of challengers I need to fight. There's a guy in the division with a win over me and Zach Makovsky. I'm looking for new challenges."
The former is Brad Pickett (24-8), who beat Johnson via decision in 2010 when both were bantamweights. But Johnson is 27 and is a very different fighter than he was four years ago. Pickett is 35. Pickett didn't look like a title threat in his flyweight debut, a win over Neil Seery. But Pickett can prove that wrong with a win over Ian McCall on July 19 in Dublin, Ireland. Makovsky (18-4) would be in the mix with a win over Jussier Formiga on Aug. 2 in Los Angeles.
What nobody after the fight brought up was Johnson, who seems to be a step above the rest of the division, moving up to face T.J. Dillashaw, the new bantamweight champion. It's early for Dillashaw, who has contenders in his own division. Johnson dropped a good deal of muscle to move down, but he was a good enough bantamweight to challenge for the title years ago. Another shot, when he's now clearly in his prime, looks to be his biggest potential challenge.
RORY MACDONALD - Ever since MacDonald, at, 20, beat Carlos Condit for two rounds before tiring and losing, there has been talk of him as the heir apparent in the welterweight division. Because he moved to Montreal to train at the Tristar Gym, the home of Georges St-Pierre, it led to labeling him the heir apparent.
Now 24, the moniker has been a curse, in that while people know who he is, any kind of stumble labeled him as overhyped, given the comparison to one of the greatest in the sport's history.
But Saturday, MacDonald (17-2) showed the form teased when he blitzed an undersized B.J. Penn. With GSP out of action, and with no certainty he'll return, MacDonald is carrying the mantle for the country of Canada as its new biggest star. It's unfair to expect him to equal what GSP did inside the cage, and even more how GSP made Canada for several years the per capita strongest country in the world for UFC. But Saturday proved him as a major player.
Barring an injury to the Lawler-Brown winner, MacDonald looks one fight away from a title shot. The way the division shakes out, the only logical next opponent except champion Johny Hendricks, would be the winner of the Aug. 23 fight with Hector Lombard (34-4-1) vs. Dong Hyun Kim (19-2-1)
TYRON WOODLEY - After an impressive performance against Carlos Condit, there was significant talk of a rematch of the 2005 Big-12 championship match of Woodley vs. Johny Hendricks as a UFC world title match.
Hendricks won that one. But today, that seems a long ways away. Woodley (13-3) suffered a double whammy loss.
Not only did he lose his spot in the title chase, but lost in a manner where it will take a number of strong performances to rehab him.
As the division is shaking out, there are the have's, which will be Hendricks, the Lawler vs. Brown winner, MacDonald, and the Lombard vs. Kim winner. With Condit out, this will put Woodley looking likely at either the Brown-Lawler loser, the Lombard vs. Kim loser, Jake Ellenberger or Demian Maia in step one of what is likely to be a long road back to where he just was.
RYAN BADER - Bader (17-4) mixed up his striking and wrestling in almost walking through a lethargic Rafael "Feijao" Cavalcante, winning an easy 30-27 decision. The former Ultimate Fighter winner remains a fighter who is good enough to beat almost everyone, except the top level guys.
There was some impromptu matchmaking going on at the press conference where Bader and Ovince St. Preux (16-5), who stopped Ryan Jimmo, agreed to a fight. Bader came in ranked No. 9, and St. Preux was No. 12. St. Preux will move up with his win. It's a good fight for St. Preux to break into the top ten. For Bader, the best opponent to try and challenge would be Phil Davis (12-2), since that would be his best bet to get closer to a top five ranking. But St. Preux, Davis and Jimi Manuwa (14-1) all look to make the most sense as Bader's next opponent.
Given the usual UFC matchmaking of putting winners against guys coming off a win, with Davis and Manuwa coming off losses, that puts St. Preux as the favorite.
ANDREI ARLOVSKI - From 2003 to 2005, Arlovski was one of the most feared heavyweights in the game. He combined a submission game from sambo, excellent takedown defense and strong boxing to dominate what was a very weak crop of UFC heavyweights.
Arlovski (22-10, 1 no contest) was never the same after a shocking title loss to Tim Sylvia in 2006, a fight he was on the verge of winning in the first round, when he caught a shot and it was lights out. Since then, he's fought more cautious, and has never regained his prior form. At one point, he lost four in a row, and was knocked out in three of them. He has yet to live down the glass jaw moniker, but it's been nine fights since the last time he was finished.
His return to UFC at the age of 35 gives the company someone who older fans recognize. He was winning on smaller shows in recent, going 7-1 with 1 no contest since a knockout loss to Sergei Kharitonov in the Strikeforce Grand Prix.
He was cautious, and never hurt Schaub once. It's hard to take his latest win seriously and there were no flashes of the old Arlovski to cling to in the fight. There are fights that could be made as almost nostalgia fights from another era with the likes of Frank Mir, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira or Gabriel Gonzaga. But all are largely fights to see who people will start talking about how the loser should retire. Arlovski seemingly guaranteed himself a second fight in UFC, and probably against someone with a name. If he doesn't perform a lot better in that one, the nostalgia return may be over.