Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
Another week is going by without a UFC event. Are you getting twitchy yet? In case a steady diet of Bellator and TUF Live aren't satisfying your craving for all things MMA, my colleague Luke Thomas and I decided to head on down to the trusty MMA Roundtable (it exists, just in a secret location) and debate a few of the topics in the news.
Among this week's offerings: will Tito Ortiz's just announced match with Forrest Griffin really be his last, what should we make of UFC's upcoming all-heavyweight main card, and who's going to win the war for MMA souls in Asia. Let's get to it.
1. Will UFC 148 match truly be Tito Ortiz's last?
Luke Thomas: Yes, and not a moment too soon.
Fans are rightfully bellyaching about the UFC 148 rubber match between former light-heavyweight champions Ortiz and Forrest Griffin. No one outside of Ortiz and Griffin themselves asked for this bout. That isn't to say it won't necessarily be competitive or offer some other measure of entertainment. It's just that both fighters are thoroughly known quantities. We know their strengths, weaknesses, tendencies and habits. This bout does nothing to illuminate new, relevant information about them as fighters. We won't get anything new. We know how this movie ends.
If anything, it suggests both are basically out of ideas (Ortiz much more so than Griffin). Ortiz campaigned hard for this fight and has previously indicated it would serve as a retirement match. Ortiz believes the fight is winnable or that he could be entertaining enough to grab a bonus check in a losing effort. That fact alone suggests he knows he needs to exit before things get worse. He also knows his drawing power as an attraction has been badly eroded and outside of Griffin, there's really no one left to fight that makes sense for either combatant. Ortiz needs a port in the storm. He knows it, the UFC knows it and so do the fans. The uncomfortable truth is that it's not clear fighting Griffin - who is still very competitive - is really any sort of shelter.
The reality is this: Ortiz has done enough for himself and for MMA. He doesn't need my sanctioning or anyone else's personal approval. He's one of the most important figures in the history of the sport. However, that most of his accomplishments which contributed to making him the figure he is today took place many, many years ago should be a reminder the sun is quickly setting on his career. Once more into the breach, dear Tito.
Mike Chiappetta: Most likely it will be his last fight. But let me paint you an alternate scenario: If Ortiz upsets Griffin, he can point to a 2-2 record in his last four fights. Not riveting, but not terrible, either, with wins coming against a former UFC champ and a young buck in Ryan Bader. You're telling me he's going to want to exit stage left that way?
The thing that may ultimately cause him to call it quits is that despite all his ups and downs with the UFC, Ortiz is a company man at heart. There's few viable alternatives for him, either. With all due respect to Ortiz's fight career, I don't think Bellator will want to pony up big bucks for him, and most promotions couldn't dream of paying the money he'd ask for in free agency. He's not going to be Peyton Manning with multiple suitors throwing big bucks at him. Unless some ambitious, international startup league fires major money his way, UFC 148 will be the end for Tito.
2. Is UFC 146's all-heavyweight main card a good idea?
Chiappetta: No, not a good idea; a great idea. Remember back to the announcement of the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix? The opening round in February 2011 remains the highest-rated Strikeforce/Showtime broadcast ever, with almost 750,000 viewers tuning in to watch.
There may be better talent elsewhere in the UFC -- as a matter of fact, there most certainly is -- but there's something about the heavyweights that lures us in. It's probably the rising possibility of spectacular knockouts. But as an added bonus, the main card fights on UFC 146 actually matter. Not only is the heavyweight championship on the line between Junior Dos Santos and Alistair Overeem, but Cain Velasquez will have a chance to return into top contender status, Mark Hunt looks to continue his improbable rise, and solid prospect Shane del Rosario gets a featured slot.
All in all, it's a great way to re-launch the division shortly after the retirement of Brock Lesnar, who was one of the biggest draws in MMA history.
Thomas: It's risky. The payoff can either be huge or audiences will tire of what could become sloppy, quick fights.
I tend to think my colleague is right here. UFC clearly recognized the attention Strikeforce generated with it's Heavyweight Grand Prix and wanted to recreate it. A tournament in MMA these days seems destined for failure, but if they can make something like that happen on a single fight card, why not? And as Mike rightly points out, there are bouts of significance on the card. It's not just blood and guts. It's title fights and number-one contender bouts.
It should also be pointed out this is the single-greatest fight card in MMA history showcasing ranked heavyweight talent. RINGS was a great tournament, but never had one card like this. PRIDE obviously had a deep roster, but nothing that matched the ranked depth of this heavyweight fight card.
We'll see how things turn out, but so far it looks like the UFC has managed to add novelty to this card without being gimmicky. To keep that balance as fighters get injured and replacements are needed will prove tricky. And they have to keep their fingers crossed that the action delivers on fight night in the best way possible. If the UFC has demonstrated anything, it's that they're good about taking appropriate risks while hedging their bets. I believe they've achieved that balance and I can't wait to see it unfold.
3. With One FC in southeast Asia, RUFF in China and Super Fight League in India, who will win the battle of Asia?
Thomas: The far East is like the wild West right now.
Regional promoters, some with intriguing products and others of dubious value, are trying to cash in on MMA's growth by getting out in front of the curve. Will MMA really take off in Asia as it has in North and parts of South America? Obviously some of the ingredients are there, but it's still very much an open question.
If I had to single out a promotion that seems to be ahead of it's peers, it's ONE FC. They've got a lot going for them: strong TV deals, a home base in a developed economy, a network of gyms, a relatively strong roster, organizational resources and more. That isn't to say other organizations like URCC or RUFF MMA aren't doing interesting work. Perhaps our Western bias isn't allowing us to see the lay of the land more clearly. It's still precariously early in this process to try highlighting a clubhouse leader.
For me, the key consideration is whether pan-Asian domination is even possible. I can envision a scenario where one regional promoter clearly demonstrates their superior infrastructure, box office drawing power and even a better product, but could be hindered by geographical limitations. Is it so hard to imagine India's Super Fight League having the comparative advantage in India over ONE FC, but ONE FC being a larger and even better MMA organization, head to head? Not really. Asia is a wildly diverse place and that we unite this vast geographical, cultural expanse with a single term only hinders our ability to understand what's going on. Whether any organization can become a hegemonic power - even the UFC - seems far from certain. But it will be fun to watch them compete.
Chiappetta: One FC has been impressive so far, but I think the promotion with the best long-term potential is China's RUFF. Why? For one, the league has the government's blessing to promote MMA as a sanctioned sport in China, no small thing in a communist country, let alone one of over 1.3 billion with growing economic clout, most of whom grew up practicing some type of martial art.
One word of caution here is that RUFF has only produced two events thus far, with the third set to go this weekend. Early returns are strong though, as RUFF has already secured Nike and Ducati as sponsors. The potential audience is huge, but of course with that the case, others will show up attempting to take market share.
Super Fight League is the newest of the three offerings, so it's hard to project their future success, but their theme song is… well… yeah.
4. TUF Live ratings: What do the relatively low numbers mean?
Chiappetta: The first two weeks of the rebooted Ultimate Fighter franchise haven't delivered huge ratings, with 1.3 million fans tuning in for the premiere, and that number dipping to 1.1 million for the second episode. But let's not start pressing the panic button just yet.
We need to take into account the fact that TUF not only changed formats, it switched nights and networks. That's a lot of change, and so it's possible that some of the audience hasn't found it yet. Add in the fact that on the same night, TUF's old home at Spike is hosting repeat episodes hosted by Kimbo Slice, and on MTV2, Bellator has live events, and you can see that the MMA audience has been effectively fractured.
That's not to say there shouldn't be some worry. TUF has faced some ratings difficulties in recent seasons, with even the season that featured Brock Lesnar struggling at times. The new "jive-live" format was an attempt to freshen things up, but perhaps the lower numbers simply prove that after 15 seasons, the show has peaked. Given the show's still impressive demographic pull, that's not exactly an indictment.
Thomas: I'm mostly with Mike here. The ratings in and of themselves aren't great - and signs that they decline over the course of the show's airing are worrisome - but panicking at this juncture seems premature.
As UFC President Dana White has indicated, TUF: Live is on Friday nights because FOX wants them there. And if you look at FX's ratings in that timeslot this time last year, the UFC has dramatically improved them. That's nothing to scoff at. If FOX is happy and FX is performing above the previous status quo, that's a reason to smile.
Conversely, though, there are structural problems. The live format was designed to make the show destination programming ('DVR proof'), but it's not clear that's working. There's also the inherent and seemingly inescapable problem that with the growth of regional MMA and promoters like Bellator who cater to rising prospects, it's increasingly difficult to find talent anyone knows or cares about. MMA is a star-driven sport, so it's hard to get ratings for a show with a bunch of mostly anonymous figures.
UFC and FX went back to the drawing board with this season of TUF. That's not easy and they deserve credit for coming up with a novel approach. It's just not clear that facelifts or even renovations are really going to return the show back to it's glory days.
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