It's a quiet weekend (for the most part) in mixed martial arts, but there are issues to address both past and present. After UFC 149, poor officiating reared its ugly head again. We also have to consider where one of the most popular lighter weight fighters goes forward in his storied career. As the fourth installment of UFC on FOX 4 approaches next weekend, we find ourselves one year into the historic marriage between the world's top MMA league and their broadcast partner. How would one grade the first year of the partnership? And hey, there's an all-women's fighting organization in North America putting on their second show this weekend. Can they really succeed as viable programming and turn a profit?
To help me sort through these issues, my colleague Dave Doyle joined me in this week's installment of the MMA roundtable.
Doyle: On Monday's MMA Hour, Faber said that he still considers himself at the top of the bantamweight division. That's not an unfair assessment. There's no shame in losing to Dominick Cruz or Renan Barao, it's not like he was blown out of either fight, and he's beaten everyone else he's met at 135 pounds.
But if Faber is going to commit to making another run at the top of the division -- knowing the type of competitor Faber is, I don't doubt he's going to give it his all -- he's also going to have to accept that in order to do so, he's going to have to fight some guys who will be looking to make their name off beating him. A title shot any time soon is out of the question. There's no point in rehashing fights against guys like Brian Bowles or Eddie Wineland, whom he's already beaten.
Faber has indicated he's not necessarily interested in fighting someone like Miguel Torres in a "just for the heck of it" sort of way. So that means Faber is going to have to fight some of the up-and-comers in the division, whether that turns out to be Michael McDonald or someone else. "The California Kid" will need to string together a few wins of that nature before he's seriously considered in the title picture again.
Thomas: I generally agree with Faber's take on matters. I also agree with Dave here. If Faber is to continue his run at bantamweight because he isn't getting blown out and he's still positive about his chances, more power to him.
But he also might need to consider tactical adjustments, if they can even be made at age 33. Faber's right that he isn't getting handily defeated. He's very competitive with both Dominick Cruz and Renan Barao. But he's also consistently coming up a bit short. Something's not going right and if he is to continue fighting, he'll need to adjust for what's holding him back.
Far be it from me to offer strategy advice to a fighter as accomplished as Faber, but I'm going to try anyway. Either he needs to create more scrambles where he can assume better clinched or ground positions or at a minimum keep his opponent off balance while he scores with strikes. The other option is to augment his striking so he doesn't have to rush opposition to get inside their reach. Faber adding a double or triple jab to close distance would be a welcome addition.
Whatever he chooses is fine just as long as he realizes something needs to be adjusted. He can't fight the way he is now and beat Cruz or Barao. He won't get blown out and he'll beat everyone else at bantamweight, but who wants to be close but no cigar?
2. Was Dana White's criticism of the UFC 149 officiating fair?
Doyle: It was mostly fair, but it also wasn't the biggest issue with UFC 149.
Josh Rosenthal made a mistake when he stepped in after what he erroneously thought was a low blow in the Matt Riddle-Chris Clements fight, but he was let off the hook somewhat when Riddle went on to win the fight. Yves Lavigne should have been more proactive about restarting the action during Cheick Kongo vs. Shawn Jordan, particularly during the brutally dull third round. But in that case, would it have really made a difference? Given that Jordan's game plan rarely deviated from unsuccessful takedown attempts and Kongo repeatedly landed single strikes and then pinned Jordan against the fence, it's hard to see that the fight would have morphed into a thriller even if Lavigne was quick to reset them.
That referees are obvious targets for criticism is something that transcends across sports, which made it easy for White to focus his wrath on the third man in. Just look at the conspiracy theorists who pop up anytime a star in the NBA has a call go in their favor. But poor officiating was just one of a laundry list of things that went wrong at UFC 149. There was plenty of blame to go around.
Thomas: Mostly, yes. He was probably a bit harsh on Lavigne, but not in anyway that deserves push back.
Referee Josh Rosenthal can't seem to shake off whatever ailed him during the Munoz vs. Weidman fight. His botching of the liver kick in the Riddle vs. Clements fight was very, very bad and frankly, uncharacteristic of a referee who is generally quite capable. White's commentary there was absolutely deserved.
As far as Lavigne is concerned in not stepping in sooner during the Jordan vs. Kongo bout, White is mostly right. There were a few moments that probably called for a restart. However, there were also moments where there wasn't a ton of 'action', but there was also a lot of inside pummeling. When fighters are jockeying for position like that, you have to let them sort it out. Again, Lavigne's problem was that he didn't restart when Kongo and Jordan stopped pummeling, but the idea that there was an endless array of opportunities for Lavigne to step in is not true.
I'm torn on this issue of criticizing referees. On the one hand, some of these errors seem egregious. On the other hand, refereeing is a brutally unforgiving gig. It's zero tolerance and every decision - major or minor - holds enormous consequences. Yes, the calls were bad, but if Rosenthal is making bad calls, who is making the good ones? I hate to suggest we have to live with a certain measure of 'error toleration', but it may just be the reality we're living in.
3. The month of August marks the first year of the UFC-FOX parternship. There are six years left, but how would you grade the overall performance of the partnership in this first one?
Thomas: I'd give it a C. Maybe C+. The deal is working splendidly for one party, not so much for the other.
Overall, the FOX platforms are doing well after one year. FUEL is quite obviously bigger than it's ever been, the ratings in terms of getting key male demos in time slots where they've historically been lacking are way up on FX and while the last UFC on FOX show wasn't a ratings bonanza, the first two shows did great. And even then, Saturday night MLB games occasionally do only marginally better than UFC on FOX 3 (although it still was disappointing in terms of UFC's ability to deliver).
The group not getting the most out of the deal is the UFC. That isn't to say they aren't getting anything. Ratings on FX for pay-per-view prelims are doing well and as I mentioned above, they're giving their broadcast partners a lot to work with. The problem is it's not clear the UFC on FOX shows are really turning new fans into pay-per-view subscribers, programming on FUEL is essentially lost content and 'The Ultimate Fighter' on FX is anything but revived. The splintered platforms aren't making it exactly easy for UFC fans to know when and how to access content. I'd also add that FOX being M.I.A. on UFC 148 in terms of even offering cursory promotion was a fairly egregious moment of negligence. Oh, and this UFC-FOX deal was also supposed to usher in a new set of sponsors for the UFC that were previously unattainable.
The good news is there are six years left. That's a lot of time to figure things out. Here's to hoping they do.
Doyle: I don't think I can grade it yet. If I had to, I'd give it an "Incomplete" and hand it back for more work.
The main lesson out of the UFC on FOX ratings so far is the same one we learned from Elite XC on CBS: Stars draw audiences on network television. Fights that look good on paper in and of themselves don't. In an ideal world, UFC on FOX 3 would have made pay-per-view draws out of guys like Nate Diaz and Alan Belcher after they looked so good in winning their fights. UFC still needs to find the sweet spot where they're able to give FOX big enough names to draw a network-worthy rating without cannibalizing pay-per-view buys. This is an ongoing trial-and-error process.
Fuel TV, to me, seems to be a matter of FOX using UFC as a bargaining chip to get the network carried on more cable systems. It wouldn't be the first time a popular brand was used by a corporate giant to get a station on more systems and it won't be the last. I think it's fair to assume UFC understood this going in. In the short term, it seems a shame a lot of people are missing out on what has been a consistently good UFC on Fuel TV series (including the leader for fight of the year so far in Chan Sung Jung vs. Dustin Poirier), but if two years from now pressure from fans means Fuel is in twice as many homes as it is now, then the short-term losses will have been worth it for FOX.
As for FX, I've already stated my opinion that as long as The Ultimate Fighter basically features a bunch of dudes hanging around a house, it doesn't matter whether it's on Spike or FOX or running simultaneously on every major network. A stale concept is a stale concept. At the very least, the solid ratings for UFC PPV prelims on FX shows that fans will find what they want to watch regardless of the channel.
I don't necessarily agree with Luke's take that FOX should have been promoting Silva vs. Sonnen. They weren't making money off it, and on that night, there were so many people tuning in to the PPV broadcast that UFC was taking away from viewership of FOX properties. But I agree with the general notion FOX should do more to plug their UFC programming. The promotion for Cain Velasquez vs. Junior dos Santos was through the roof and so were the ratings. UFC on FOX 3 promotion was almost nonexistent and that, too, showed in the ratings. There's a lesson there.
Finally, I'll note that as I work on this, my local FOX Sports Net affiliate is airing the Roy Nelson-Fabricio Werdum fight and Fuel is airing UFC Tonight. I'm flipping between the two rather than watching something on a non-FOX network. I can't be the only one out there watching more random second-run UFC programming now than in the past. It's a small thing, but this sort of ubiquity can only build the brand even further.
4. Invicta FC aren't only trying to sell tickets and present women's fighting as viable sports programming, they're also trying to fix everything that's wrong with the sport. Can they really be successful?
Thomas: I'd like to believe they can and I most certainly hope they do, but I'm really skeptical.
Women's athletics - in terms of thriving sports that are profitable and deliver as television content - tend to do well in spaces where the downgrade in the quality of play from the men's game is negligible or nonexistent (or better, although I maintain that's rare). In sports like gymnastics, they're different in terms of what the competitors are required to do, but the general rule still holds. In games like tennis, there are fewer sets in the women's side and they may not hit the ball quite is hard, but the game is extraordinarily similar. No one ever says. 'I only watch men's tennis'. They'd be missing out on a crucial part of the game. Contrast that with basketball. The women of the WNBA are obviously incredibly talented athletes, but the level of play relative to the NBA is a significant downgrade.
Can women's MMA be delivered in such a way that it's as entertaining as the men's? In a sport where the game naturally rewards athleticism and big power matters, I doubt it. But who cares? It doesn't have to match the men's game on the men's games' terms. Like gymnastics, it can be separate but equal. The question is can one organization holding fights in the Midwest on off-UFC weekends get the sport to a point where it can be enjoyed for it's high level and special quality of play? I have a hard time believing that.
Doyle: What's that Chinese proverb about the thousand-mile journey? It begins with a single step. I think instead of aiming to come out of the gate and fix all of the sport's problems, the folks involved with Invicta should simply focus on putting on great events. And on that count, they're off to a solid start. The more opportunities women have to compete, the better the chances are that more women will be attracted to taking up MMA. Just like we've heard for years how male fighters were inspired as kids watching the likes of Royce Gracie, there are no doubt girls and women looking to fight because they've watched Gina Carano or Ronda Rousey. And while its true Strikeforce has locked up most of the elite women's talent, a full-time women's promotion is the next step in that evolution. If Invicta focuses on simply putting on one quality event at a time rather than make it a goal to "fix everything wrong with the sport," then they might eventually find the problems they're looking to solve sort themselves out on their own.