The UFC on FOX 3 event delivered perhaps the best main event to the smallest TV audience yet. It also propelled a couple new contenders into the championship picture, while knocking a few other hopefuls further down the line.
Now that a sobering Monday is upon us, it’s time to take a look at the biggest winners, losers, and everything in between after an interesting Saturday night in New Jersey.
Biggest Winner: Nate Diaz
Against one of the toughest opponents he’s ever faced, Diaz looked better than he’s ever looked. Better still, he didn’t have to play it safe or sacrifice any of his Diaz-ness to get it done. He followed the Stockton playbook, complete with mid-fight flexdowns and rangy punch combos, then made Miller pay when he tried to take it to the mat. How could you not give this guy a title shot? The lightweight division is getting crowded at the top, but Diaz deserves to jump to the front of the line after his recent performances. He’s closed up many of the early holes in his game, and he always entertains inside the cage. What’s more, you can generally count on him to, in UFC president Dana White’s words, "play the game" when it comes to pre and post-fight festivities. He’s everything the UFC needs in a fresh lightweight contender, and he’s only getting better. Now he plays the waiting game.
Biggest Loser: Rousimar Palhares
For the past few years, "Toquinho’s" game plan has been the worst-kept secret in MMA. We all know that he wants nothing more than to grab ahold of his opponent's leg and twist it like a wet towel that he’s trying to wring dry. The fact that he’s been so successful with that approach anyway has served as a testament to the value of skill over surprise. But even when he got Belcher where he wanted him, Palhares couldn’t close the deal. Even worse, he didn’t seem to have much of a plan B. He let Belcher posture up on top of him and blast away with punches and elbows, which is only a good idea if your goal is to find out what the inside of a New Jersey hospital looks like. If the question hounding Palhares’ career was ‘how far can a one-trick pony rise in the UFC if his one trick is a really good one,’ I think we just got our answer.
Clinging to #1 Contendership by the Follicles of His Beard: Johny Hendricks
Okay, so his win over Josh Koscheck wasn’t exactly a dominant one. One or two punches or takedowns here or there, and that decision could have gone the other way. Still, Hendricks did just enough to convince two of three judges (everyone but Ricardo Almeida, in other words) to give him the nod. But, in the process, did he convince the UFC and its fans that he’s worthy of a title shot? Tough to say. On one hand, a win over Koscheck always means something. He’s been at or near the top of the division for years, and however you have to play it to get your hand raised against that guy, it’s a significant accomplishment. On the other hand, I doubt many people are salivating over a potential GSP-Hendricks bout after that performance. If Hendricks wants to wait until Georges St-Pierre and Carlos Condit handle their business before stepping into the cage again, that’s an understandable choice. It’s also one that has gone wrong for many of those who came before him.
Most Surprising: Alan Belcher
Before this fight, I would have told you that his chances for victory hinged on his ability to keep the fight standing. Turns out he was perfectly capable of defending against Palhares’ go-to finish, and he didn’t even need to be on his feet to score the TKO. After his big win, Belcher declared he was coming for the middleweight title, which at first struck me as overly optimistic, not to mention premature. Then I stopped and thought about it and had to admit that, with four straight finishes in his last four UFC fights, he has a strong case. Of course, then we get into the conversation of whether he has any realistic chance of out-striking someone like Anderson Silva, though by then we’re already well ahead of ourselves. For now, let’s just be grateful that the middleweight division has some fresh faces rising to the top. After keeping his knee ligaments intact en route to victory against Palhares, Belcher is certainly one of them.
Least Secure Future: Pat Barry
He took a battering from Lavar Johnson before he finally went down in the waning moments of an exciting first round. The loss is his third in four attempts inside the Octagon, and it drops his overall UFC record to a dismal 4-5. That’s not good for job security in this business, even if you happen to be an entertaining heavyweight striker. Look, we all love "HD." How could you not? He’s a fun personality and a great human being. He’s also a talented fighter who just hasn’t been able to get the breaks to go his way in the big fights. It’s hard not to sympathize with him and want to see him do well. At the same time, likability alone will only carry you so far in the world of professional pugilism. You still have to get some marks in the win column in order to stay relevant. Personally, I hope Barry can put together a winning streak and solidify his standing in the UFC’s heavyweight division, if only because MMA is a lot more fun when he’s around. It’s just that, at the sport’s highest level, fun isn’t always enough.
Gimmick That’s Got to Go: Louis Gaudinot’s flowing green locks
I get it: when you’re coming up through the crowded TUF ranks, you have to find a way to get noticed. Looking like the lovechild of Clay Guida and The Incredible Hulk is a decent way of accomplishing that, but at certain moments in Gaudinot’s Fight of the Night tilt with John Lineker it seemed borderline unsafe. I’m not saying every fighter has to go with the Brock Lesnar, high-and-tight crewcut look, but you should at least be able to see the punches that are flying at your face. Gaudinot made the necessary adjustment between rounds and finished with a sweet little guillotine, so maybe all’s well that ends well. Then again, how much time can a pro fighter really spend in the beauty parlor before he has to admit that he’s trying too hard?
Cause for Concern: UFC on FOX ratings
It’s not time to sound the alarm just yet, but neither is it a good sign when your network TV ratings form a downward trending line. Live sports ratings tend to undergo some adjustment following the initial ratings, and I’m sure the UFC and FOX are both happy with the numbers they pulled in the key adult demographic. But let’s be real here: more people watched reruns than watched a live, free UFC fight on a major television network. That ain’t good, no matter how you spin it. You could point to any number of factors to explain away the diminished viewership. Maybe it was Floyd Mayweather’s fault. Maybe too many people were out of the house, getting their Cinco de Mayo on. Maybe FOX didn’t do enough to pull the attention of hockey and basketball fans who are in full-on postseason obsession mode. Or, let’s just say it, maybe you can’t put on contender-quality fights and hope for championship-level ratings. Diaz-Miller is a fight that’s interesting to the hardcores, and you can’t say that it didn’t deliver in the cage. Still, you have to admit that it lacks the elevator pitch appeal of ‘HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPIONSHIP OF THE WORLD!!!’ Aside from that JDS-Velasqez kickoff to the FOX deal, the UFC seems unwilling to part with short-term pay-per-view cash in order to build a long term audience on FOX. It keeps the big fights for the big events, and gives network audiences whatever else it thinks it can spare. You could argue that the UFC is trying to build mainstream interest in top contenders as they move toward pay-per-view title fights, but look at Diaz and Hendricks, the two contenders to emerge from this event. It will likely be many months before either gets his shot at the gold. Will the people who watched this event still be thinking about them by then? Will they even remember watching this event by the fall or winter? The ratings decline seems to suggest that viewers can tell the difference between a card that asks them to stay home and watch a big fight, and one that asks them to stick around just to watch some UFC. Now we know. The question is what the UFC and FOX will do with that knowledge.