As UFC 161 approached, there were a lot of comparisons made with UFC 149, which was probably the low point of UFC's 2012.
There were the obvious similarities. Both shows were the debuts in hot Canadian markets. UFC 149 was in Calgary. Saturday night's show was in Winnipeg. Both were markets where UFC has done strong pay-per-view numbers for years. In both cases, the pent up demand led to the show selling out the first weekend tickets were put on sale, even though neither show had what would be considered a big drawing main event.
And then, injuries started hitting. While UFC 161 wasn't snake-bit at the level of last year's show, the card did lose two of its three top matches. That meant four of the six fighters advertised in the top spots were gone.
Yet, there was a big difference and a lot of it was the reaction in the marketplace. In Calgary, there was a lot of media talk about whether the company should have offered refunds, and it led to ill will with the media and some segments of the public with talk of people attempting to unload their tickets. Then the show didn't deliver and the live crowd expressed their dissatisfaction. The end result is a market that did about $4 million live, one of UFC's best gates ever in a market of that size, is now one that seemed to be damaged badly.
In Winnipeg, the reaction was different. It appeared people were happy UFC was in town. It wasn't the original lineup, but they wanted to see the product. There was little in the way of negativity in the media as compared with Calgary.
When Yves Jabouin and Dustin Pague started going back-and-forth in an exciting opener, the crowd noise was almost Brazil-like. There were more than 11,000 of the 14,754 fans in their seats when the opener started, a far cry from the empty buildings UFC often sees for its firs few matches on its shows that often last six hours. And for most of the show, they had a lot to cheer about as Canadians took six of their seven fights.
In one sense, the show was the opposite of last week's show in Fortaleza, Brazil, which tied a record for submissions and had ten finishes in 12 fights. This had ten decisions in 12 fights, with one knockout (Shawn Jordan over Pat Barry) and one submission, (James Krause over Sam Stout), meaning no debates on who got two of the three performance bonuses. There were, however, a number of fights that could have been considered the best of the show, from Jabouin vs. Pague, Edwin Figueroa vs. Roland Delorme, Stout vs. Krause (which the UFC picked as the best) and Rosi Sexton vs. Alexis Davis. And a couple, most notably Jake Shields vs. Tyron Woodley and Ryan Jimmo vs. Igor Pokrajac, were fights that could have been crowd killers most nights.
The top two fights, a heavyweight battle with Stipe Miocic beating Roy Nelson and Rashad Evans beating Dan Henderson, both via decision, were somewhat compelling to watch, but perhaps not in the way most hoped.
Nelson and Henderson were the most popular fighters on the show, both known for their big right hands. And neither, in three round fights, were able to connect against much faster opponents. Nelson tired early but there was always the hope he would land the punch that would turn things around. With Henderson, the fight was a lot closer, with Henderson fading in a third round that looked to decide the fight.
Even before the injuries, this card appeared to have the least interest of UFC pay-per-view shows this year. But the show did have major repercussions on the careers of a number of fighters at career crossroads. We usually look at how Fortunes Changes for Five. For this show, we'll look at the six participants in three key matches, the top two fights on the pay-per-view show, and Shields vs. Woodley, a prelim fight matching top-level welterweights.
RASHAD EVANS - Evans (23-3-1), was faced with a must-win situation coming off lackluster performances in his title challenge to light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, followed by an upset loss to Antonio Rogerio Nogueira. His split decision win puts him back into the game. A loss at this stage may have ended his career as a significant contender.
He physically transformed his body at 33, and used his quickness to stay out of trouble past a jab that floored him in the first round and an elbow in the second. While unable to take Henderson down, going zero for nine in takedowns, he was still the aggressor and controlled the action most of the way. It wasn't a win that left you thinking Evans would have anything new for Jones. It was a needed marked improvement coming off the Nogueira performance, that left many thinking Evans no longer had the fire or desire.
There are no shortage of potential opponents in a light heavyweight division filled with contenders, but none that are really standing out as the guy who people think can beat Jones.
After the win, Evans brought up the name Glover Teixeira. But he also could face the winner of Chael Sonnen vs. Mauricio "Shogun" Rua on Aug. 17, or Ryan Bader. If his knee recovers quickly enough, he could also face Gegard Mousasi. Those are all new matches that would be viable television main events or solid main card fights on pay-per-view.
As far as a title shot goes and with so many contenders, it's not likely to happen soon for Evans. The big question is what happens if Jones moves up to heavyweight, which he's talked about for years, and at one time said that after he beats the record for most consecutive defenses (which he would do if he beats Alexander Gustafsson in September), he'd move up. That would leave the division wide-open. With one more high-profile win, Evans would be back in play in what would be a deep field.
DAN HENDERSON - When a legendary fighter is 42, and loses his second in a row, the natural question becomes what is left to accomplish. For Henderson (29-10), he was competitive in losing split decisions against Lyoto Machida and Evans, two of the best in the division. He hasn't taken the kind of a brutal beating where one feels he needs to get out for his own safety. He took a number of direct shots from Evans and his chin, always a strong point, held up fine. But both speed and stamina are issues.
Henderson made it clear he's not even thinking retirement, wanting to fight toward the end of the year after taking the summer off. UFC President Dana White, who isn't shy about saying when name fighters should hang it up, made no such hints, noting he sees Henderson as still competitive with top guys. Henderson is a name fighter in much the vein right now of what Rich Franklin has been for years. He's not in line for a title run, but he's a popular veteran who can headline a show if the timing doesn't work out for any championship fights.
The problem is more economics. Henderson is a big money fighter. He signed a great contract with Strikeforce when he left UFC in 2009. As popular as he is, it's only rarely translated into being a significant drawing card. With the money he's making, he needs to be able to headline. But with one more loss, even if he's competitive in the fight with another top-ten talent, the ability to viably headline becomes an iffy proposition. In other words, Henderson badly needs a win next time out.
ROY NELSON - Coming into this fight with three straight knockouts, all in less than three minutes, Nelson was on the run of his career days before his 37th birthday.
But after several years in UFC, what we've found with Nelson (20-8) is that he can decimate mid-level heavyweights with one punch. And if it wasn't for living proof in a fight with Andrei Arlovski in 2008, you might think it is physically impossible to knock him out. But against the top fighters, like Junior Dos Santos and Fabricio Werdum, and even with Frank Mir and Miocic, he hasn't been quick enough to land the punch. While he can survive the distance with anyone, he does get tired out when someone can make him go a fast pace.
Even so, after the fight, he talked about how styles made fights and how he would beat Cain Velasquez if he got a shot. Nelson getting a title shot at some point was viable talk last week. It no longer is now.
Saturday's loss couldn't have come at a worse time. While Nelson has always had a degree of popularity, when he walked down the aisle in Winnipeg, it was the first time he came across like a bona fide superstar to the audience. With all the interchangeable guys who make up a 400-or-so man UFC roster, you want as many guys on the marquee where fans instantly know their name and want to see them fight.
But it wasn't a pretty loss, and in hindsight, it appears it was a tactical mistake on his part doing the company a favor in taking a fight so soon, because he wasn't sharp or in shape. A fight that had been talked about and promoted with Daniel Cormier, which was talked about for this show but Cormier wasn't medically cleared, now makes little sense for Cormier to take.
Nelson said that he wasn't himself, saying perhaps he couldn't peak himself twice in such a short period of time. He took the fight, in his words, to help save a card that was falling apart.
His contract expired with this fight, and the nature of the loss is going to make a difference in leverage. Both sides expressed interest in signing a new deal. UFC may feel they owe Nelson for the favor of taking this fight. The question becomes what Nelson feels he's worth. He is popular, is good to have on a show, but is also not a huge money generator if he's looking for a gigantic money. UFC had already offered to extend the current deal, which Nelson turned down.
He can headline a television card, but longevity becomes a factor at his age. He's looked slow when against the top level heavyweights, and he's not going to be adding any speed at this point of his life.
It becomes a question over whether both sides are in the same ballpark as to his worth. He is the type of fighter Bellator, thin on heavyweights and looking for unique characters with good name recognition, should want. So he could have some leverage, even corning off this performance.
STIPE MIOCIC - Miocic scored his biggest career win, upping his record to 10-1, losing only to Stefan Struve last September. Miocic showed enough boxing skill to keep Nelson from getting settled in. He showed respect for Nelson's power, but not fear of standing with him.
There are plenty of potential next opponents. Depending on how matchmaking goes, there is Cormier, winners of Alistair Overeem vs. Travis Browne (Aug. 17), and Mir vs. Josh Barnett (Aug. 31) as high profile guys. Miocic may get one of them if there's an odd-man out type of situation. If not, someone like Brendan Schaub or Shawn Jordan, because of his :59 knockout of Pat Barry, could be next in line. Miocic is probably going to need one more convincing win against a name guy before people see him at the level of the bigger names in the division.
JAKE SHIELDS - Given Shields' record and history, his win over Tyron Woodley Saturday should have got him back into the top mix.
In fact, it's something different. Not only did White and most of the audience think the fight was boring, but White openly said he thought Woodley won.
"First of all, it definitely was not fight of the night," said White. "I had Woodley winning two of those rounds easily, and I barely gave Jake the second round. It was a bad fight all-around and an even worse decision."
The win probably hurt Shields (28-6-1, 1 no contest) in the sense the boring fight may make the company reluctant to put him in a position that his record and history would warrant. Shields is 17-2, with 1 no contest (a fight he won over Ed Herman his last time out that was overturned by a drug test failure) since 2005. He's also a former Strikeforce middleweight champion and headlined one of the biggest shows in UFC history against Georges St-Pierre.
At 34, he could use an exciting performance in a win next. But he's in a tough spot. Because we've already seen the Jon Fitch example, an older fighter who the perception is doesn't have exciting fights, he may not be able to afford even one more loss.
TYRON WOODLEY - Ever since Woodley broke into the national scene in Strikeforce in 2009, he appeared to have championship potential. He was an All-American wrestler, quickly picked up submissions, and seemed to rapidly take to striking. He won his first ten fights, but did struggle against better caliber opponents, before being knocked out by Nate Marquardt in a bout for the vacant Strikeforce welterweight title.
But that loss was completely forgotten the way he steamrolled Jay Hieron in 36 seconds in his UFC debut on Feb. 2. Woodley was talked about as a contender, and in Shields, this appeared to be the match he needed to move into the top mix. Woodley's wrestling ability was such Shields couldn't take him down. And he figured to be the much better striker, so it was a match that stylistically seemed to benefit him.
But whatever you think of the decision, Woodley (11-2) had his momentum hurt badly by this loss. There are so many top welterweights that Woodley couldn't afford to stumble given his goals of getting a title match within a year. With Henderson and Nelson, they've already made their names. Between the boring fight and the result, it was a bad night for Woodley's stock.