Junior Dos Santos and Stipe Miocic went on last Saturday night, but there was no doubt watching the five-and-a-half hours on FOX and FS 1, what the real main event was.
The night was all about promoting Jon Jones' light heavyweight title match with Daniel Cormier on Jan. 3. This is UFC's biggest match, perhaps in many years. It may not do UFC 168 numbers, but Jones vs. Cormier is a bigger match than the second Chris Weidman vs. Anderson Silva match, because the emotions are so much stronger. It's bigger than Georges St-Pierre vs. Nick Diaz, because the challenger is far more viable. It's bigger than the second Silva vs. Chael Sonnen fight, because, even though Sonnen was the master promoter, he barely squeaked by Michael Bisping, and while he did well the first time against Silva, nobody really believed Sonnen was one of the elite fighters in the sport, a level there is no doubt that Jones and Cormier belong in.
After being apologetic in front of the Nevada Athletic Commission, Jones said on Saturday that under the same circumstances, he'd do it again, referring to what turned into a brawl at the MGM Grand Garden Arena lobby. It's one of those great contradictions that this sport is full of. On one hand, you absolutely don't want fighters to be throwing punches, knocking down backdrops, tumbling off stages and throwing shoes. Either man could have gotten hurt,and plenty of people whose job it was to break them up or just in their paths could have gotten hurt.
There's a part of it that is really bad for the image of the sport. Except when it isn't, like it is three weeks before they actually fight.
The footage of their brawl and their verbal outbursts were played to death on Saturday in commercials and video pieces. Then the two spoke some more, while being kept in separate locations, on the broadcast. It was presented as if is the can't miss fight of the last few years. And to borrow a Diaz terminology, in this case, nobody is selling wolf tickets.
One almost crosses their fingers that neither man gets hurt in their final two weeks of training, since almost every talked about big fight on 2014 seemed to have an injury just as people started getting excited for it. This is actually the second try at making this fight, which was originally scheduled for Sept. 27.
One thing notable in the advertising was that tickets still remain. One would think that the combination of the biggest fight and the Jan. 3 date in Las Vegas would mean tickets would be scarce. But one can see that a lot of people are hesitant about buying tickets because there have been too many lessons learned about late injuries, and this show doesn't have a strong marquee undercard.
Provided the injury jinx doesn't take down another show, Jones vs. Cormier is going to be a huge test on pay-per-view. While there could be a stronger show when it comes to depth, it would be hard pressed to have a match with not just so strong personalities and tremendous footage to hype the rivalry, but also the level of talent involved.
It's the guy who has destroyed everyone (sans Alexander Gustafsson) who he has been in the cage with him, who may be the most gifted fighter of this era, against the guy who has never lost a round, and has never even been in a strong disadvantageous position in securing a 15-0 record. It's freak athlete vs. Olympic level wrestling combined with fast hands.
But for all his talents, Jones has never been the kind of pay-per-view draw that the true elite, like St-Pierre, Brock Lesnar or Chuck Liddell were. People are in awe of him, but for the most part, they don't love him. And they don't hate him enough to want to pay to see him beat. And even if they did, perhaps he's been so dominant that people can't even bring themselves to believe somebody has a chance against him.
The best thing for UFC would be a close, and somewhat controversial decision going Cormier's way. With all due respect to whoever wins between Anthony "Rumble" Johnson and Alexander Gustafsson, which headlines the Jan. 24 show on FOX, is absolutely a deserving contender, but neither will be Jon Jones, as far as an opponent for Cormier should he win.
This past year has not been good for the pay-per-view industry when it comes to big events. Everything has been down a lot. But when you look at what has been presented, everything should be down. Pro wrestling has essentially thrown in the towel on pay-per-view. Boxing, for years, has revolved around Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao, and neither has had as interesting opponents as in years past, and Pacquiao has clearly lost a lot of his luster a star.
UFC has only presented two shows in the last year that could have even been expected to do big numbers, UFC 168 and UFC 175. The first, with rematches with Weidman vs. Silva and a Ronda Rousey vs. Miesha Tate rematch built off the Ultimate Fighter reality show, did about 1 million buys, one of the bigger numbers in company history. UFC 175 did 540,000 buys, with Weidman vs. Lyoto Machida and Rousey vs. Alexis Davis, which was not a bad number considering neither Weidman nor Machida were super draws on their own, and there was no rivalry with Rousey and Davis, nor did anyone think Davis stood much of a chance.
Jones vs. Cormier should do big numbers. If it does less than 700,000 buys, it will show that it's not that less attractive fights have been on map in 2014, but that pay-per-view itself has declined. Between 700,000 and 900,000 buys would indicate things are very healthy and people are more than willing to pay, at least for the big events, since Jones has never been in that stratosphere before. If it beats 900,000, then the pay-per-view doomsayers, at least when it comes to the truly strong events, are wrong.
UFC is coming off its last big weekend of the year, with two shows. Let's look at how Fortunes Changed for Five of the weekend stars.
JUNIOR DOS SANTOS - Dos Santos (17-3) maintained his spot on the heavyweight ladder with a tough decision win over Stipe Miocic, in a fight that was closer than the 48-47, 49-46 and 49-46 scores indicated.
But his win exemplifies a problem in the heavyweight division. Cain Velasquez vs. Fabricio Werdum is next. What comes after that?
The fight that makes the most sense for dos Santos would be Travis Browne (17-2-1), with the winner becoming the top contender. The problem is that unless Werdum wins the title, which would be a upset, and dos Santos beats Browne, there is no viable direction.
A Velasquez win over Werdum, combined with a dos Santos win over Browne, puts Velasquez vs. dos Santos IV as the most viable title fight. Velasquez gave dos Santos two horrible and prolonged beatings in their previous fights, and dos Santos seemed slower and not nearly as dangerous as he had been in the past. If he were to lose to Browne, while Browne vs. Velasquez would be a new match, unless Browne got to Velasquez early, it would be hard to conceive of him winning that fight. We've already seen Werdum vs. Browne, and that fight was completely one-sided in favor of Werdum.
Wins by dos Santos and Werdum at least lead to a viable bout. Dos Santos, who would be going for the title against Werdum if he emerges as champion, already has a first round win over Werdum.
RAFAEL DOS ANJOS - Dos Anjos (23-7), looks to be the next lightweight title contender after his win Nate Diaz.
Dana White did everything sort of officially announce the match, noting that Khabib Nurmagomedov won't be ready for when they want lightweight champion Anthony Pettis to fight again. He said dos Anjos is the guy, and that Pettis had already texted him saying he wanted the fight.
It's a deserved main event, but not much of a marquee main event. But Pettis really doesn't have that contender right now. The lightweights who would mean the most against him have all been beaten soundly by him in quick order, Benson Henderson, Donald Cerrone and Gilbert Melendez. The next group of well known names, Nate Diaz, Eddie Alvarez and Josh Thomson, are all way out of contention with their most recent losses, although Alvarez could turn his fortunes around with a win over Henderson on Jan. 18.
But for now, Pettis vs. dos Anjos looks to be it, with Nurmagomedov waiting in the wings.
CARLA ESPARZA - When UFC purchased the Invicta strawweight division, Esparza was the champion and the top seed in the tournament. Even with the tag of being overrated by some of the women on the show, most notably Randa Markos, and having every woman brought together Wednesday night on Fox Sports Live picking against her, she dominated Rose Namajunas for three rounds.
When Esparza got the tap with a choke, she will always be in the books as the first UFC women's strawweight champion.
But her challenger situation looks slim. Joanna Jerdzejczak (8-0), who defeated Claudia Gadelha (12-1) by decision on Saturday looks to be the first challenger, because there's nobody else. Markos could have been the next challenger with a win over Jessica Penne, given there is legitimate rivalry between Markos and Esparza. But Markos lost a decision in that fight and is now 4-3. Namajunas and Penne, who essentially placed second and third in the tournament, were both soundly beaten by Esparza. A lot of people felt Gadelha deserved the decision over Jerdzejczak. Gadelha vs. Namajunas makes more sense than anything else out there to set up another contender.
MATT MITRONE - At 36, time is not on Mitrione's side, but his first round knockout of Gabriel Gonzaga, a third first round finish in a row, should knock him on the door of the top ten. Saturday seemed to create a natural match-up with Mitrione (9-3) against Alistair Overeem (38-14, 1 no contest), since each scored first round wins on FOX.
If Overeem isn't available and faces Dos Santos, then Ben Rothwell (34-9), who beat Overeem, would make the most sense.
NATE DIAZ - Diaz had himself quite the week, seemingly trying to set a record of getting into the cross hairs of UFC. He no-showed a public workout, complained about money, rankings, the new Reebok deal and C.M. Punk. He allegedly shoved dos Anjos at a fighters meeting, and then topped it off my missing weight by 4.6 pounds. After the fight, he said his camp hadn't gone well, he hadn't had good training, wasn't in shape, and was injured. When asked about what his injury was, Diaz then said he didn't want to make excuses.
Still, the Diaz brothers have something about them that gets fans into their fights. But Diaz fell to 18-10, and has lost three of his last four. Realistically, a fighter with his record and his outside the cage track record, could at this point face being cut.
In a company that needs stars, as they don't have enough for the number of shows they run, Diaz is valuable. In addition, he'd be signed in a heartbeat by Bellator and pushed as a major acquisition.
Stars can get away with a lot more than prelim guys. But Diaz is very close to a position where hard decisions may have to be made. With another loss, there may have to be real questions asked on whether the headaches are worth keeping him just so the opposition doesn't have him.