UFC 174 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada had a lot to offer both good and bad. Rory MacDonald turned in an incredible performance, Demetrious Johnson proved he's far and away the best flyweight in mixed martial arts and two Japanese prospects shined on the preliminary card.
Yet, fan interest in the event was low, much of the main card action wasn't particularly enjoyable and it's not clear fans cared for the main event despite what it had to offer.
It's time to separate the good from the bad, the winners from the losers and the signal from the noise for UFC 174: Johnson vs. Bagautinov.
The Good: Rory MacDonald's performance
We have to give credit where credit is due. MacDonald looked positively sensational on Saturday night. His jab was crisp and coupled with impeccable footwork. He and coach Firas Zahabi clearly game planned for Tyron Woodley in expert fashion, and MacDonald stuck to the strategy the entire bout. He dominated every phase of the game and increased the intensity with each passing round. Against a fighter the caliber of Woodley, that takes skill as much as ferocity and courage.
MacDonald has now firmly established himself as the welterweight waiting in the wings. More importantly, he might finally be shedding the impression he's a poor man's GSP. MacDonald came into his own on Saturday, and with youth on his side, the future couldn't possibly be brighter for the Canadian phenom to succeed while establishing his own identity, independent of how it compares or doesn't to Georges St-Pierre.
The Bad: 'They can't all be amazing' arguments
This was a fairly dreadful fight card. Like every UFC event, there's always a few gems. MacDonald vs. Woodley was great and the main event, while not scintillating, was more than serviceable. The rest of the card was largely forgettable, with a couple more standouts here or there.
That's not my issue, though. What I'm sick of is the phrase repeated ad naseum by fans, namely, 'Hey, not every event can be amazing!' Who actually thinks in their rational mind every event can be the most amazing event to date? Why even offer such a silly response? Of course some events are going to be greater than others. That doesn't absolve bad events from being bad. We certainly don't say after good events, 'Hey, not all events can be terrible!'
Moreover, how much more often are we hearing this argument about not all events being amazing repeated in today's MMA climate? I certainly hear it more frequently. I'd also argue the amount of times per year where fans get the 'big fight' feeling hasn't gone up despite the number of events exploding. That big show feeling probably hasn't declined much either if we're being fair, but to stay level while the number of shows dramatically increases should tell us you can't grow a premium product at scale.
In any case, if you repeat this argument, please stop. When an event is great, say as much. It's easy, really. The main card of UFC Fight Night 42 was really great. The ratings, in addition, were also fantastic. But when an event is bad, it's ok to be honest about it. The UFC 174 card, with a few exceptions sprinkled in, was lackluster. It's not the end of the world, but it deserves to be said without apology or phony qualification.
The Ugly: Blaming Andrei Arlovski for being Andrei Arlovski
I'm not going to deny Arlovski looked unexceptional in his return to the UFC, but how on earth is this a surprise to anyone? He's looked more or less how he has the last few years. When I asked UFC President Dana White at the UFC 172 post-fight scrum, after the organization had already announced the return of Arlovski, if he'd seen any tape on him during his hiatus from the Octagon, White said he hadn't. I'm sure UFC matchmaker Joe Silva has, but a quick glance at the tape says everything one needs to know: this is very much a fighter in the twilight of his career, one with diminished abilities.
I understand UFC needs fighters of note to fill fight cards. They're determined to run more shows than ever, so they need more fighters than ever. Still, this seems like a judgment error on the part of management to use Arlovski. If you're going to sign Arlovski, why is he on the main card? And how can you place the blame elsewhere when fighters like Paul Daley and Caol Uno are ready to return? Was Arlovski any more entertaining on Saturday than a Ben Askren fight? If nothing else, at least Askren has tremendous ability to rile up audiences with his words.
It's fine to be candid about Arlovski's performance, but doing so as a matter of surprise certainly isn't Arlovski's fault. This is who he is at this stage of his career and that should be a secret to no one. And if UFC is going to pass on better talent that could fill these roles at similar price points, how is that Arlovski's or Brendan Schaub's fault?
It's difficult to capture the precise moment a bout is won, either by surrender or a fighter being rendered unconscious. The precise angle matters and getting it is often a function of luck. Fortunately, we have that here. Kunimoto's submission of Sarafian is happening right in front of us. You can see just how utterly ironclad the rear naked choke application is and how Sarafian's hold on consciousness is tenuous. His left hand is in motion to tap. Get all of the UFC 174 photos by Esther Lin here.
Bright Stars Award: Michinori Tanaka, Kiichi Kunimoto
I didn't expect much from Kunimoto and am still not ready to declare a hugely dehydrated Sarafian welterweight's biggest threat. Still, he simply ran through the Brazilian in an entirely one-sided performance. He's at least earned a couple more appearances inside the Octagon.
Tanaka's grappling pedigree was well known prior to his UFC debut on Saturday, but I was concerned Delorme's strong ability in that department and unmatched UFC experience (relative to Tanaka) would be the difference. In truth, that couldn't have been less important. Tanaka demonstrated a superb ground game: clean distance closing, a nice array of authoritative takedowns, positional control, guard passing and the ability to at least threaten with the submission. That he did so in his UFC debut seemingly so effortlessly against a fighter with legitimate MMA grappling credentials makes the win that much more noteworthy. Here's to seeing more from these two Japanese standouts.
Pyrrhic Victory Award: UFC, for pushing flyweight title fight as headliner
The UFC deserves praise for treating the flyweight division and it's champion Demetrious Johnson much like any other weight class and its king. There are some differences, sure, like the UFC purposely leaving off 'flyweight' when advertising title fights on FOX. Ultimately, though, these differences are fairly minimal and meant to boost the profile of the division by not sending out triggers that may turn leery fans away.
Perhaps more importantly, the UFC must know it's going to be a struggle to put flyweight title bouts on pay-per-view and pull the kind of returns to which they are accustomed. If they weren't sure before, they must know after Saturday.
No numbers are in yet, but all available evidence suggests UFC 174 is going to do a remarkably low buy rate by UFC standards. The live gate in Vancouver was a record low for UFC shows there. Web traffic was unusually sparse. Fan enthusiasm just wasn't high enough.
The problem is it's not clear what the solution could be. A move back to FOX doesn't seem realistic as other fighters and weight classes need the big FOX shine. UFC can try stacking any card with a flyweight headliner, but that might cause them to lose even more if fans who are turned off enough by flyweight action to forgo even a strong supporting cast.
I'm sure the UFC will eventually figure this out or come to some version of a workable solution. Maybe as they develop the division, rivals will appear for Johnson. Perhaps as time passes, appreciation for Johnson's greatness will grow. In the short run, however, they have their hands full. That they're pressing on with this division as if its any other is about as admirably principled a stance as you can get, but it may prove to be a hugely costly one in the end.
Most Unfair Analysis: Tyron Woodley 'choked'
UFC brass have an interesting belief about fighters. In short, they often view a fighter's failed attempt in an important bout or moment to be one of choice. The fighter could've done more, but fell short, leaving a question about what sort of effort they otherwise could've turned in. That theory for success and failure was reintroduced in the aftermath of Saturday's co-main event loss for Tyron Woodley. It was suggested Woodley 'choked', meaning he could've done more, but simply chose not to, presumably because those who choke lack the ability to make effective decisions in moments of high tension or pressure.
It's certainly possible Woodley could've turned in another kind of performance, but it's not so obvious the outcome would've been all that different. Woodley did indeed fail. After all, he lost the bout, yet it seems unfair to suggest his shortcoming was a simple matter of choice.
UFC brass are right that difficult choices made by fighters can sometimes raise the limit of human potential, but that theory underscores a harsher reality: there is a limit to human potential. It may simply be the case that Woodley isn't good enough to defeat MacDonald, at least not on that night in that bout. He could've fought more aggressively or recklessly, but perhaps to significantly greater personal harm without establishing any real threat to his opponent.
The fact is some fighters are better than others and the upper bound limit of what a fighter can do is just that, bound by constraints. We often see fighters like Woodley or Kenny Florian or various The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) competitors chastised for failing to seize an opportunity because, ostensibly, they failed to make the choice to do so. In some cases, perhaps that's true, but it's equally true there is only so far a fighter can go. We have to accept their talents, while great, are not infinite. Criticizing them for that seems unfair.