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Werdum vs. Velasquez 2 and getting UFC title shots coming off losses

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The announcement on Wednesday that Cain Velasquez would be getting a rematch with Fabricio Werdum for the UFC heavyweight title seemed to get a mostly negative reaction, even though Dana White had strongly hinted it already, and the two most viable contenders were linked to other opponents.

I can understand the feeling. When Velasquez lost on June 13 to Werdum, it felt logical to me that Werdum should face Junior dos Santos next, and Velasquez should face someone like Andrei Arlovski or Stipe Miocic with a title opportunity at stake. Since that time, Arlovski was announced as facing Frank Mir and there have been strong hints of dos Santos against Alistair Overeem. And then Fedor Emelianenko's name suddenly resurfaced after UFC 189, and Emelianenko vs. Velasquez was a unique battle of the dominant heavyweights in the sport over two different eras.

But at the end of the day, White has always said that the UFC is about figuring out what matches the people most want to see and promoting them. UFC, as an individual combat sports organization, is completely different from a team sport or a league sport. For those citing that you don't get into the Super Bowl after losing in the playoffs, or make the NCAA Final Four while losing earlier in the tournament, that is both correct, but it's also irrelevant, because the public's decisions of what they want to see have made that so.

Team sports survive based on fan loyalty to a team. In the major sports, the leagues are solid entities. Strong franchises pack their buildings many times per month, often with only slight variations based on the opponents.

Combat sports are a completely different animal. While in the big picture, all sports are superstar driven, a major team sport is not going to have the kind of business decline that UFC had in 2014 because of all the injuries and departure of its two leading stars. They may lose games and drop in attendance, but they won't drop the way UFC did when the bad luck streak started. Nor do other sports have the kind of turnaround that UFC had this year largely based on the explosion of Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey.

A bottom level UFC pay-per-view event, even with great fighters and a legitimate championship fight, but with an uncharismatic champion, can struggle to break 100,000 buys. A few weeks later, the same company, with the right main event, can come close to doing 1 million buys. Because of that, the importance of being able to gauge what the public wants, or more is willing to pay for, is really a make-or-break aspect for any national company.

The problem is that it's an inexact science. Some of it is based on market research. Some is based on gut feeling.

Things like not getting title shots come off losses that is so important to the media and to the hardcore fans, is something that the people who actually buy UFC pay-per-views seem to care very little about.

The perfect example of what the public wants was when Nick Diaz, coming off a drug suspension and a loss, faced Georges St-Pierre, and did 950,000 buys, one of the bigger numbers in company history. The legitimate top contender, Johny Hendricks, faced St-Pierre next, and did 600,000 buys. Another is when Chael Sonnen, coming off a loss at middleweight, moved up to light heavyweight and faced Jon Jones, and pulled far bigger numbers than the more legitimate contenders, Alexander Gustafsson and Glover Teixeira, who Jones faced in his next two fights.

If anything, this year has only proven the public hasn't changed. We've had the rise of Conor McGregor into a huge drawing card before he had really even been tested, based on his mouth. And we've had the success of Kimbo Slice vs. Ken Shamrock, a fighter who never had a prime in the sport against a fighter whose prime was two decades ago, which blew away the interest level in anything Bellator had ever done. It did far better than when Bellator was built around the playoff tournament format system.

Ultimately, it's the personalities and the grudge matches that grow the sport's popularity. Bellator had a huge increase in viewership after ditching the sports-style tournaments to create legitimate contenders and replaced it with focusing on fighters who were long past their primes, but had name value from years ago.

There is the argument that eventually the public will lose interest in past-their-prime stars who aren't great fighters, or big-mouthed personalities who aren't proven against top competition. The idea is the current direction of contrived grudge matches and reliance of stars will run their course, and this type of booking will create a sports credibility loss that will do more harm than good in the long run.

Nobody knows when, if ever, the public will change what it wants to see.

What we do know is that when the public stops buying heavily promoted fights with guys coming off losses, and fights with people coming off wins start doing the top business numbers, the promoters are likely to follow suit in matchmaking decision. But until that comes, and it may never come, making a theoretical fight based on what the public isn't interested in seeing and thinking that is a superior direction for companies that need to cater to the most people possible is kind of foolish.

That said, this only slightly relates to the heavyweight and light heavyweight division. The decision to give Velasquez a title shot comes after an even more controversial decision to give Gustafsson a light heavyweight title shot at Daniel Cormier.

Velasquez, while losing the title to Werdum in his last outing, was the sport's dominant heavyweight for the past five years. And if his loss to Werdum was because the altitude caused the unthinkable, which was Velasquez running out of gas, that is on him because failing to prepare as well as your opponent and losing has been part of the fight game for as long as its been in existence. Still, the question does remain whether Werdum would have won the fight at sea level.   

Velasquez is not a big draw, but in comparing interest levels to the public with him with the other possible contenders, Andrei Arlovski, Junior Dos Santos and Stipe Miocic, he is well ahead of all of them. Before the announcement was made, Velasquez was also ranked by the media as the No. 1 contender. There isn't a Johny Hendricks in this field who clearly deserves a title shot based on wins, being passed over by someone ranked below him coming off a loss. It's the person considered the No. 2 guy behind Werdum in the division, getting a shot in a division where nobody has stood out ahead of the others in deserving a shot.

Arlovski has a few wins, but hasn't beaten anyone in the top tier. The main argument for him to get a title shot is that it makes for a great story about a guy whose prime seemed to end ten years ago and whose career seemed over in 2011, has won seven of his last eight fights.

Dos Santos does hold a win over Werdum, but Velasquez destroyed dos Santos badly twice, and he didn't look like the same fighter in his last bout with Miocic. Miocic only has a one-fight win streak, and lost, albeit very close, to dos Santos. And Miocic has the weakest name value of the four.

Similarly, in the light heavyweight division, Gustafsson, even though he was knocked out by Anthony Johnson in the first round in his prior fight, was ranked ahead of everyone in the division except Johnson, who Cormier finished. Gustafsson is also a bigger star than Ryan Bader, who most expected to get the first shot. Gustafsson is not a bigger star, at least in North America, than Rashad Evans. But Evans won't have fought for 23 months when he steps in with Bader in a bout that is likely to create a future title contender. And Gustafsson is the key component of the UFC's great success in Sweden.

So if you look at the framework that both of these controversial picks for challengers were both the highest ranked viable contenders and their fights are likely to generate the most interest, it explains title shots coming off a loss. If the public, as well as those who do rankings, cared that much about contenders losing their last fight before getting the shot, the UFC would probably have made a different choice.

Of course, then we look at the welterweight division. Hendricks is the No. 1 contender, who has fought evenly with champion Robbie Lawler in two fights, both of which went the distance, and they are tied at five rounds apiece. The first fight may have been 2014's best match, so it's not like the two match up in a way that creates a boring fight.

Carlos Condit is ranked No. 4, has lost three of his last five, including bouts to current contenders Hendricks and Tyron Woodley.

And Condit is getting the shot. The reason? He's certainly no bigger of a name.

But in the end, those making the decision probably figured the public would want to see him get the shot more. And that inconsistent value judgment is likely because fans are inconsistent in what they want, and trying to figure out what the public wants is based on hunches and gut feelings. There are guidelines to learn from, but in the end, it's not an exact science.