The UFC on FOX card on Saturday saw two of the four main bouts, and a key undercard fight, all fall apart in the week before the show, including a potential anti-doping violation of a fighter, Islam Makhachev, that came in after weigh-ins.
In a week where there were four reported potential violations, two on the card, Makhachev and Lyoto Machida, and two others, Frank Mir and Viscardi Andrade, we're seeing the expanded testing wrecking havoc with company plans. And we're also seeing a cleaner sport, as the changes in physiques of fighters on virtually every show indicates. Some people will change the way they look by training or eating in a different manner, but that has always been a part of the game. The eyes tell us a different story about changes in the foundation of the sport over the past 10 months. It's a combination of both off-season testing, and harsher penalties that have made getting caught too much of a career risk.
But even with issues with fighters using drugs popping for substances other than steroids or growth hormone, they are all part of growing pains that will make the sport far more fair to those who have been competing cleanly.
Even with the injury to headliner Tony Ferguson, leaving the other headliner, Khabib Nurmagomedov, facing an unknown making his debut, and the elimination of the Lyoto Machida vs. Dan Henderson rematch from a 2013 fight, the show did reasonably well in the ratings. A UFC show on FOX in April without a major marquee main event would be expected to do 2.4 million viewers, and based on the 2.13 million number from the overnights that don't include the West Coast viewing, the number should be right about that level.
That indicates the strength of the brand, since the changes made the show weaker than usual from a name standpoint. Plus, Saturday's show had competition head-to-head with live boxing on NBC. UFC destroyed Premier Boxing, which only did 1.24 million viewers in the overnights. UFC ratings have never gotten back to the levels they were on Spike TV, but that's also a different era since they also weren't running nearly every week. But at a time when a lot of ratings are declining, MMA, whether on FOX, FS 1 or Bellator on Spike, are either holding their own or growing significantly from the levels of the past two years. And if there was going to be a bad number for a show, given how this one changed so much at the end, a weaker number here would have been understandable.
Another interesting trend throughout the show were fighters taking their future into their own hands. At the end of fights, one of the routine questions asked the winners is an offshoot of "Who do you want to face next?" The usual answer is exactly what UFC doesn't want to hear, nor anything that interests the fans, which is the line of, "I'll leave to do Dana White, Joe Silva, Sean Shelby" or something along to that effect.
On Saturday, many of the winners came up with not just answers, but good answers for their careers, suggesting matches that had upside to them and that made sense to make.
In the case of main event winner Glover Teixiera, who challenged Anthony "Rumble" Johnson, White said that he hadn't thought of that fight, but smiled and said that it made a lot of sense to him. If Johnson is to fight before getting a title shot, Teixeira fits the bill the best anyway. His quick win broke him out of the pack and put him into the Jon Jones, Daniel Cormier, Johnson mix as a big four in the division. But in asking, he created public interest in the fight as well.
Johnson has clearly earned another title shot, with 11 wins in 12 fights, including devastating wins over the likes of Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, Phil Davis, Alexander Gustafsson, Jimi Manuwa and Ryan Bader.
But with Jones facing Ovince Saint-Preux for the interim title on Saturday, that leaves the unification fight with Daniel Cormier, the lone blemish on Johnson's last four years, for probably August at the earliest. And there is certainly a chance that would be pushed back as far as November to get it in Madison Square Garden. That schedule seems to force Johnson to, in a sense, defend his next title shot, and Teixiera could be the spoiler.
Let's look at how Fortunes changed for five stars of the show:
GLOVER TEIXEIRA - Moving to 25-4, Teixeira should move past Gustafsson as the No. 3 contender for the light heavyweight title behind Jones and Johnson. With a win in 1:48 over Rashad Evans, the question becomes was it just one of those things that happens in an unpredictable sport, is that Teixeira is on a roll, or is it that Evans, who didn't look good in his previous fight with Bader, is on the downside of his career at 36?
If for whatever reason the Johnson fight doesn't happen, the only other fight that makes sense is a bout with Gustafsson (16-4).
ROSE NAMAJUNAS - Namajunas pretty clearly set herself up as the likely next contender for the winner of the July 8 strawweight title fight with champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk (11-0) and challenger Claudia Gadelha (13-1).
The upside is Namajunas has made enough of a name off the Ultimate Fighter, a high-profile win on Saturday against Tecia Torres, and a main event win over Paige VanZant on Dec. 10 to be a viable name challenger. The down side is that this wasn't the kind of win that made people feel when it was over that she was ready to win the title.
Even though the judges gave Namajunas the fight 29-28 unanimously, the fight with Torres (7-1) could have gone either way. An MMADecisions.com survey of reporters scoring had ten for Namajunas, nine for Torres and two even. Torres had a 61-46 edge in significant strikes, landing more ironically in rounds two and three, the rounds most gave Namajunas the edge in. But Namajunas connected more to the head, by a 27-20 margin according to FightMetric stats, and also had two takedowns, the latter being the key in her getting the third and deciding round on two judges cards.
KHABIB NURMAGOMEDOV - At 23-0, including a unanimous decision win over Rafael dos Anjos, Nurmagomedov has the most impressive record of any unbeaten fighter on the UFC roster.
The big question is still how much the injuries that have kept him out of action for two years have affected him. Unfortunately, this fight didn't fully answer that question. Nurmagomedov's opponent, Darrell Horcher came into the fight 12-1, but had never faced a fighter of UFC caliber aside from Philippe Nover. And Nover has a 1-4 UFC record and he's the one who handed Horcher his prior loss. Plus, Horcher was taking the fight on short notice. Nurmagomedov dominated the fight, as he easily could have gotten a 10-8 first round (although all three judges had it 10-9) and finished Horcher in the second round.
Nurmagomedov brought up a dos Anjos title fight in the fall. Due to his religious beliefs, Nurmagomedov takes Ramadan off meaning he's not fighting in the summer. That fits just as well given dos Anjos faces Eddie Alvarez for the title on July 7 in Las Vegas.
But lightweight is a unique division where the promotion has a number of options. There is Ferguson (20-3), who is an all-action fighter on a winning streak. Anthony Pettis (18-4) is a former champion who has a well-known name. He may be the best known, but with losses to dos Anjos and Alvarez, he probably won't be given a title shot without a couple of wins. There are also Donald Cerrone (29-7) and Nate Diaz (19-10), who have fought recently at welterweight but both are more viable as far as being contenders at lightweight. Cerrone, given his recent loss to dos Anjos, may be out of the picture for now as well. So, another match-up with Ferguson could be on the horizon.
MICHAEL CHIESA - Chiesa (14-2) used boa constrictor-like powers in getting a submission from higher ranked jiu jitsu expert Beneil Dariush (12-2) in the second round.
Dariush defended his neck on a choke attempt, but it didn't matter as Chiesa squeezed, using a neck crank or facelock as it's also known, which is very rarely a submission at the UFC level, let alone with someone with the credentials at the ground game of Dariush.
Chiesa then challenged Ferguson. Given Ferguson's standing, a win over him would move Chiesa right into the title mix. And Ferguson needs an opponent, with most of the top lightweights already booked elsewhere. But Ferguson may be more likely to get Pettis if Pettis can beat Edson Barboza this coming Saturday.
JOHN DODSON - The former flyweight contender, Dodson (19-7) couldn't have been more impressive in stopping Manvel Gamburyan with rapid-fire lefts in 37 seconds.
Dodson was the smallest bantamweight in the TUF 14 tournament, yet ran through it and knocked out T.J. Dillashaw in less than two minutes in the finals at the end of 2011. With his return, that's a natural match-up for both. Dillashaw needs a win and would likely face the Dominick Cruz vs. Urijah Faber winner next. Dodson, with a win, makes himself an immediate title contender. But the same question remains as it did on the TUF season, because as fast and as talented as Dodson is, he is very small for the division. He's also never lost in the UFC as a bantamweight. Including his TUF fights, Dodson has five wins at 135, four by knockout and three of those were in the first round.