"Are you happy now?"
Those were the first words of a playfully caustic e-mail I received last week within hours of news breaking that Tito Ortiz had injured his neck and was out of his blast-from-the-past main event with "Rampage" Jackson on what was to be Bellator MMA's first foray into pay-per-view. As it turned out, the sport's second-fiddle promotion soon would elect to scrap the PPV concept for the time being and present this Saturday's fight card the way it always presents a fight card: on Spike TV.
I could tell from the tone of his correspondence that Robert from Sea Girt, N.J., agreed with me that The Ghost of Tito vs. Zombie Rampage was a terrible idea as a PPV showcase -- even two days after Halloween. I knew the reader was being only half-serious with his question. But I'll answer it anyway: No, I was not happy.
I'll never take joy from the seeing something bad happen to a fighter -- not the loss of a payday, and certainly not an injury that, in Tito's case, turned out to be a broken vertebrae. That goes not just for Ortiz, one of the greats in the short history of this sport, but also for bottom-of-the-card fodder. Fans are within their rights to scream for blood and mayhem during a fight, but I don't want to know you if you wish ill upon any of the men and women who compete in the cage.
That aside, I can't allow this PPV to fade into the sunset without expressing my confusion over the whole thing. I'm no MBA, but it never made sense to me for Bellator to give a faded Ortiz and Jackson top billing on a marquee that also featured the promotion's best and most exciting fighter, undefeated lightweight champion Michael Chandler, defending against the man he dethroned two years ago in a roller-coaster adventure, Eddie Alvarez. The argument I keep hearing is that casual fans recognize the names Tito and Rampage but not Chandler and Alvarez, and it's the casuals whom you're trying to attract to your pay event. It seems to me that the opposite would be true, though, that it would be diehards who are more likely to pay $40 to watch MMA.
I don't think the Bellator PPV was going to sell, with or without the Old Timers' Day headliner. And now what we have is a fine fight card that'll play out precisely how and where it should. Chandler vs. Alvarez deserves to be the main event of a Saturday night Spike showcase. Pat Curran's featherweight title defense against Daniel Strauss belongs right below, and Mo Lawal vs. Emanuel Newton -- a rematch of February's spinning-fist upset KO by Newton -- also will be getting the proper attention. As will Joe Riggs vs. Mike Bronzoulis, the first finale of the promotion 's reality show, Fight Master.
So while UFC president Dana White is smugly framing this as a disaster for Bellator, I see the promotion coming out of it in a better light than if it had to live under the shadow of a sideshow main event. Feel bad for Tito and even Rampage, but feel good for Bellator.
Speaking of Bjorn Rebney's baby ...
People may cite a distinct talent differential between the UFC and its competition. However, one promotion is doing it correctly: Bellator. What Bellator effectively does is properly align competitors for the championship of their respective divisions; the UFC does not. While the UFC is arranging the most compelling matches (arguably) based on revenue, why not follow the prescription set forth in its reality series? It seems that ultimately (no pun) you'll have the most compelling battles. The UFC did get the Glover Teixeira vs. Jon Jones matchup correct.
-- Joe, Mission Viejo, Calif.
Have you been reading my mind, Joe? Or maybe I've been reading yours. Actually, I think our shared observation about UFC matchmaking is becoming ever more obvious: It's about the money. That goes for championship fights. That goes for the competition for roster spots. If you're a grind-it-out ground fighter, you'd better do nothing but win, win, win. Your road to the top will be slow, but eventually you will get your shot ... as long as you don't lose. On the other hand, if you're a rock-'em-sock-'em guy who yanks the fans out of their seats, you're going to be around even after a few defeats. Dana White will tell you he owes that to the fans, both the paying public and the cable TV viewers who attract advertisers to the product.
It's a bummer to have to think of a sport as a commodity, but it's naïve to think of it otherwise. And don't take this as bellyaching about what might have been. Ever since the UFC became the pervasive promotion in MMA, we've seen most of the matchups we've craved. It's not like in boxing, where the most appealing fights often feel just out of reach. In the UFC, it's only on occasion that we see an entirely unwarranted title bout, like Jon Jones vs. Chael Sonnen. We might argue in favor of one challenger over the other, and rightfully claim that the tipping factor is economics rather than meritocracy. But most who are offered a chance to challenge for a belt are at least Top 5 contenders.
Does Bellator do things better? Well, it does generally live up to its "where title shots are earned, not given" slogan. But the tournament format isn't perfect. It can leave champions inactive for long stretches. It can produce ho-hum matches, and while regular matchmaking can do the same, at least you can try to makes compelling matches. For Bellator, tournaments work. They build names and resumes, to an extent. For the UFC? No need to go there. Don't fix what ain't broken.
As for Jones vs. Teixeira, I guess I'm coming around on that one, Joe. Initially, I wanted "Bones" to rematch with Alexander Gustafsson, for two reasons: first, because their fight last month was such a winner, and second, because that would give the presumptive next challenger, Teixeira, a little time to get a Top 10 light heavyweight on his resume. Twenty straight wins are nothing to sneeze at, but why not see what the guy can do against an actual contender? Instead, we'll get to see how fares against a no-longer-untouchable Jones. It's Jon's descent in status -- Gustafsson showed he's not superhuman after all -- rather than Glover's debatable ascent that makes me OK with this fight.
If "Shogun" Rua loses against James Te Huna, where does he go from there? I think the UFC would keep him around if he agreed to cut to 185 pounds and fight dudes his own size.
-- @DJJohnDouglas via Twitter
You can extrapolate my opinion, John, from what I wrote above regarding UFC matchmaking. It's about money. It's about excitement, which of course translates to money. So if you're Dana White or matchmaker Joe Silva, you look at Rua and ask yourself a couple of questions: Do fans still care about the guy, and is his contract a viable deal for the fight promotion?
It's impossible for us to fully assess Rua's UFC future without knowing the terms of his contract, but that part won't matter if the former light heavyweight champion continues to lose his luster. He didn't look like his dangerous old self in his last two bouts, both losses. But those were against Gustafsson and Sonnen, a couple of top guys. Te Huna is not in their class. So if "Shogun" can't wreck the rugged New Zealander in their December bout, he'd at least better put on an electrifying show. And then wish for the best.
"And don't talk to me about Fedor Emelianenko," you wrote in making a case for Cain Velasquez being the best heavyweight ever. "In order to be the best, you've got to beat the best."
You are correct. Since Cain has never beaten Fedor at his best, I can't call Cain the best ever. I have seen all of Cain's fights, and he is very good. However, at his best Fedor was markedly better. Full stop. No disrespect for Velasquez, and it's a shame he will never get to face the best ever in his prime. But such is life.
-- Jack, Waterville, Maine
This is what makes sports so fun. There's always debate. Manning vs. Montana vs. Unitas. Mays vs. Williams vs. Ruth. Tyson vs. Ali vs. Marciano. There are no definitive answers, just opinions based on some combination of statistics and observation and hype and even rooting interest.
I will stick with Velasquez as my choice, but acknowledge that my mention of Emelianenko was needlessly dismissive. Fedor was a true great. Maybe he was the best ever; I cannot say definitively that he was not. But as his career wound down, he looked less like a Fedor and more like a fader. Perhaps that will happen to Cain at some point in his career, too. Or maybe he'll get out while he's at the top of the game. Would that even prove anything? Should we be assessing careers as a whole or just some select prime years? It's all up for debate.
You wrote about Cain coming out to the center of the octagon to meet face to face with Junior dos Santos during the Brazilian's prefight "this is my house" gesture, and how it may have shook up Dos Santos a little. I would bet money that it was rehearsed. These guys are professionals and understand the position they are in: They're just as much entertainers and hype machines as they are athletes. I'm a fan of that sort of stuff, as long as they save it for the big fights and it isn't done to death.
-- Rocco, Rochester, N.Y.
I'll go halfway with you, Rocco. I do think it's possible that Velasquez, in watching Dos Santos fights on video throughout training camp, took note of Junior's little gesture after introductions and decided that he was going to make demonstration of his own in response. Maybe one of Cain's trainers put him up to it. So it's possible, even likely, that Velasquez wasn't acting spontaneously, that his walk to the center of the cage and his resolute stare were premeditated. But if you're suggesting that the little intimidation dance was choreographed by the two camps together, then we're parting ways. A heavyweight championship fight is big enough that it doesn't need an orchestrated hype moment. Velasquez and Dos Santos collaborating, mere seconds before they were to clash? No way.
How is the UFC going to cater to so many European events next year? Especially when Manchester was such a weak card. Do you think they are overestimating the market? I don't think there are many more fans to be had.
-- @christopher_kit via Twitter
The UFC's push for more international events -- the company has announced plans to hold at least six European cards in 2014 -- is simply a response to increased demand, don't you think? The fight cards surely will draw fans to venues all over the world. The question is, how will this play out on television?
Maybe it's an oversaturation, Chris, but I see this move as more of a redefinition of the TV market. With more fight cards, there's a need for more fighters. And that means some events will have more up-and-comers on them. So maybe the PPVs will be stacked, while the regular TV cards will be a mixed bag of contenders and newcomers and hangers-on. That allows the pay cards to stand out as something worth paying for. As the UFC grows, our expectations -- by fans, by the media, by the company itself -- must continue to evolve.
I recently read a story about a 58-year-old category 4 cyclist who was diagnosed with hypogonadism. The US Anti-Doping Agency would not allow him to race due to his testosterone therapy. So how is it that in MMA, where doping might have disastrous effects, we can't enforce a benchmark similar to that of media professors in their late 50s? Seems like a no-brainer. To quote the USADA: "Justification for the use of testosterone must meet the standard of demonstrating an organic cause of androgen deficiency/male hypogonadism. A diagnosis based simply on a functional disorder does not meet this standard."
-- Ro'ee, Israel
You'll get no argument from me, Ro'ee. Even Dana White is on record as saying, "If you have to use TRT, you're probably too old to be fighting." But the UFC president also loves to talk about how his fight promotion is "regulated by the government," the implication being that means standards are more stringent. He knows, just as you do, that state commissions don't have the funding to do comprehensive testing. And they apparently don't have the will to do away with exemptions allowing fighters to use testosterone replacement therapy.
Politics is complicated, and things tend to move slowly. The most powerful government body in combat sports, the Nevada State Athletic Commission, did hold a hearing last spring to address the TRT issue. Rather than enact a change in policy, however, the NSAC opted to study the situation further. Meanwhile, as the status quo lives on in MMA, we see more progressive steps being taken in cycling, a sport known for its doping perhaps more than any other. Great.