Thursday September 18th, 2014

Editor’s Note: This column was written prior to the UFC’s two Friday announcements: Thiago Silva, reinstated to the promotion’s roster two weeks ago after domestic violence charges were dropped, has once again been released, and fellow light heavyweight Anthony Johnson has been suspended indefinitely after the mother of his children reportedly got a restraining order against him, alleging domestic violence and threats. 

The reversal on Silva came, according to a UFC statement, “based on new information received today in the form of video and audio evidence.” His estranged wife, Thaysa Kamiji, posted two videos to YouTube that purported to show Silva high on drugs and brandishing a gun.

The Johnson situation came to light when the MMA website BloodyElbow.com reported about the restraining order taken out earlier this month. “We are aware of the situation involving Anthony Johnson,” read a UFC statement. “As a result, we are suspending him indefinitely. We are using a third-party law firm to conduct a formal investigation, and once we have more information, we’ll determine whether further course of action is necessary.”

This past week has been one of those in which, if you’re a fan of mixed martial arts or even of sports in general, and you’re a heterosexual male in a relationship or even just a human who cares about other humans, you’ve thought a lot and felt a lot. If there’s a woman in your life, maybe you’ve hugged her closer and tighter. If you’ve got kids, perhaps you’ve stood back and admired those wild minds of theirs, and tried your best to relax the gritted teeth of parental willfulness.

Awareness is an all-consuming wash of the soul. It’s a lot more challenging than the humdrum anesthetization of everyday life, but it’s what allows us to experience our aliveness. So while many have cast this dreadful dose of Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson as the worst week in the history of the NFL, it might actually be the best awakening ever. The issues of spousal and child abuse, which for generations have been swept under the carpet of FieldTurf, are out in the open now, dirtying the soles of our shoes. There’s a palpable impulse among those involved in pro football and in all of sports -- fans especially -- to feel clean again.

MMA
UFC re-signs Thiago Silva, fighter who once had standoff with SWAT team

What does this mean for MMA? That’s a question that’s been directed my way in a lot of recent e-mails and tweets, starting even before the Rice and Peterson stories took over the news cycle, back when the UFC was in the crosshairs of the social conscience for its ill-advised decision to bring back Thiago Silva a day after domestic violence charges against the fighter were dropped. Is that in itself this cloudy time’s silver lining? Between the questioners, the moralists, and the apologists, the conversation is under way. The issue is out in the open, or at least as out in the open as little old MMA gets among the skyscrapers of the sports metropolis.

That last part points to one reason why the folks who run the UFC can be glad their effort to grow the organization into the sports mainstream is still a work in progress -- slow progress with even a little regress. Compared to what illuminates the major sports, the spotlight on misdeeds in MMA is more like a tiny, flickering flashlight. So if you’re Dana White, you’re happy you’re not Roger Goodell. Not because your dealings with Silva put you on higher moral ground than where Goodell is situated post-elevator video, but simply because you can go about your business without the entire sports world looking over your shoulder with a relentless “tsk, tsk.” This isn’t necessarily a good thing for the sport, but as a foul-mouthed philosopher once said, it is what it is.

There’s also a less cynical way to view how being relatively small-scale benefits the UFC in dealing with the thorny social issues of the day. It has to do with a different aspect of being small-scale: Unlike football and most sports in the public sphere, MMA is an individual competition. That dramatically changes fan allegiance. In team sports, people often can trace their fandom back generations.

My own earliest memories, in fact, are of sitting on the living room rug at my grandparents’ house while the adults all screamed at the television during Giants football games. Old passions die hard. So when a player on your team -- one of your own -- stands accused of a deed that threatens to send him to the sideline, there can be an impulse to circle the wagons. Imagine being a Vikings fan, for instance, and having to sit through Sunday’s shellacking in which the Minnesota offense, sans Peterson, amassed all of 54 yards on the ground.

MMA fandom is more ephemeral. Allegiance is no less passionate than in team sports, but it’s simply not as longstanding and ingrained. When a favorite fighter retires, you move into another fighter’s corner. So when an athlete in this sport acts horrifically, it’s not as devastating for you to make a clean break. Even if you’ve been rooting for the guy his whole fighting career, that might constitute just a few years. There are Vikings fans, on the other hand, who’ve been cheering for those same uniforms since the days when the Purple People Eaters were wearing them.

NFL
After horrible week off field, NFL marches on more popular than ever

So Dana White & Co. weren’t exactly rowing against the tide when they considered what message to deliver to the public about Silva. They didn’t have to deal with a flood of mixed emotions from fans of a team. With little pushback, they could have taken a stand against domestic violence and steered clear of Silva. But they didn’t, and they said it was because Thiago no longer faces charges.

Well, what if War Machine’s court case somehow gets fouled up, he walks, and he comes looking for a job? Would the UFC weigh its decision purely on his fighting ability? Or would the big picture come into focus? Let’s hope this fragile time in the sports world is instructive.

Moving on, one reader posed a question to me, via Twitter, that approached the Silva-to-the-UFC situation from a completely different angle.

Do you think it’s possible that the only reason the UFC brought back Thiago Silva so soon was to help him pay for his ACL surgery?

--@joedaddy85

Are you asking as a joke, Joe? Well, I actually have a serious answer for you, and considering how much I’ve beaten up the UFC for taking Silva back, my take might surprise you. In short, I think you might be on to something.

I wasn’t alone in finding it puzzling that the UFC would quickly re-sign a guy who can’t fight till next year. Even if that was the promotion’s intent from the get-go, why not hold off and say “we’re looking into the situation?" Is it because media and fans would think you’re considering factors beyond the dismissal of criminal charges?

I mean, do UFC officials know nothing about the twisted saga of domestic violence, where victims regularly do not report their attacker or recant accusations if they do? There’s more to be found in the Silva case, and the UFC apparently didn’t bother to look for it. (And if the promotion had delayed its re-signing by even a few days, there’s no way it would have happened in the wake of the second Ray Rice video becoming public and the brouhaha that followed.)

• UFC needs to develop a domestic violence policy immediately

But the UFC did quickly bring Silva back in the fold, and part of the reason for that might have been to get him back on the insurance plan so he could pay for surgery rehab. This might seem unrealistically altruistic for a promotion that’s often the target of complaints about fighter pay, but the UFC does like to take care of its guys as long as that occurs on the company’s own terms. No doubt the majority of the roster would fare better if there was a fighter union, but the UFC does regularly pass out bonuses and payoffs beyond what’s contracted. So this might very well have been a gesture aimed at taking care of a fighter who’s been with the promotion for seven years.

Between Fight Nights, PPVs, and Fight Pass shows, do you feel that the UFC is watering down the quality of the product?

--@PaulyChicknWing

Yes I do, Pauly, and I’m far from alone in that camp. In fact, I have a hard time imagining anyone making a case to the contrary.

I wrote on this at length a couple of months ago, but here’s the issue in a nutshell: As recently as 2009, the UFC was running 20 events for the year with 13 of them pay-per-views. This year, the promotion again scheduled 13 PPVs, but 42 events overall. That’s a doubling of the schedule, while still asking the matchmakers to make more than a dozen of those fight cards worthy of a fan’s $54.95. The math simply doesn’t work; at best, there’s a thin margin of error, which we’ve seen come into play when a main eventer’s injury scuttled UFC 176 altogether and another top draw’s injury ended up weakening both 177 and 178.

Jones-Cormier fight canceled after Jones suffers leg injury during training

MMA
Surplus of events watering down the quality of UFC pay-per-views

The UFC has a business model predicated on growth, and perhaps in the long term it’ll bear fruit. Right now those trees are as barren as a wintry landscape, but this market saturation -- some would call it oversaturation -- appears aimed at getting new fans used to viewing “MMA” and “UFC” as synonymous, just as “pro basketball” means “NBA.” The UFC has a big head start into the sports consciousness over other MMA operations, but the competitor in a distant second place, Bellator, has a deep-pocketed parent company that has indicated it’s in the sport for the long haul. So we’ll see.

HUNT: Coker has big plans as Bellator closes out its tournament format

For fans, though, this watering down of product is an issue. Now, it’s true that every sport’s expansion is met with such lamentation, but neither the NBA, NFL, NHL, nor MLB has doubled its offerings practically overnight. Can the UFC sustain this growth? I, for one, think the promotion should cut back on its PPVs a bit and make each one truly worth the money. But don’t hold your breath on that one.

If Cain Velasquez beats Fabricio Werdum in November, who the hell is next in line at heavyweight? The Mark Hunt vs. Roy Nelson winner? Andrei Arlovski? Stipe Micic?

--@IronMikey85

I don’t know, Mikey, can’t we just have Velasquez and Junior dos Santos fight each other every three months from here to eternity? No, I suppose not. Dos Santos is the second-best heavyweight on the planet, and he did once beat Cain, but his two losses to the champ have been brutal beatdowns. We probably don’t need to see more of that. Junior probably doesn’t need to withstand more of that, either.

MMA
T.J. Dillashaw missed his chance to join MMA pound-for-pound rankings

So we’re left with the rest of the Top 10, as it were. As much as I’m looking forward to this weekend’s Hunt-Nelson slugfest, I have a hard time imagining either of them as a title challenger. I suppose if one of them scores an electrifying knockout, there’ll be a groundswell. But I think the best man for the job, Mikey, is the last one on your list.

Miocic is 12-1 and rock solid. He doesn’t have a long list of top-level conquests, but who among the heavyweights does? He’s already beaten Nelson, so here’s an idea: If Hunt beats Roy convincingly on Saturday and sustains no injury, maybe the UFC can match Mark with Stipe in a fight to determine who gets the next shot at the crown.

Oh, and that other name you mentioned? Arlovski was once the UFC champion, and he’s won four in a row, but no, no, no. Let’s not toss the guy into the deep water quite yet. I think the next reader has a good suggestion.

Arvloski vs. Mitrione?

--@DucharmeJay

MMA
Against all odds, Andrei Arlovski remains relevant in UFC

Yes, Jay, yes! As I mention above, Andrei is on a winning streak and has reappeared in the UFC’s heavyweight rankings (though he won’t likely have a spot in next month’s SI Top 10). But even at age 35, he needs to be moved slowly through the ranks. I realize that he just beat the No. 4 guy in the UFC tally (No. 8 here at SI), and that would seem to earn him a shot at No. 1, 2, or 3. But two of them, Velasquez and Werdum, are otherwise occupied, so that would leave just a fight with No. 2 Dos Santos -- a cruel fate for Arlovski.

Instead, let’s see Andrei take on someone who, like him, is on the fringes of relevancy. Matt Mitrione is a good test for him. And if “Meathead” can derail a name fighter like Arlovski, that’d be a feather in his cap.

It’s a win-win matchup … until one of them loses.

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