The UFC brass no doubt is thrilled to have a big event creeping up the weekend after next. Not just because the mixed martial arts world has long been anticipating the rematch of Anderson Silva and Chael Sonnen, but even more so because a lot of folks would just like to forget last weekend, overstuffed as it was with flawed fights.
But before we move on, there's a little more sparring to do. After a sweaty AC-less trip to AC -- you haven't lived until you've driven down the Garden State Parkway on a 95-degree day in a car whose air conditioning is on the blink -- I don't have the stamina to go five rounds, as the main event fighters did at Friday night's UFC on FX 4 in Atlantic City and Saturday night's UFC 147 in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. So let's just spar three more rounds with the weekend:
Round 1: on Greg Jackson
The sport's most celebrated and vilified trainer is again taking heat for his game-planning. Back in February when Carlos Condit used a stick-and-move strategy to nullify Nick Diaz' unidirectional aggression, some accused "The Natural Born Killer" of running. He didn't run. He simply sidestepped Diaz, again and again, throwing strikes every time he moved out of the way. It was a brilliant defensive and offensive strategy against a fighter who seems to know no other path to an opponent than straight forward.
That appeared to be the same strategy Jackson and partner Mike Winkeljohn concocted for Clay Guida for Friday night's UFC on FX main event against Gray Maynard. It was no less exceptional a plan for Guida than it was for Condit. Problem was, after Clay spent the first two rounds frustrating Maynard by sticking and moving, he then just pissed off the guy -- and the crowd -- by continuing to move for the rest of the fight but forgetting to stick while he was at it. Another way to describe it: He ran.
But don't blame Jackson and Winkeljohn. Their plan is two-pronged: 1. Make your opponent miss; 2. Make him pay. Condit had executed the strategy in its entirety, in one round out-landing Diaz, 37-11, according to FightMetric statistics. Of course, numbers don't tell a complete story. On Friday night, Guida was credited with throwing 175 significant strikes over the final three rounds, landing 25. Why the paltry 14 percent connect rate? It had nothing to do with any Maynard elusiveness -- at one point Gray dropped his hands to his sides and stuck his chin out -- but rather was a matter of Clay simply flashing hands in the general direction of his opponent, maybe to establish distance, maybe just for show, but with no commitment to connect. He stopped landing punches, thereby settling for only Step 1 of his coaches' two-part game plan. And that's on Guida, not Jackson and Winkeljohn.
Round 2: on watching again
It's amazing how much your experience of a fight is influenced by how and where you're watching. Sitting in Ovation Hall at the bizarre new Revel Resort and Casino in Atlantic City on Friday night, I witnessed Maynard-Guida playing out with the melodramatic passion of a Rocky movie. Guida, owing to his six Fight of the Night performances, was greeted by the crowd with a hero's welcome. Maynard, owing to all the brutality he'd bestowed on Jersey boy Frankie Edgar in their two meetings over the past couple of years, emerged to a chorus of boos. From there, it was surreal to hear the fans' allegiance turn as Guida stopped engaging and Maynard started morphing into antihero Diaz, complete with giving the finger, taunting and mugging. By the fourth round, the early "Guida! Guida!" chants had turned into full-throated "Maynard! Maynard!" calls for bloodshed.
And so much of what I found myself taking away from the fight was viewed through that lens. As a live observer, you want to make your own judgments, but it's impossible to block out the influence of the crowd reaction that surrounds you. I don't envy the cageside judges.
Fast-forward to the next afternoon, when I arrived home and turned on the TV and DVR to watch Friday's main event again. Listening to Jon Anik and Kenny Florian call the FX telecast, I saw a different fight. Forian was especially complimentary of Guida's strategy, even beyond the first couple of rounds. The color analyst, who fought both Maynard and Guida during his days as a UFC lightweight, did not make mention of Clay's lack of engagement until after referee Dan Miragliotta briefly halted the bout in the fifth round to warn Guida. And here's the thing: As I watched on TV, Miragliotta's warning seemed to come out of nowhere, whereas while watching in the arena the night before, I remember thinking, "It's about time."
Round 3: on the payoff
On a weekend when it was the only UFC event, Saturday night's event in Brazil would have been a worthwhile pay-per-view purchase for fans jonesing for high-level MMA. But with the Atlantic City fights available on basic cable the night before, UFC 147 was a hard sell. Especially after Vitor Belfort pulled out of his rematch with Wanderlei Silva, canceling a Brazil vs. Brazil turf war and leaving a main event featuring a well-worn Wanderlei against a hard guy to root against, Rich Franklin.
"The Axe Murderer" and "Ace" did come through with an entertaining fight, satisfying those who chose to plunk down their dollars or Brazilian reals. But still there have been rumblings on Twitter and other online complain departments that the UFC is putting on too many events.
What? If you're a fan of MMA, why would you want less of it?
The argument is that if there were fewer events each one would be packed with more great fights. The underlying concern: Fans can afford to buy only so many $55 PPVs. My sense, however, is that the UFC's PPV-centric business model has created a related fanbase business model: Instead of you buying a PPV and your neighbor doing the same, you invite the neighbor and a bunch of other friends over for the evening and you all split the cost of the fights, the pizza and the adult beverages. Who can beat that kind of community building?
The UFC is creating an industry here. Dana White & Co. don't want to shrink the business any more than the NFL wants to return to a 14-game season. So the leading MMA promotion will continue to fill each fight card with as many appealing bouts as it can, all the while incubating new fighters for the roster to help fill out the next event. Some of those events might seem like a waste of money. But others will make you forget every complaint you've ever had and feel grateful that you witnessed what you did. That's the nature of this sport.
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