Promotional model can force UFC's hand in matchmaking efforts

Friday April 4th, 2014

Light heavyweight Dan Henderson (left) has lost three of his last four fights, but his UFC ranking makes him an enticing opponent for Daniel Cormier.
Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

There's a pretty big college basketball game scheduled for Monday night, and even though it's being held in a huge football stadium and all of the tickets have already been spoken for, no one knows yet who'll be playing. That's the way it goes in sports, especially at that time of the season -- in most every sport's season -- when a championship is about to be decided.

The Final Four will play out on Saturday, and only after that night's semifinals are complete will we know who'll be in the title fight. Similarly, we generally get just a couple days' notice about the participants in the World Series and Stanley Cup and NBA finals. When the NFL sets aside two weeks in its playoff schedule to hype its Super Bowl matchup, that feels luxurious.

The fight game plays by different rules. In the UFC, it's not enough to sell simply a championship bout. Fans rightfully want to know -- and make their pay-per-view buying decisions based on knowing -- the particulars of the matchup. Who's fighting whom? How do they match up? What is their shared backstory?

That last part is key. Viewing UFC matchmaking through the lens of a sales pitch, we can better understand why some fights come out of nowhere, in terms of the competitive pecking order. Only in combat sport are matchups openly arranged based on factors unrelated to what has happened on the field of play. Imagine if the NFL had told the Seahawks to stay home after the NFC championship game because the league's marketing department saw more viewership potential in having the Broncos face the (non-playoff) Giants in the Super Bowl. Peyton vs. Eli. First team to play a Super Bowl on its home field. A bigger TV market. Some cool angles to feed into the hype machine. Yet an abomination.

It happens in the UFC, though, and it happens at the championship level. Not every time out, but often enough to not go unnoticed. Jon Jones vs. Chael Sonnen, who hadn't fought as a light heavyweight in nearly eight years and was coming off a loss. José Aldo vs. Kenny Florian, who'd been in only one featherweight bout and had lost two lightweight title fights. Randy Couture vs. Brock Lesnar, an MMA neophyte who was 1-1 in the UFC. That Lesnar won that 2008 title fight was beside the point. What had he done to deserve the opportunity? What did the UFC see in him?

The fight promotion has a busy 2014 unfolding, with high-profile absences leaving little wiggle room in the balancing act. Four champions are sidelined, another one is making a movie and legends Anderson Silva and Georges St-Pierre are clouded in uncertainty. Yet the UFC ball keeps rolling. Matches must be made, whether you like them or not. Here are a few of the latest concoctions, some finalized and others merely floating in the heavens of selling potential, with pertinent questions addressed.

Daniel Cormier vs. Dan Henderson (reportedly UFC 175, July 5)

Was it earned? Each of these men is a two-time Olympian, and that should legitimize this fight right off the bat. Then again, The Games in which Hendo competed (1992, '96) were not even in this century. He's 43 years old, and after losing three straight fights he got struck down twice by Mauricio "Shogun" Rua last month and was almost finished. But in the end Hendo was the one with the finishing touch, pulling off an improbable win with a spectacular knockout. The UFC has been trying to angle Cormier, who stands at No. 5 in its media-voted light heavyweight rankings, for a title shot, and a good way to build a case for that is to put him in with another highly-ranked guy, such as No. 6 Henderson.

Will it sell? Sometimes it seems that the UFC surreptitiously lets word get out about a fight it's considering booking, just so it can gauge the paying public's reaction. Circumstantially, that would seem to explain the reports circulating a week ago that the promotion was planning on matching Cormier with Rafael Cavalcante. This fight certainly made no sense from a meritocracy standpoint. "Feijao" is ranked No. 13. How is beating him supposed to be a pathway to a title fight? Well, fan reaction to this potential matchup for Cormier was not pleasant. First a barista; now this? Thankfully, the UFC heeded the feedback of its focus group and looked Hendo's way instead. So how do Dana White & Co. sell an aging, slowed-down version, one who for the first time in ages will be training without the fountain-of-youth boost of TRT? They sell him as merely the mortal conduit of an otherwordly H-Bomb right hand that talks, as in "On any given night ..."

Renan Barão vs. T.J. Dillashaw (UFC 173, May 24)

Was it earned? Dillashaw has won five of his last six fights, the lone loss coming by split decision against Raphael Assunção. And Assunção was the first one offered this shot -- he's No. 3 in the UFC's bantamweight rankings, behind only Urijah Faber and Michael McDonald, both of whom already have had their shots at Barão. But Raphael is still healing from a rib injury. So Dillashaw is next man up. He ranks No. 5, in back of Eddie Wineland, who's also unsuccessfully rolled with the champ. So the UFC is crossing every "T" and dotting every "I" in its matchmaking here. The right man is getting the chance to do what no one has done to Renan in 33 fights dating back to 2005: beat him. Good luck with that.

Will it sell? Unless a lot of fans confuse T.J. for B.J., probably not. Dillashaw has never fought in a UFC main event or even a co-main, and his only appearance on a pay-per-view was way early in an online-only prelim. On top of that, he's a gentleman, which in most walks of life is a compliment, but not in a sport where rabble-rousers are the ones moving the needle. Even Barão, for all his astounding dominance, hasn't been a big sell. His only stint as a PPV headliner was last February, and even with featherweight champ José Aldo in the co-main event, the event did not do a big number. Expectations here are lower than a Dillashaw single-leg.

Ronda Rousey vs. Gina Carano (no date, maybe never)

Was it earned? Well, before getting into that, a few words about why this fantasy matchup is being listed along with the real-world ones. It's because Carano, the onetime face of women's MMA who hasn't competed in nearly five years, is talking the talk.

Perhaps she was just trying to drum up interest for her movie, In the Blood (which opened Friday in a theater near you), or maybe she was speaking truth when she went on Arsenio Hall's TV show on Thursday and, asked about a possible comeback, said, "Yeah, I'm actually kind of considering it." She took it further than that by revealing she will meet with Dana White next week.

Shame on her if this is just movie hype. But Carano sounded convincing (good acting?) when she talked about how fighting is still inside her. "I love it," she said. "It's something that I can do that makes everything else disappear. I dream about it. I just didn't know if I was ever going to get placed with the opportunity to make a comeback. So I'm either going to do it now or I'm just going to retire and say I'm never going to do it. Now's the moment, I feel."

It's good that she's feeling something now, because if she steps into the cage with Rousey, she's going to lose the feeling in the arm Ronda twists into submission. It's bad enough for anyone to step in with Rousey, much less a woman who hasn't been in a cage since the summer of 2009. Even the fighter who beat Carano in that Strikeforce championship fight, Cris "Cyborg" Justino, would have her hands full with "Rowdy Ronda." Hey, there's a fight to make. Has anyone thought of that one?

Will it sell? Of course it will sell. It's Hollywood. Gina Carano was an MMA star in her day. Ronda Rousey has taken over the role of being the face of women's MMA. Ronda has uncaged her fame, become a magazine photo spread model and movie star. Just like Gina. So in one corner we have Haywire, Fast & Furious 6 and In the Blood, and in the other corner we have The Expendables 3, Fast & Furious 7 and Entourage. Roll credits.

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