Five observations from UFC 122, where Yushin Okami beat Nate Marquardt to become the No. 1 contender in the middleweight division:
1. Simple and effective. That's the most basic explanation for Yushin Okami becoming the first Japanese fighter in seven tries to win a main event inside the octagon. Okami, 29, never hurt Nate Marquardt, but in going the distance with the top-five ranked middleweight he didn't need to.
Standing behind a stiff jab and a straight left, the southpaw was judicious with his attacks and he made them count. He also did a fine job avoiding or neutralizing Marquardt's offense, except in the second round when the 31-year-old American, who took the place of an injured Vitor Belfort, finished a meaningful takedown and peppered Okami in the face with a punch combination. Marquardt and his team believed he could power through Okami. Yet over the 15-minute title eliminator, which judges scored 29-28, 30-27 and 29-28 for Okami, the Japanese contender largely did what he wanted.
"Nate was a great fighter," Okami said. "I thought I deserved it and I'm ready for the championship."
The UFC billed Okami-Marquardt as a No. 1 contender bout, with the winner earning a right to face either the current champion, Anderson Silva, or his next challenger, Vitor Belfort. For Okami, it's been a long time coming. He entered the UFC in 2006 and compiled a 10-2 record with the organization (26-5 overall). Twice he appeared to be on target for a title shot. All he needed to do was win. However he failed to deliver against Rich Franklin in 2007 and Chael Sonnen one year ago. But three subsequent victories against Lucio Linhares, Mark Munoz and Marquardt (30-10-2) finally assured his position as a UFC title contender.
2. Okami gets a Brazilian. And we know he wants Silva. The two are familiar and not very friendly, having met in 2006 during the opening round of a multiple-event tournament at 175 pounds staged by BJ Penn's family in Honolulu. I sat cage-side as Okami advanced after Silva was disqualified for illegally kicking the large middleweight in the head while he was down. It happened early, yet after just two and a half minutes Silva appeared to be a class above Okami. That blemish on Silva's 27-4 record is the reason he hasn't won 16 fights in a row.
For several years Silva dismissed Okami's presence as a contender. The Brazilian champion isn't a fan of Okami's suffocating style, and he hasn't expressed a desire to finish what they started. Should Silva retain his title against Belfort, a bout with Okami might make for a surprisingly interesting promotion between two men not known for giving much of themselves in the name of selling a fight.
Okami has been stopped just once, his first loss in 2003 to Amir Suleov on an M-1 card in Moscow. Similar excursions, like the Rumble on the Rock tournament which ended when he lost a decision to Jake Shields, helped Okami mature into one of the rare Japanese mixed martial artists that found consistent high-level success in the UFC.
His ultimate goal of becoming the first Japanese UFC champion is, for the first time, within reach.
While I don't like his chances against Silva, Okami has the right kind of attitude and style to frustrate Belfort.
3. UFC 122 in a nutshell. This was the worst main card lineup of the year for Zuffa. Hands down. The fights weren't dramatic. Outside of the main event, the bill featured mostly mid-tier professionals. It was also snake bitten, as Alessio Sakara fell sick backstage and his fight with Jorge Rivera had to be cancelled.
If you're looking for positives, focus on the evening's undercard. Carlos Eduardo Rocha won his UFC debut and remained undefeated by kneebarring Kris McCray. Karlos Vemola looked violent in his light heavyweight debut, a beating of Seth Petruzelli. And Pascal Krauss bested fellow undefeated welterweight prospect Mark Scanlon.
4. Small, little show. That's how Marc Ratner described UFC 122 to me two days before he left for Deutschland. And that it was, for several reasons. Though Ratner downplayed the role of German MMA critics, there's no disregarding the fact that UFC has faced a tougher time ingratiating itself into popular culture there than it did breaking into the UK in 2007. Look no further than a German government instituted ban on televised UFC content.
Gate figures on Saturday fell by half from $1.3 million for UFC 99 at the Lanxess Arena in Cologne in June 2009 to $600,000 at the Konig Pilsener Arena. Attendance also dipped from 12,854 to 8,421.
Zuffa won't go down without a fight. They've taken to German courts challenging the television ban. And their efforts have been reflected by the changing tune of a fairly hostile media environment.
The objection to UFC and MMA on some sort of moral ground is nonsensical given Germany's passion for boxing. It will change over time, particularly as German fighters like Krauss and Dennis Siver, responsible for the main-card's lone stoppage, rise through the ranks.
5. Enough with the tape-delay. With Zuffa pushing UFC to become the first global pay-per-view brand, you better get used to the idea of tape-delayed fights. At least that's how it feels after the second recorded UFC broadcast to the U.S. in less than a month.
While Canadian and British audiences enjoyed access to UFC 122 live on television, American fight fans were stuck watching choppy online streams or maniacally avoiding results in hopes that when they viewed it later on Spike TV the allusion of Live From Oberhausen, Germany, still existed. Spike TV says its audience doesn't mind the delay since Saturday nights are preferred amongst the UFC fans that tune in. I guess that fine for a network interested in selling advertising in prime time and casual viewers who may not care. Yet for an organization as nimble and global as the UFC, it's slightly embarrassing. And for diehard fans, it simply stinks.
My hope is this is a speed bump and not a trend, and I think in the end that's what it will turn out to be. UFC president Dana White talks about the Web as if it's the eventual home of UFC pay-per-views, so much so that if he's wrong he says he and his company are "screwed." Sounds like a gamble for a guy who fancies wagering tens of thousands of dollars on blackjack. What's Zuffa betting on? That web-based content is the future. That the promotion can survive and thrive without a broadcast or cable television partner. That it can find a way around sharing money with the nutty pay-per-view industry.
Why work in conjunction with a network or carrier when your brand is pervasive enough, your technology is capable enough, your intent is strong enough to strike out on your own? That question has to have been bandied about at Zuffa's Las Vegas offices, if for no other reason than the quality of people working there would think of this stuff. Plus it makes sense.
When White talks about a UFC-dedicated channel, as he did in interviews last month, he very well could be referring to Web-housed content. Mixed martial arts, after all, survived online at a time when people like me would have given anything to watch free tape-delayed MMA on TV. Now it's something to bitch about. In part, the sport reached this point because of its close link to the Internet and the explosion of social media like Facebook and Twitter, where White has 1.2 million followers. Unlike boxing, which is woven into the fabric of traditional sports media, MMA was and is empowered by a strong, activated online community. Traditional media is attempting to play catchup.
Zuffa has regarded the Web as necessary to its success since it's earliest days. Five years ago, for instance, they offered to put me in charge of content for UFC.com. I was thankful for the offer -- it would have delivered a $28,000 a year raise from what I was making at the time with Sherdog.com -- but it just wasn't for me, particularly since three weeks earlier the UFC decided to deny access to most of the sport's dedicated press, the vast majority of which operated online. In the end it was the correct call for everyone, especially White who lucked out with my former colleague Tom Gerbasi.
But back to the point on tape delay: You know what would really drive people to the UFC site? Free, live fights on a Saturday afternoon. If Spike TV is unwilling to carry these foreign cards as they happen -- there's no reason they couldn't when Canada's Rogers Sportsnet can -- UFC should adapt and find a willing live content partner. Or better yet, make it happen on their own.