The folks at the Bellator Fighting Championships don't want to hear it. Hector Lombard definitely doesn't. But even though the promotion's middleweight champion fought Saturday night and scored a vicious one-punch knockout in front of the second-largest viewership in MTV2 history, mixed martial arts has been on spring break for the last couple of weeks, pretty much, and will remain in a holding pattern for another week or so, before picking up steam with UFC 130 on Memorial Day weekend.
This is not to diminish any of the skilled, rugged athletes who stepped into the Bellator 44 cage in the fight town of Atlantic City, N.J., over the weekend. Lightweight Michael Chandler remained unbeaten by taming and unleashing on Patricky "Pitbull" Friere. Alexander Shlemenko, who won last year's Bellator middleweight tournament to earn a shot at Lombard's title, then lost to the champ by unanimous decision in October, edged Brett Cooper to earn a redemptive slot in next season's tourney. And Lombard, the former Cuban judo Olympian who has become Bellator's second most vaunted asset behind lightweight champ Eddie Alvarez, won his 23rd consecutive MMA match, turning out the lights on veteran Falaniko Vitale.
But the main event was a non-title fight, diminishing its luster. And how much luster does Bellator really have shining off of it, anyway, even if an average of 325,000 viewers were tuned in on a night when it was the only MMA in town? If neither the UFC nor its new cousin-by-marriage in the Zuffa family, Strikeforce, has any fights scheduled, it's safe to say it's an off week for MMA, at least at the sport's highest level. Zuffa's checkbook has made sure of that.
Wait, did I say "off week"? That's not entirely true. Dana White and Co. never jet off to Cancun or Negril for some frivolous fun and sun. Instead, the UFC used part of its hiatus to fly fighters to its Las Vegas headquarters for a summit meeting, at which the organization unveiled an accident insurance policy that protects competitors during training and elsewhere outside the cage. The UFC also got some attention by going all counterintuitive on us with its social media policy, encouraging fighters to freely express themselves on Twitter rather than banning them from doing so, as some sports leagues have. And the fight organization scored a win by having TV monitors approved for cageside judges at UFC 131 in Vancouver, a move aimed at reducing the number of horrendous decisions being rendered.
More than anything else, though, the UFC has been in the news for fights that are not happening rather than ones that are. Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard both pulled out of their UFC 130 rematch of a rematch because of injuries, leaving White to defend a ho-hum replacement main event pitting Quinton "Rampage" Jackson against Matt Hamill. Light heavyweight champ Jon "Bones" Jones scuffed up his can-do-no-wrong veneer a little by pulling out of his title defense against Rashad Evans to undergo surgery on his hand, then canceling the surgery, but only after Evans had been given a new opponent. Then Brock Lesnar had a relapse of diverticulitis and had to drop out of his UFC 131 heavyweight title eliminator against Junior dos Santos, who'll now face forgotten man Shane Carwin.
For a span with no live UFC or Strikeforce fights, there sure has been a lot for fans to think about. And write about in e-mails ...
Don't hold your breath, Dan. The $5,000 bonuses the UFC soon will begin handing out quarterly to fighters who attract the most new Twitter followers and write the most creative tweets are an attractive incentive for guys on the lower end of the fight-purse pay scale. But big earners like Cain can afford to stay offline and in the bunker.
Still, this is smart, forward-thinking marketing by the UFC, no doubt driven by the man at the top. Dana White has long used Twitter and YouTube to gain direct access to fans, getting his message out without the filter of the media and developing a kinship with his customers with what amounts to ongoing intimate contact. He wants his fighters to know how to build their brand because it helps build his brand.
Here's the bottom line: Any time a promoter's money is moving in the direction of the fighters, it's a good thing. Those guys train hard, fight hard and work for every cent they earn. The bonuses will make a difference in many lives, many families.
Let's just hope this does not spell the end of truly free expression. Just as a guy who's already mentally spending the Knockout of the Night bonus might fight more recklessly than one who simply wants to win with the most sensible game plan, tweeting for cash could turn some guys into company men. Is it worth losing $5,000 over a Twitter post that might piss off the boss of the only major MMA organization out there?
Way to be a glass-half-empty guy, Barry. But you know what? I agree with you.
This is a small step forward, even if monitor use has been approved only for that one Vancouver event next month. But the issue of what judges are able to see inside the Octagon is a relatively minor concern. I've never heard of a judge complaining that he missed a key moment in a match because referee Herb Dean's dreads were in his way. A much bigger concern than what judges can see, I believe, is what judges are looking for.
Some MMA judges come from a boxing background, and have limited understanding of or appreciation for the subtleties of ground fighting. Is a takedown, right into full guard, a winning maneuver? Do you award points or deduct them for an aggressive but unsuccessful submission attempt in which you lose a dominant position? There are so many ways to look at a fight. Seeing everything from different angles on a TV screen won't change that.
First things first, Billy: Carwin never has tested positive for steroids or any other performance-enhancing substance. Let's not spread misinformation. He was, however, among several pro athletes named by federal prosecutors as having obtained steroids from an online pharmacy. So yes, there is a steroid stain on Shane's good name, the same one that despoils other athletes whose names have been linked to illicit activities but who've been convicted of nothing. You can bet the UFC has done its digging into this matter and come away satisfied that Carwin, who was tied to steroid transactions that allegedly occurred well before he began fighting in the UFC, has not been tainted to the point where he can no longer make the company money.
As for the sanctioning battle in New York, that is being fought in a whole different legislative arena, with steroids not even part of the discussion. Still, I understand Billy's point. The facts seldom get in the way of a political argument, and if an MMA opponent in the Empire State can further his argument by framing one of the UFC's top heavyweights as a drug abuser, the fight organization would have to have an answer for that.
Thanks for sharing an insider's perspective, Bill. I hope Brock reads this -- though I highly doubt he will -- because you put the emphasis where it belongs: on Lesnar's health rather than on his fighting career. That was Lesnar's emphasis, too, when he spoke to the MMA media during a conference call with Dana White last week. But Brock is a competitive guy, and if he starts to feel better sometime soon he might try to convince himself that it's time to get back into the gym. This is a time for the big guy to use his brains, not his brawn.
Thanks for the compliment, Dave, although I can't imagine I was alone in picking up on St-Pierre's takedown D. He always finds a way to disarm his opponent of his best weapon, doesn't he?
Now, as for Shields and how he stacks up against the rest of the welterweight division, I don't necessarily agree with you that he's going to plow through anyone. He did fare better than expected in the standup game, but remember: He was fighting against a guy who had the use of only one eye for the majority of the bout. When GSP had full vision, early on, he was picking Jake apart. Shields did better once St-Pierre was transformed into a Cyclops, but no one in the challenger's corner was named Homer or had a copy of
When I read "contribution" and "ringside," I thought you were going to suggest TV commentary, which would be a good venue for Couture's deep knowledge of the fight game. But you're right, judging is an even better use of his know-how. Of course, if Randy were a judge, guys proficient at trapping an opponent against the cage for a little dirty boxing would be rewarded with 10-8 rounds. And who'd have the guts to complain about a decision to Couture's face?
Thanks, Eric, but you're going to want to take back all that praise once you read this embarrassing correction: The quote I used to close out last month's mailbag, which I attributed to Yosemite Sam, actually was spoken by his Looney Tunes training partner Foghorn Leghorn. Mel Blanc regrets the error.