The fighters put a satisfied face on at the post-UFC 130 press conference, as did boss Dana White. Performances were assessed, future predictions were made and a few laughs were had. (See: Roy Nelson celebrating in jest after a bad loss to Frank Mir.)
It was impossible, though, not to feel disappointment in the air.
Over the previous few hours, boos had rained on the cage as the top-billed attractions played out not as evenly matched affairs but lopsided beatdowns. Seven of the card's 10 fights went to decision. A few stars may have emerged, but their luster was dimmed by listless headliners.
One on-site reporter tweeted that more than half the audience streamed out of Las Vegas' MGM Grand Garden Arena before the end of the main event, fed up with a plodding match between Quinton "Rampage" Jackson and Matt Hamill. Another saw beers tossed at the cage. Somebody blew an air-horn minutes before the final rounds of the fight, as if to say, "please, make it stop."
The co-main event between former champ Frank Mir and Roy Nelson was all but over after the first round. Nelson tired quickly in the second and fought, for the first time in his career, exactly like he looks. (Although his portly stature has worked wonders for his marketability.) Mir, who's had his own struggles with the scale, expertly picked apart his opponent. But instead of the fight being a showcase of his talents, it was a sad, uncomfortable bully session that should have been over sooner than later.
Most of the time, boo birds are "just bleed" types. This time, however, they had a good read on things. There was something missing Saturday, and at the most crucial moment. A prize fight shouldn't just harness the impulse to watch a car crash. It should be an investment in two people offering maximum effort in competition. Anything less, and you feel cheated.
Jackson and Mir would have risked giving up generous leads in trying to finish their opponents. But that's part of the contract with the audience. It's not just about stepping in the cage and surviving. Fans pay to see risk.
Jackson tried unsuccessfully tried to turn the tide of boos in the arena with some snappy one-liners. But on his way back to the locker rooms, he reportedly asked press row, "Was it really that bad?"
After the bout, Jackson gave credit to Hamill's toughness but also said he had fractured his hand in a drunken off-season episode with a friend, despite earlier statements that he isn't the kind of guy to complain about injuries. Hamill said he was embarrassed he couldn't take Jackson down and was unhappy with his performance, yet said it was a "good fight."
It's easy to command action from the bleachers. Until you've put your own health on the line for the entertainment of others, it's impossible to fully understand what competitors go through. Jackson would be the first guy to say that -- he's often railed at fans' unreasonable expectations. And he would likely have greater empathy than the average couch-dweller had he seen a dud such as the one he participated in. But he wouldn't be able to shake the feeling that what he saw was more like required viewing -- the fighting equivalent of an art-house flick or jazz -- than a guilty pleasure akin to, say, Braveheart.
So continues the war between sport and entertainment. There's no permanent solution to the problem. It's plagued boxing, and it's going to plague MMA as the sport continues to grow. You can't order fighters to feel less pressure or fight more aggressively or knowingly put themselves in vulnerable position. You can only dole out incentives for such behavior and hope for the best.
There are hundreds more fights on the horizon. If there's a dud, as in the case of UFC 130's main event and Saturday's headliners, you move along and hope for better next time around. If you're just tuning in, you change the channel.
And now, a stock watch:
Frank Mir (15-5): The road to title contention now looks a lot shorter for Mir, a guy who's struggled to get back to the mountaintop since a motorcycle accident in 2004 almost took him out of the game. Nowhere did Nelson have a response to the poise Mir showed in every range, especially the clinch, where I expected he might be muscled to the mat for punishment. Mir was vastly stronger when the two locked up, and put his knees to brilliant use in close, slamming them into "Big Country" before nailing takedown after takedown. White wasn't particularly jazzed about the performance -- he's still getting over Mir's snoozer with Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic in UFC 119's headliner -- so I expect the former UFC champ to meet the winner of Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira vs. Brendan Schaub, or possibly welcome a healthy Brock Lesnar back to the cage next year.
Travis Browne (11-0-1): The former K-9 trainer looked great in the opening round of his first big challenge against Cheick Kongo at UFC 120, but ran out of gas and confidence in later rounds, as the fight wound up a draw. Browne was ready for more Saturday against the heavily favored Stefan Struve. Browne was light on his feet and heavy with his hands, taking full advantage of Struve's overconfidence and high-risk striking. The young Dutchman badly exposed himself with a leaping knee at the tail end of the first frame and was shot from the sky with a right hand from Browne. The hard-jawed Mike Russow would be a good next step for Browne, or, if he wants to jump right back in, how about welcoming Ben Rothwell back to the cage?
Rick Story (13-3): Story not only stood with nasty striker Thiago Alves but managed to put the onetime contender on the mat. Story made Alves fight his fight; he cut off the cage, threatened with takedowns and struck, or struck on the way, to takedowns.
A caveat: Story got punched -- a lot. Right to the jaw. Shots you'd forgive a fighter if he or she lapsed into unconsciousness with just one. Story took many -- way more than he should. That may work now at 26 years of age. A couple of years down the road, it most certainly won't, and it will place him in danger of long-term damage. Story, a salt-of-the-earth, swell guy, needs to bring more defense to his striking game. He'll be thankful when he's 35. That said, a fight with Jake Ellenberger would be a great battle for the No. 3 spot on the welterweight ladder.
Brian Stann (11-3): Look out for this guy. Jorge Santiago rode a wave of hardcore hype into the octagon with an impressive 7-1 run following an unsuccessful UFC stint a half-decade ago. Stann outclassed him easily on the feet and put the fight to bed with a left hook and flurry of ground and pound. With the Memorial Day weekend card, Stann took advantage of the stage he had to showcase his well-spoken personality. As White said, the guy is just spot-on with everything he says on the mic, and if he didn't get the opportunity to face a name opponent such as Wanderlei Silva before, he should now.
Thiago Alves (18-8): If he faced a fighter any less resilient than Story, his stock would be on the rise. Though his wrestling has long been his weak point, he again excelled in the striking department. Problem was, he met a guy with an iron jaw. If there's a positive to take from the fight, it's that he's moved past problems with his gas tank. He'll be back, but it will be a while before we see him at the top of the division.
Jorge Santiago (23-9): It looked as if the Brazilian's nerves got the better of him against Stann. He was stilted on his feet and left himself exposed to counters far too much, which ultimately led to his demise. Things could turn around if he gets more comfortable inside the cage. To that end, he needs a lower tier guy next time out.
Demetrious Johnson (10-1): He faced a a struggle keeping Miguel Torres under him and won a unanimous decision utilizing his wrestling strengths. He didn't do a whole lot of damage, and really couldn't -- it seemed as if he was grappling with an octopus. Beating Torres, however, was a huge accomplishment, and makes potential matchups against top bantamweights intriguing. Brad Pickett might be the bridge to that destination.
Michael McDonald (13-1): The youngster learned a big lesson in his previous fight when he ran low on gas against Edwin Figueroa in his octagon debut. He overcompensated for the misstep by being a bit too patient with Chris Cariaso. The judges got it wrong in handing down a split decision, but he's still working out the kinks. He's 20, however, and gets a break. There's plenty of time.
Renan Barao (26-1): There was a lot of noise about this kid with his impressive record and two dominant wins in the WEC. But on Saturday night, he looked like he was either injured or suffering from octagon jitters, because he took few risks in blanketing Cole Escovedo for the decision win.
Roy Nelson (15-6): There's an intervention headed Nelson's way. Given White's barely contained ire at his performance post-event, it's clear Nelson's stubborn refusal to lose his belly will stand no more. He'll need to cut weight, or at least try. He's a tough, durable competitor with some big wins under his belt. He's likable, too. But a pink slip could be coming his way if he doesn't give the light-heavyweight division a shot.
Stefan Struve (21-5): Only 23 years old and already 26 fights into his professional career, Struve is also at a crossroads. He's beats lower-tier guys without issue, but he's fallen violently short against contenders, and with a loss to up-and-comer Brown, he needs to take a serious look at his in-cage strategy. He's been far too willing to take punches to gain an advantage, and what that spirit has won him in fans, it's cost him with his career. He shouldn't become Mr. Conservative. But to be more direct in implementing a game plan would be a big step toward avoiding wild momentum swings that leave him in a bad way.
Kendall Grove (12-9): The winner of "The Ultimate Fighter 3" has now lost three of his last four competitions and stands at 7-6 in the octagon. He's been manhandled by hard punchers (Patrick Cote and Jorge Rivera) and strong grapplers (Ricardo Almeida, Mark Munoz, Demian Maia, and on Saturday, Tim Boetsch). A trip back to the minors is all but inevitable.