Look at the World Series, which is being contested between teams that are not making the suits who sell advertising wave their white hankies in excitement. They could have had the more marketable Philadelphia vs. New York, the dream-team starting rotation vs. the Evil Empire, the country's No. 4 media market vs. No. 1. But instead we get No. 6 Dallas against St. Louis, which as a TV market is down in the twenties somewhere. You play the Cards you're dealt.
Same goes for the NFL, which at this time of year isn't a slave to the luck of the playoff draw -- that'll come in a few months -- but still ends up busting on more than a few hands. When the deck is shuffled months in advance, that's what happens. Just last Monday, for example, it was a good thing we didn't have Hank Jr. around anymore to ask "Are you ready for some football?" Because all Monday Night Football could offer to sate your jones was Jets vs. Dolphins. A matchup of an 0-5 team against a toothless band of bluster was not exactly what the league and TV officials envisioned when they huddled in the offseason to dream up their prime-time lineup.
True, a business model so heavily reliant on PPV makes the UFC more directly and immediately affected by the watering down of fight cards. Imagine how many people would have plunked down $54.99 for Georges St-Pierre vs. Nick Diaz but reconsidered when Diaz was pulled from the fight and replaced by Carlos Condit. That was an appealing bout, too -- and nice job by the UFC to adjust on the fly and move Carlos up from his co-main event against B.J. Penn -- but it wasn't not as marketable as a showdown between the UFC welterweight champion and the man who vacated the Strikeforce belt to take him on. And now we won't even get either title fight. How many fewer wallets will open now that GSP is injured and the card is to be headlined by Diaz vs. Penn? You might like that fight, too, but a few days ago you were being asked to pay for an evening of fights that included both that one and the title bout. Now you get only half of that. And the UFC isn't about to put a "50% off" tag on the PPV.
But every sport -- the NFL, MLB, NHL and even that game they used to play where you shoot a round ball into a hoop -- eventually has to answer for the matchups it puts in front of us. With 10,000 options on the TV at any moment -- and usually as many as one or two actually are worth watching -- sports are perpetually in competition to grab and keep our attention. If not enough eyes are glued to the set, the advertising community takes notice and the dollars dry up. At least in theory. Because non-PPV TV deals are negotiated for the long haul, one or two luster-free events can be swept under the carpet. Still, the numbers matter in every sport, not just MMA.
We can take the time to get all reflective about this stuff now because there are no UFC fights this weekend, just as there weren't any last weekend. Still, there are some storylines to hold you over:
Meat rises: Who would have guessed, while watching Matt Mitrione on Season 10 of The Ultimate Fighter, that he'd ever be in a UFC co-main event? His antics on the show earned him no fans among the fighters or coaches; Rashad Evans gave him his "Meathead" nickname in not the most endearing spirit. And when he was choked out in the competition's quarterfinals, it was reasonable to assume we'd seen the last of the former NFL player in the octagon.
But then, on the undercard of the show finale card back in December 2009, Mitrione made his official pro debut and knocked out TUF housemate Marcus Jones. Five months later, he KO'd his most famous housemate, Kimbo Slice. And since then, he's toppled an ever-ascending line of opponents -- from Joey Beltran to Tim Hague to Christian Morecraft. If he beats Cheick Kongo next Saturday, it'd be fair to put Mitrione at least on the periphery of the heavyweight title picture. As unfathomable as it would have been to imagine, not so long ago, he'd be just a couple of wins away from being considered a serious contender.
Survivor? Cheick. Headliner? Cheick: Last time we saw Kongo, it was through a haze. Oh, maybe that's more of a description of how Cheick was seeing us and everything around him. After being crushed by a Pat Barry punch, he crumbled to the mat in the January bout and was nearly finished. The referee hovered nearby as Barry wailed away with punches and Kongo covered up. Cheick did manage to regain his feet, but not his balance, and he went stumbling backward into the cage. Then, when Barry charged after him for the kill, Kongo put everything he had left into a short uppercut. It connected, and this time it was Barry who crumbled. Fight over.
So where does Kongo go from one of the more improbable victories the octagon has ever seen? You know the answer. Yep, one minute he's a finishing blow from a third loss in six fights, and the next minute he's in a co-main event. Nice.
Showing up: The adage is attributed to Woody Allen: "Eighty percent of success is showing up." Well, maybe Nick Diaz was on a date in some Stockton Cineplex watching Midnight in Paris when he was supposed to be at a Toronto press conference last month helping hype the UFC 137 main event. When he no-showed the next day's press conference in Las Vegas as well, he was bounced from his title fight with GSP.
But the world has a way of spinning around to where it started. And sure enough, Nick found himself right back in the main event this week after GSP was injured in training. So what did Diaz do when it was time for him to dial in for the new main event's first promotional appearance? He did what Nick does, even elevating his game to a higher level of enigma. First, the media conference call began Wednesday with Diaz as a no-show. Then, after 45 minutes, he joined the call and proceeded to blame everyone but himself for blowing off the responsibility. Classic.
Frankly, I don't care whether Diaz or any other fighter shows up at a press conference or on a conference call. These appearances are not very revealing -- no one is foolish enough to unveil his fight strategy, and deeper questions simply don't get the kind of exploration they can in a one-on-one interview. But the UFC obviously wants Nick to step up and help with the hype. Why not let Nick be Nick, then? Why not develop a promotional strategy built on his recalcitrance? (Maybe they have ... and I'm falling for it here!)
On the other hand, if Dana White and Co. want Diaz to make like Woody and show up, they'd be wise to structure his fight contracts with that in mind. After all, Nick has made it abundantly clear that it's all about the money for him. So instead of giving him a contract that says, "You get X dollars for this fight, and we expect you to be at our news conferences," give Nick a deal that says, "You get X dollars to fight, X dollars to participate in press conference, X dollars for the conference call, etc." Something tells me homie will come to collect his check.
Penn is mightier: The story of UFC 137, for me? It's the story not being told. GSP vs. Diaz got loads of hype while the fun lasted. Then, after supernova Nick flamed out, Carlos Condit was yanked from his second-fiddle fight with B.J. Penn and given the title shot. Then, when St-Pierre's knee gave out, Diaz vs. Penn was became the main event -- but with Nick in the spotlight, even in his invisibility. Is anyone paying attention to B.J.?
Let's not forget that "The Prodigy" is a pretty decent fighter, folks. Still. No one would deny the career legacy of B.J., the only competitor other than Hall of Famer Randy Couture who's won UFC titles in two weight classes (lightweight and welterweight for Penn). But it seems that the perception of Penn is that he's not what he once was. That's what two straight losses -- even if they're to Frankie Edgar -- will do to you.
A quick win over Matt Hughes last fall didn't do much to elevate B.J.'s status. Fair enough. Hughes is a shell of his former self. But Penn's February draw with Jon Fitch, the best welterweight this side of GSP, should have raised some eyebrows among doubters. Sure, B.J. eventually was overwhelmed by the bigger, stronger wrestler. But not until after Penn had put the indomitable Fitch in some mighty bad positions.
We'll see what Penn has in store next weekend for Diaz. This could be one of those replacement main events that outshine what was originally planned.
Did I say there are no fights?: Let's not forget that this weekend, just like every other weekend, the Bellator Fighting Championship continues to churn away.
With no UFC event last weekend, Bellator had a big opportunity to grab the MMA spotlight, as its most prominent fighter, Eddie Alvarez, was scheduled to defend his lightweight belt against Michael Chandler. But Alvarez was injured in training, and the next-best thing on the card was the lower-profile bantamweight champ Zach Makovsky in a non-title bout.
This Saturday night's Bellator 55 (9 p.m. ET, MTV2) has no big-name headliner, and curiously it isn't even banking on the promotional debut of Efrain, the Season 8 winner of The Ultimate Fighter. Escudero won't be on the televised portion of the card, instead fighting in a prelim that can be seen at Spike.com.
The main attractions of the evening are the two semifinals in the season-long bantamweight tournament. That means another appearance by Alexis Vila, the bronze medal-winning Olympic wrestler last seen shutting up the big mouth of featherweight champ Joe Warren. Even at 40, Vila is a guy to watch.