May 04, 2012

Imagine if the NBA and NHL determined matchups for those playoff series you're now watching simply by assessing which teams are most exciting to watch or which ones ended the regular season on a hot streak. Goodbye, any hockey team that owes its success to a neutral zone trap. Welcome to the top seed, any basketball team that wins with fast-break offense rather than clamp-down defense.

You wouldn't consider that fair, right?

But that's essentially what we have in the UFC, whose matchmakers put together whatever fights they want to. And that's why in the lead-up to Saturday night's UFC on Fox 3 fight card in East Rutherford, N.J. (8 p.m. ET, Fox), fight promotion president Dana White could unilaterally pronounce that one of the main event combatants, Nate Diaz, will earn a shot at the lightweight championship if he wins, while that's not the case for his more decorated opponent, Jim Miller.

Why Diaz and his so-so 15-7 record, and not Miller, whose sparkly 21-3 resume shines even more when you consider that his only losses came to the current champ, a past champ and a two-time challenger for the belt? Why? White has his reasons. His reasons.

Dana likes to say he puts together "the fights the fans want to see." Another way of saying that: the fights the fans will pay $50 to watch on a pay-per-view telecast. That's the inherent conflict of interest when, all at once, you're a matchmaker, a sanctioning body that awards championship belts and the company profiting from PPV sales. Sometimes the matchups that'll prompt fans to become paying customers also happen to match the most qualified competitors. Other times a top fighter gets passed over for the flavor of the week. Just ask Jon Fitch and his smothering ground-control style.

Now, it's true that combat sports are different from other sports. There's no league structure, no standings with which to sort out the contenders in a quantifiable way. And to their credit, White and his chief matchmaker, Joe Silva, mostly get it right. When there's an obvious match to be made, it always gets done. In that way, the UFC is certainly way better at making fights than boxing is. Imagine if Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather were UFC fighters. Instead of this perpetual arm's-length dance they've been doing as their vaunted sport circles the drain, they'd be fighting. Dana White would make sure of that.

However, UFC on Fox 3 will make it clear that the leading MMA organization is no meritocracy. If Johny Hendricks beats Josh Koscheck in Saturday's co-main event, he'll take a big step up in the welterweight pecking order and move closer to a title shot. If Koscheck wins, the same would not be true, because he's already lost twice to the champion, Georges St-Pierre, and a third meeting would not sell as a PPV.

And then there's the main event.

The reason Miller would not earn a title shot if he wins, presumably, is that his most recent loss came against Benson Henderson last August in what was presumed to be a No. 1 contender eliminator. Henderson went on to take the title from Frankie Edgar, while Miller bounced back by submitting Melvin Guillard. Apparently even with a win over Diaz, the UFC would deem a Miller-Henderson rematch as coming too soon.

Diaz, meanwhile, has been pronounced ready for title consideration on the strength of two wins since his return to lightweight last September. They were impressively dominant victories, admittedly, over Takanori Gomi and then Donald Cerrone. But before that, he'd lost two straight as a welterweight, to Rory MacDonald and Kim Dong-Hyun. Going back further to account for his last 10 bouts, Diaz is batting just .500, which is a great number in baseball but is not going to get you to the all-star game in MMA.

Contrast that to the record of Miller, who before falling to Henderson had won seven straight bouts following a loss to then-unbeaten Gray Maynard. Before that, Miller had won eight straight. His only other defeat came to Edgar back when the two Jersey boys were fighting on the local circuit. Apparently that's not impressive enough for the UFC.

As one might expect from the low-key Miller, he's taking it all in stride. "You know, honestly, it doesn't matter to me right now," he said at a UFC on Fox 3 press conference in New York on Thursday. "I've got a fight in two days, and that's where my focus is."

Part of what helps him keep focus, no doubt, is that he's been around the UFC long enough to have heard many seemingly-set-in-stone pronouncements from White that didn't quite unfold the way the boss said they would. "Things change, and things happen," said Miller. "So I'm not going to sit here and try and predict what'll happen with a win or with a loss. I'm just focused on the fight itself, and after that, then it's time to speculate about the next fight."

Questions? Comments? To reach Jeff Wagenheim or contribute to the MMA mailbag, click on the e-mail link at the top of the page.

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