July 31, 2012

It was late Monday morning when I decided to get a head start on the week by jotting down some ideas for a preview of this weekend's UFC on Fox event. Scanning the fight card, it occurred to me that quite a few of the bouts feature guys in the midst of stabilizing their careers after setbacks. Lyoto Machida. Phil Davis. Joe Lauzon. Mike Swick.

"Fighters with something to prove," I scribbled. "Could make for exciting evening." Right below that on the paper, though, I noted the one issue I had with the network-televised card: "Lacks meaningful main event."

That was the premise, anyway, until Dana White left me and my premise standing flatfooted, bat resting feebly on the shoulder, with that sweeping Sandy Koufax curveball of his.

During a media conference call Monday afternoon to hype Saturday night's event in Los Angeles (8 p.m. ET, Fox), the UFC president proclaimed that the winner of the main event I'd so maligned -- Mauricio Rua vs. Brandon Vera -- would get the next shot at the light heavyweight championship.


That was my reaction, and apparently mine was more laid-back than most. The collective consciousness of MMA fans -- at least those who let their feelings be known, in full voice and with fuller vitriol, via the Interwebs -- grabbed White's curveball barehanded in mid-flight and fired back a fastball to the promoter's forehead.

Apparently getting beaned by 90 mph fan fury knocked some sense into White. Later on Monday he sang a different tune, telling USA Today that the title shot actually will go to the fighter who's most impressive among Rua, Vera and co-main eventers Lyoto Machida and Ryan Bader. So now, instead of having no main event, UFC on Fox 4 has two of them.

"When the fans speak, we listen," White said in a statement released Tuesday by the UFC. "So whoever scores the best win, whoever gets the fans excited by going out there on Saturday and looking the most impressive, he will get the winner of Jones vs. Henderson. It is down to what these four guys do Saturday night in the octagon."

That, to stick with the ballgame theme, is a save worthy of Mariano Rivera.

It doesn't exactly address the enduring conflict of interest inherent in being both the belt-awarding sanctioning body and the promoter whose business depends upon its matchmakers booking fights the company stands to profit most from. But by now we all recognize that the UFC is not a meritocracy, at least not in sports' purest sense. Winning isn't everything. How you win -- that is, how much you entertain the paying customers on the way to winning -- is paramount. "Winning isn't enough; they've got to win impressively," White acknowledged in his statement. "Any one of these four fighters can take things into their own hands and make a title shot happen."

This four-way battle for a shot at Jon Jones (or Dan Henderson, if he pulls off an improbable upset Sept. 1) is better than Monday's scenario, but still, any plan that might result in Brandon Vera getting an immediate championship fight is problematic. Since beginning his career 8-0, Vera has won four of his last 10 fights. That makes you a smash hit if you're batting against Koufax, but in MMA it's not going to get you to the All-Star Game. Most recently, Brandon has come up short in three of his last four, with one of those defeats being a 2010 mauling by "Bones" Jones that was even less competitive than the champ's batterings of Rua, Machida and Bader.

Yes, no matter how this weekend plays out, we're getting into reruns in the light heavyweight division. That's what happens when a champion wrecks the contenders in his weight class faster than the UFC can replenish the ranks. Jones also has laid waste to Rashad Evans and Quinton Jackson, and Davis stumbled against Rashad as he climbed the ladder to get at "Bones." The one top guy Jones has not faced -- aside from Henderson -- is Alexander Gustafsson, who is 14-1 but, considering his level of competition, maybe not quite ready. But he's more ready than Vera, who doesn't rank even among the division's Top 10.

Then again, if Rua wins impressively and Henderson dethrones Jones in a month at UFC 151, everything will come up roses, as we'd get a rematch of last November's Fight of the Year. The fans would love that. And Dana would love that the fans love it.

But would "Shogun" be deserving? Two months ago, according to White, Rua declined a fight with Glover Teixeira, saying he'd rather be cut by the UFC than face the 18-2 wrecking ball on the rise. (Rua has acknowledged turning down Teixeira but denied the part about saying he'd prefer to be cut.) Then Mauricio turned around and accepted the Vera fight. Why?

"Vera is a guy that's very well known in the MMA business and the UFC," Rua said via translator during the conference call. "He has a strong name, and Glover still has a long way to run. Right now the best option is a guy who's well known, and Brandon Vera is the choice."

I recognize that that's a sound business decision, but hearing such talk coming out of a fearsome fighter's mouth leaves a bad taste in mine. Shouldn't "Shogun" be willing, even eager, to fight the best the matchmakers can put in front of him? Yeah, I'm being naïve. And yeah, Mauricio Rua is catching on to the UFC's marketing-first ethos.

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