Silly me. I thought The Ultimate Fighter was the UFC's reality television show. But there was Dana White with a microphone in his face in the final moments of the UFC on Fox 4 telecast, and the fight promotion president looked like he was at the Bachelor rose ceremony or something as he announced which of Saturday night's winners had been voted off of the islan-- oops, I mean, which victor was being awarded a shot at the light heavyweight championship.
The X-factor man turned out to be Lyoto Machida, who scored what amounted to a one-punch knockout of Ryan Bader in the second round of the evening's second-billed bout.
That, in the eyes of White (as well as Paula Abdul, David Hasselhoff and reality show judges everywhere), trumped Mauricio "Shogun" Rua's fourth-round TKO over a rejuvenated Brandon Vera in the main event before 16,080 at the Staples Center, which is in Los Angeles but on this night was a touch more Hollywood.
I'm tweaking the UFC a bit here for turning its fourth appearance on the Fox network into a cross between America's Got Talent and the Miss America Pageant. Last Monday, White announced that the main event winner was going to get the shot at either Jon Jones or his Sept. 1 challenger, Dan Henderson. That was met by an online uproar from fans, probably because of the farcical possibility of Vera, a winner in just one of his previous four bouts, going for the belt. So White quickly amended himself, declaring the very next day that the co-main eventers also would be in the running. "So whoever scores the best win, whoever gets the fans excited by going out there on Saturday and looking the most impressive," said White, "he will get the winner of Jones vs. Henderson."
White would call that giving the fans what they want. I would call it an unnecessary rerouting of the traditional road to a championship. Like Vera, Machida also had one win in his last four bouts, and Bader hadn't beaten a top-level opponent other than the faded shadow of Quinton Jackson. In most sports, champions are made by winning and winning some more, but here was White telling us that one win was enough, as long as it looked pretty. If Dana wanted a beauty contest, he should have just slotted the Jones-Henderson winner in with octagon girl Brittney Palmer.
This whole title shot jump-ball story line was pointless. Why not instead have the two light heavy winners face off? Given the evening's results, we would have ended up with Rua vs. Machida III, a fight with considerable appeal. In their first meeting back in October 2009, "The Dragon," then the UFC champion, was awarded a controversial unanimous decision. Then, seven months later, "Shogun" knocked him out in the first round to take away the belt, which he would drop to Jones in his first defense. It would be fitting for the Brazilians to go at it again. That would be the way to earn a title shot.
And as it turned out, UFC on Fox 4 didn't need the added drama. This event delivered unlike any of the promotion's previous network appearances. Before the light heavyweights even took the stage, Mike Swick returned to the octagon after a 2½-year absence for health reasons, and he made the most of his second chance, earning the evening's Knockout of the Night bonus by laying out DaMarques Johnson. The true bonus baby was Joe Lauzon, though, as he got both Fight of the Night and Submission of the Night checks after his third-round triangle choke-out of Jamie Varner (who also got a fight bonus) in a thrilling back-and-forth bout. Lauzon now has 11 bonuses, the most of any UFC fighter.
And Machida (18-3) has the title shot. He earned it by practically pitching a shutout. Lyoto kept his distance, making it difficult for Bader (14-3) to make use of his one superior skill, because you can't wrestle what you can't touch. That left Ryan with little weaponry other than the occasional lunge forward with a punch, which nearly always either fell short or was parried aside by the karate kid. Or countered. In the second round, Bader landed just one of eight strikes, and one of his clumsy surges directly into the line of fire proved to be his undoing. Machida caught him coming in with a short right hand, and Bader crumbled to the mat as if blasted by a shotgun. "The Dragon" delivered a couple of blows on the ground before referee John McCarthy could jump in and end it at 1:32.
"I think it was a great performance," Machida said on the telecast afterward. "I want to say, 'the Dragon's back!'"
Indeed he is. And so is Brandon Vera. Even after finally succumbing to a Rua flurry against the cage at 4:09 of the fourth, Vera (12-6, one no-contest) has to be viewed as the most pleasant surprise of the night. He was a big underdog, but he hung in with "Shogun" and even had him in trouble at various points. Vera might not have won a round, though, because Rua (21-6) always had an answer in a bout in which both fighters could have used a little more in the gas tank when there was an opportunity to finish. But it was a respectful showing for "The Truth," so much that one could argue that while Dana White handed a title shot to the most impressive winner, the most impressive light heavy might have been Vera, considering where his career was before the night began.
The odd man out in all of this was Rua. He faced an opponent who brought more to the table than Machida's did, and he persevered in a rugged battle, yet he'll be home eating popcorn in a few months watching his fellow Brazilian go for the belt. Dana White believes justice has been served, though. "Everything I've seen from Machida," he said, "tells me he wants this [title] fight more than Shogun does."
I'm not sure that really, really wanting a title shot more than anyone else is a valid criterion for getting one, but even if you're with Dana on that issue, it's sure a tough opinion to form after watching Rua go four tough rounds. Grit like that doesn't deserve to be voted off of Championship Island. But maybe Dana is right about the fighter's level of wanting, when you consider the reaction of "Shogun" to Machida getting the shot he had within his grasp. "That's OK," Rua said at the post-fight press conference. "I respect the decision. I will keep training. Lyoto will have the chance. Let's move on."
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