This weekend, Jon “Bones” Jones is scheduled to take on Dan Henderson for the UFC light heavyweight title. Or at least it would have been, had Dan Henderson not injured himself last week, and had to withdraw from the fight. A search for a suitable, short notice, substitute was held. Many fighters wisely refused. After all, Jones is practically undefeated. His offense is overwhelming, his cardio is significant, and no one has found any real weakness to him just yet. To go against him on just 8 days notice would be to invite almost certain defeat. But at least you would be doing a favor for the company, and you would most likely be rewarded later on down the road, provided that Jones doesn’t completely break your face and put you out of action for good.
Then Chael Sonnen stepped up. Sonnen was last seen getting taken out by Anderson Silva once again, and had not started serious training yet. Despite the fact that this was a higher weight class, he said he would have trouble making weight for this fight, but was eager to give it a shot. Then, two surprising things happened. Jones refused the fight, and UFC President Dana White cancelled the card completely.
Jones got a lot of criticism for refusing the fight, especially against an opponent who is usually lighter than him, fighting on almost no notice, and who does not seem as capable as himself. For Sonnen it was win-win, by Jones refusing the fight, Chael still looks like the guy who was willing to step up to the plate. Had he lost the fight, he had a ready to go excuse. And if he won the fight, he has a shiny new belt. Jones obviously has the belt to lose, plus his record is on the line. Henderson and Sonnen also have different styles, and presented a different risk to Jones. But Jones was so dominant, its hard to think of anyone beating him, without the luck of the fight working against him. But even if Jones lost, you would have to think he’d get an immediate rematch. Ultimate Fighter coaches anyone?
The fact that the card was cancelled entirely is also revealing. One of the things I think hurt boxing was the one match PPV’s. An expensive card, with just one fight you want to see. In the past, UFC would have at least 3 fights on the main card that I was interested in watching before hand, and the other matches were always worth watching anyways. Lately this hasn’t been the case. With more and more matches being scheduled, the “name” talents are being spread thinner. You’re ending up with cards with only a few people who are draws on name alone. This could be ok, if the PPV’s weren’t so expensive. I used to get a few PPV’s a year if there were enough big fights on them, and I could get people to come over to watch with me. That’s pretty rare now. Fortunately, a local sports bar has been carrying PPV’s recently, so for the price of a dinner, you can watch the card there. This is now my preferred way of watching. Recently they said they wouldn’t be doing this except for the biggest matches. There’s always Buffalo Wild Wings, but that’s more of a drive, and the foods not as good. I went there for the fairly weak UFC 149 card, and it was not packed, nor was the fighting that good.
But I don’t remember it always being that way. UFC fights used to be more like football, it doesn’t matter who is playing, it’s almost always fun to watch. But as the money got bigger, and there was more at stake, it seems as if more fighters are playing to win and be safe, than trying to have the best fight possible. They are playing as if they have more to lose. I think there are some solutions though.
First- Payscale. Currently fighters are given two levels of pay, to show up for the fight, and to win. Then there are some bonuses for fight of the night, submission of the night, and knockout of the night. This is a good system, but I think it could go a little further. Right now someone’s contract might be 40 and 40. $40,000 to fight, plus $40,000 if they win. Maybe instead make that a 30-30-30 contract. $30,000 to fight, $30,000 to win, and another $30,ooo if you win by stoppage. I’ve seen too many fights where someone won the first two rounds, and does not try for a finish in the third. I’ve also seen many fights where someone has obviously lost the first two rounds, and does not go all out in the final round. They are more interested in not being finished, and surviving the fight. This should not be encouraged in any way. Maybe the third round should be shorter. like 2 or 3 minutes, where they can go all out. This 5 round main event thing is not all that great. I can’t think of two many great fights that have gone all 5 rounds. I know people might say after a great three round fight “Oh man, if they had an extra two rounds” If they had known it was a 5 round fight, they would have paced themselves for 5, not 3. Really the only interesting thing for a 5 rounder is when a guy knows he can’t go 5, and tries to end it early. I would rather see shorter fights, if that made them better.
Second- Rankings. There’s sort of an unofficial rankings system right now. And that’s ok, a firm ranking probably isn’t in the UFC’s and fans best interest. But I think you can do more to use the rankings to encourage better fights, and to build fan interest. You could use groups, Champion, top 5, top 10, 11-15 and 16-25. Something like that. I know there was a lousy fight on UFC 149, where Dana White said “It’s like they both lost” Well, make that official. If everyone can see a fighter improve more from a strong loss, than a safe win, then you will see more fighters going for finishes. It’s somewhat risky to go all out in the first round, especially if you are new. If you go high risk/high reward in the first minute, and get knocked out, then no one sees what you can do well. But in the third round, when you’ve established that you do have a complete game, go for it in the third. If you lose, then Dana White needs to still reward you. That’s the sort of fight the fans want to see.
Third- Judging. Dana White is fond of saying, “Don’t leave it in the hands of the judges” And one of the reasons for this is MMA judging is fairly new. Most judges are not ex fighters, they certainly weren’t brought up in the sport, and no one seems to agree on what exactly the judging criteria is. They are using the boxing “ten point must” system. Which means the round winner gets 10, the loser gets 9 or less. The problem is, you might have two really close rounds, that go 10-9 for the red corner. The blue corner wins the third round decisively, but still just 10-9, and loses the fight, despite being the only fighter to clearly win a round. 10-9 covers too much ground, you pretty much have to be lucky to survive the round to get a 10-8. The 10-8 needs to come into play a lot more, and the 10-7 needs to be used as well whenever a fighter absorbs significant damage in a round. There are some ways you can mess around with this. Let’s say a 10-9 round is essentially a toss up, 10-8 means you clearly won the round, and 10-7 means you won the round with significant damage. You could declare any fight without at least one 10-8 round a draw, or even a no contest. You could even add in a champions advantage, saying the champion cannot lose a round 10-9, and round that is that close, must be scored 10-9 for the champion. This way the challenger really needs to beat up or stop the champion to win the belt.
The UFC is looking to grow, and to become a mainstream sport. And I think it can get there. I’m not sure it can get as big as the big 4 as a PPV sport. Not unless the prices come down, or more businesses open their doors to watching it. Football is the number 1 sport in America, I can turn on just about any football game and enjoy it. Other sports, I sorta need to know the team and the players. The UFC has had many great matches by undercard “no name” fighters. This grows the sport. If I’m going to turn on a PPV, or even invest my time in watching a cable or broadcast TV show, I need to know I’m going to watch a good fight. I might even film a lot more matches than I air. Only air three matches live on a ppv, everything else needs to be a great match from the undercard. Same thing for other live shows or weekly programming. Just because you fight and win, does not mean you get on tv, and get noticed. Make it more competitve in that regard, and have a financial bonus as well if your match is selected to be broadcast. As the UFC grows, there are going to be a lot more fights, select the best to show on tv.
The UFC is at a time in it’s history where it can either break into the mainstream, or dwindle back to a minor sport. Dana White has successfully led them to this point. But I’ve seen sports grow, only to collapse on their own weight. I mentioned arena football, which was growing as a fun alternative to outdoor football, but suffered when they started to take the sport too seriously. Hockey is perhaps another example, in trying to be too safe, too corporate, you lost a lot of what makes people want to come out to watch the games. And I don’t just mean the fighting, I mean the choke the life out of the game trap that might win you some more games, maybe even a championship, but at what cost? This is a real challenge for the UFC, I look foward to seeing how they deal with it.