Stephan Bonnar (left): Sherdog.com
Saturday marks the first time the UFC and Strikeforce have aired live programming opposite one another, but there’s really not much to be made of that: Showtime airs in only a fraction of the homes Spike does, making any real comparison of viewership a mess of semantics, demographics, and relative numbers. Dave vs. Jay is a pretty fair ratings match; this one requires a lot of handicapping.
If anything can be figured out, it’ll be based largely on the drawing power of promotional names, not athletes: Strikeforce lost a draw in Herschel Walker last week, while the UFC is dealing primarily with ungroomed “Ultimate Fighter” participants and a well-liked headliner in Stephan Bonnar. The Strikeforce card has more intriguing and rankings-relevant bouts, but its own top draw -- Dan Henderson rematching Renato Sobral -- may be a somewhat muted affair. Unless Sobral can catch Henderson in something, there’s not a lot of breaking news to anticipate.
What’s really remarkable Saturday: Fredson Paixao and Pablo Garza will mark the first time featherweights have under competed under the UFC banner; Will Campuzano and Nick Pace introduce bantamweights the same night. Athletes who work every bit as hard as the rest and who helped bolster an entire company have earned the platform the UFC provides. More than anything, we’ll probably remember the event as the night they finally got what they deserved.
What: “The Ultimate Fighter 12 Finale”, from the Pearl at the Palms in Las Vegas, Nevada; Strikeforce “Henderson vs. Babalu” from the Scottrade Center in St. Louis.
When: Saturday, Dec. 4 at 9 p.m. ET on Spike (“TUF 12” Finale); 10 p.m. ET on Showtime (Strikeforce)
Why You Should Watch: Because Demian Maia against Kendall Grove is a nice puzzle of Maia’s jiu-jitsu against Grove’s rubber limbs; because Paul Daley against Scott Smith is one of the sport’s few money-back guarantees of a knockout; because fights taken on short notice -- as in the case of Mike Kyle’s bout with Antonio Silva -- usually mean explosive, strategy-free action; and because Bonnar is rarely in a boring fight.
Fight of the Night: Daley/Smith, for as long as it lasts.
Hype Quote of the Show: “Even some of my closest friends, when I told them who I was fighting, they were like ‘oh Maia, oooohhh,’…it kinda pisses me off, and what a lot of people don’t know is that I asked for this fight.” -- Grove, on making life harder on himself, to UFC.com.
Can ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ still create stars?
The first season of Spike’s “Ultimate Fighter” was initially seen as a free pass into UFC contention. “Regular” fighters had to come up the hard way, while the reality stars got there faster; winners weren’t celebrated so much as resented.
If the show was planned as stunt work, it worked better than anyone could’ve expected: Forrest Griffin, Chris Leben, Josh Koscheck and others went on to become champions or contenders. But in its 12th season, the show might finally be arriving full circle -- as a vehicle for primetime programming over actual recruiting. Recent winner Efrain Escudero was cut; Ross Pearson had a good run interrupted by Cole Miller; and no contestant since season three winner Michael Bisping has approached a level that impacts box office revenue. The winner of Saturday’s Michael Johnson/Jonathan Brookins bout might discover that they haven’t necessarily earned relevance -- just the chance at it.
It was only a few years ago that some observers lobbied the conspiracy theory that UFC brass were so nervous smothering wrestler Matt Lindland would beat marketable Rich Franklin that they found a reason to oust him from the promotion. Lindland reportedly wore a sponsor shirt that was not allowed, and was subsequently fired. Truth to the explanation? Who knows
The 40-year-old has struggled since, dropping fights to Vitor Belfort and Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza. Beating Robbie Lawler Saturday might reintroduce the idea that Lindland is no particular picnic for anyone he fights.
Is Daley the new go-to villain?
The moment he struck Josh Koscheck after the bell during a May UFC event, Daley became the poster child for impropriety. (He was fired the same night.)
Fans have good memories: when Sean Sherk was alleged to have tested positive for banned substances, he returned to boos. Whether Daley plays that up or tries to be contrite is something the audience might wind up helping him decide.
Think you can get a handle on Saturday’s Strikeforce rematch between Sobral and Henderson by watching their February 2000 fight? Forget it: so much time has passed that the footage is irrelevant. An overweight Sobral scored with leg kicks and even took Henderson down. But under Rings rules, no one was able to strike to the head on the ground. With both men exhausted from prior fights the same night, it’s not much more help than camcorder footage from a tough sparring session.
The only thing unlikely to change is Henderson’s ability to muscle Sobral around in the clinch: he hasn’t gotten any less dangerous there or elsewhere, while Sobral has had a hot-and-cold career in the years since. A second win over Sobral is not going to be one of the more notable marks on Henderson’s resume, but following a loss to Jake Shields in the spring, it’s a fair test of what the 40-year-old former Pride champion has left.
At Stake: A possible title shot against Rafael "Feijao" Cavalcante; for Henderson, enough juice for a higher-profile fight against Fedor Emelianenko.
Wild Card: Were Henderson’s problems against Shields attributable to a hard weight cut -- as he claims -- or simply a war-torn body finally showing its age?
Who Wins: Henderson tends to struggle more as a light-heavyweight, but Sobral probably isn’t looking at many chances to win outside of a submission during a scramble. The Big Right Hand, the pace, and the clinch work are all still enough to put away just about anybody in the sport. Henderson by decision.