Whether it’s the NFL or the NBA, both sports had seminal events that fueled a popularity jump when maximum drama and viewership made for combustible results.
Brock Lesnar’s second-round stoppage of Randy Couture for the heavyweight title Saturday night will prove exactly that for the Ultimate Fighting Championship, and the sport of mixed martial arts, though decidedly in that order (more on that in a minute).
Moments like these played a key role in helping both franchises catapult themselves above baseball -- which for decades was the undisputed king of American sports -- snagging in a legion of new fans with the unique excitement both brought.
For the NFL, the first jump was the Baltimore Colts-New York Giants 1958 championship game. Fittingly enough, it was the first NFL contest settled in overtime, with Alan Ameche’s dramatic game-winning touchdown proving that the game was, indeed, ready to live up to the big stage of American sports. With the establishment and expanding popularity of the Super Bowl that would be established a decade later, the league has since emerged with a strong hold on viewership and become a national institution.
With the NBA, the league’s emerging mix of charismatic, Hall-of-Fame talent in the early 80s combined with high-stakes finals showdowns for marquee attractions that helped basketball move from its status as a niche sport best watched as a college version.
Marketability and the means to tap into massive reservoirs of fans who want to watch “UFC” (when they probably mean MMA, but don’t know it) is exactly what Lesnar gave the organization with his impressive showing. And with the Lesnar Effect, the sport will never be the same.
That means a lot of things to a lot of people, with wildly different reactions. Let’s take a look and break a few of them down:
If legislation in public policy serves as the stick with which to equalize opportunity, weight classes in fighting sports are the athletic equivalent. And your humble columnist will be the first to say that the installation of another weight class would be a lousy idea, consistent with everything that has ruined boxing in the past two decades. It would water-down an already thin division (especially considering Lesnar’s emergence as a legitimate force), and cater to the urge that combat sports’ final frontier should be made “fair.”
With the 265-pound Lesnar cutting to make the limit, and probably putting on 10-plus pounds afterward, the 220-pound Couture was basically giving up 20-percent bodyweight (that’s only using weigh-in poundage, to boot). That’s the equivalent of a 155-pounder taking on a 185-pounder.
Of course, few if any making this argument venture predictions that Lesnar would stomp Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira or Fedor Emelianenko, whose best fighting weight is around 225. Yes, Lesnar is huge and athletic, a physical specimen who might have overwhelmed Couture’s brave stand had he weighed 250 or whatever.
But that’s always been the allure of heavyweights in combat sports -- a special province that allowed a 185-pound Rocky Marciano to overcome every critic who, a generation earlier, probably cited the size advantage as to why Primo Carnera was unbeatable. The Riddick Bowe-Evander Holyfield trilogy did more for boxing in the early 1990s than any other rivalry. The weight differences in those fights were significant as well (30, 29 and 27, thank you).
Boxing was better for it, and let’s face it, fans will always gravitate to see David vs. Goliath (especially seeing, as Wilt Chamberlain puts it, “Nobody roots for Goliath,” but in Lesnar’s case, many of them will … another win-win for the UFC).
But aren’t the heavyweights thin enough? And what exactly would this new division consist of?
It would essentially create a new belt where everyone walking around at 255 or less would probably drop, leaving Lesnar or whoever owned it to defend against mostly unathletic muscle-bound freaks, most of them with perfect little ears and limited cardio, at best.
And what do you call it? That’s probably the worst question of all. Junior heavyweight? Medium-heavyweight? Sounds alluring, to be sure. Let’s take the holy of holies in combat sports -- the heavyweight championship -- and split it into two divisions. Genius. Whoever is behind this should be running the WBA, WBO and those clowns in boxing who, through collusion, politics and watering-down the belts, have gone an unprecedented five and a half years without establishing a successor to Lennox Lewis.
Nobody in their right mind would be getting Lesnar at even odds to beat Fedor Emelianenko. But the gap is closing. Whether he faces Nogueira or Mir, either way is an interesting prospect, precisely because Lesnar retains small-heavyweight qualities of quickness and speed with a big man’s assets. Against either guy -- especially Nogueira -- the game plan he chooses will be a huge factor.
That’s why the heavyweights should stay as one division. The UFC has not come this far only to scuttle its most lucrative vehicles, thankfully.