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Through his path on the 24th season of “The Ultimate Fighter,” Tim Elliott beat four quality flyweights, showed off technical improvement and now, by virtue of winning a season of this dying reality show, he has earned himself a shot at UFC 125-pound king Demetrious Johnson, perhaps the finest fighter in all of MMA.
Couldn’t they have just given this poor guy a Harley Davidson?
You don’t need me to tell you that Elliott faces an uphill battle against “Mighty Mouse” on Saturday in Las Vegas; Johnson is a -1000 favorite after all -- and rightfully so. Likewise, it goes without saying that no matter if it’s a legendary champion in one of his theoretically easier title defenses, “The Ultimate Fighter” has only been used as a device to create a No. 1 contender one other time, and it resulted in the biggest upset in MMA history when Matt Serra somehow whooped Georges St. Pierre all over Houston. These things can and do happen.
I don’t bemoan the fact that Elliott is getting a UFC flyweight title shot as a result of TUF, as though it’s somehow beneath the dignity of the UFC or the flyweight title. Chris Cariaso fought for Johnson’s title while looking terrified the entire time, and the UFC has given Vitor Belfort, Chael Sonnen and the late Justin Eilers, among others, terrible title shots. As mentioned, Elliott beat four legitimate flyweights on the show and dominated against the best fighter he faced, Hiromasa Ogikubo, in the final. His winning streak is one that could’ve legitimately happened in the UFC. On top of that, Elliott is at worst a top 15-20 flyweight; his scramble-heavy style is incredibly fun to watch; and he has charisma to boot. Witness his mockery of Pedro Nobre in Titan Fighting Championship.
Elliott is exciting, entertaining and unlikely to get whooped as bad as either of the TUF 24 coaches did against Johnson. He went 2-4 in his original UFC stint, but that’s largely a function of competition, as his losses came against three former UFC flyweight title contenders and a former Bellator MMA bantamweight champion. Even if Johnson quickly or brutally dispatches Elliott, this is not a farce. In fact, WME-IMG is looking to slash the “The Ultimate Fighter” production budget from $27.6 million to $10 million, so Season 24 may truly be the last noteworthy season ever. This is not a fight about indignity but rather one that is entirely born out of desperation.
Johnson’s promotional history with the UFC is both weird and tragic. Over his four-year title reign, I’ve heard everything from, “Flyweights will never sell” to “The UFC can’t and/or doesn’t want to promote a black champion.” Now, there have been a few times that the UFC has hung Johnson out to dry on account of him not being a draw, most notably his headlining UFC 174 against Ali Bagautinov in Vancouver, British Columbia, and UFC 191 in a rematch with John Dodson in Las Vegas. Those fights were met with weak houses and poor buyrates. However, for the most part, Zuffa has tried anything a promoter could reasonably do to expose and promote an incredible fighter in an embryonic weight class.
After taking the UFC flyweight title, Johnson was blessed with three network main events on Fox, but other than his first fight with Dodson in January 2013, which peaked with 5.2 million viewers and did a 3.87 million average, his ratings were paltry. In Johnson’s last four title defenses, Zuffa has consistently sought to pair him with bigger title fights in a double feature, only to have the anchor bouts disintegrate, most notably with Jon Jones-Daniel Cormier 2 falling apart ahead of UFC 197. The UFC broadcast coverage of Johnson is unfailingly positive and filled with glowing praise, especially as more people have run with the idea that he is the pound-for-pound king of the sport. Johnson may not be an MMA superstar, but it’s not for a lack of trying.
That’s all “The Ultimate Fighter 24” was ever about: trying something -- anything -- in hopes that it might click, knowing that Johnson has already cleaned out his weight class. Admittedly, given the Fox Sports 1 standard, Johnson-Elliott will likely pop a nice rating; if it can get into the 1.5 million average range, it will be more successful than any UFC on FS1 broadcasts, save for the prelims of major pay-per-views like UFC 194 and UFC 205. On the other hand, that’s more of a success for the UFC’s broadcast partner than it is for the company or Johnson himself.
Assuming Johnson deals with Elliott and the TUF 24 coaches battle between former “Mighty Mouse” victims Joseph Benavidez and Henry Cejudo plays out neatly, we’ll have Johnson’s next fight. If he beats Benavidez for a third time or Cejudo for a second time, Johnson staying at 125 pounds is only an impediment to the division and himself. The prized fight for Johnson is still a rematch with the last man to beat him over five years ago: UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz. However, a Cruz-Johnson 2 bout is no serious draw, either.
By itself, a Cruz-Johnson 2 pay-per-view doesn’t top 250,000 buys, and therefore, if it ever comes to pass, it will likely be the co-feature to a larger UFC title fight. Given Johnson’s luck, that probably means the main event will fall apart and Cruz will destroy his knee again. Jokes aside, it’s not as though Johnson has the luxury of chasing a Conor McGregor fight. His “money” fight is one that is rich on history -- Cruz-Johnson 2 is truly a landmark, legacy fight in MMA’s annals -- but one that doesn’t really draw any money.
This is where we’re at with Johnson. Can we live in a world where perhaps the best MMA fighter is not any sort of draw? The fact is that in this sport’s history -- and boxing’s, too -- this is commonplace. Actually, we don’t even need to delve far into history if we’re talking boxing: Andre Ward and Sergey Kovalev just had the most critical boxing match of 2016, a truly historic showdown, and it drew all of 160,000 pay-per-view buys. If you don’t fancy Ward the pound-for-pound king of boxing by virtue of his close win, that means you likely prefer Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez as your king of boxing, a fighter who, despite his incredible skills, couldn’t sell 200,000 PPV buys.
It’s swell when true greatness and drawing power coalesce, but it is more of a rare phenomenon than we tend to imagine. In the MMA canon, fighters like St. Pierre and Anderson Silva were able over several years to turn themselves into bona fide draws because of their longstanding dominance. Yet Silva and St. Pierre didn’t draw until they had great foils and challengers, your Chael Sonnens, B.J. Penns and so forth. Johnson has never had that, nor does it appear to be on his horizon.
If Elliott and the Benavidez-Cejudo winner go down as other “Mighty Mouse” foes have, Johnson will have cleaned out the division that his career has defined. If we are lucky, he will be bound again for 135 pounds and richer challenges in the near future. None of these fights are likely to draw. This is far from perfect, far from the meritocracy we like to pretend exists in MMA, but it is not the worst of worlds; being in the midst of greatness is something I can settle for.