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Before I comment on the spectacle that was Golden Boy MMA: Liddell vs. Ortiz 3, I’d like to establish my bona fides. Not in the sense of how long I’ve been following the sport or how many author bylines I have to my name, but the simple fact that I bought the pay-per-view. I ordered the event at the full asking price of $40, skipping over the half-price fire sales, less-than-legal streams or any attempt to cadge a media pass. See?
After waffling all week over whether to watch the event, I finally decided to order it, and pay full price, for two reasons. One, as someone who wishes the Ultimate Fighting Championship had a pension plan, this was the closest thing. If Liddell and Ortiz are truly banking 30 percent of the pay-per-view take apiece, as promoter Oscar de la Hoya claims, then this was a way to put a few bucks directly into their pockets as a small thank-you for so many great memories over the years. Call me sentimental. The other reason is that in light of some of the things we heard and saw in the lead-up to the event, I suspected I might have some negative comments about the show itself, and to criticize a product after stealing it -- or being comped -- would have felt ungentlemanly. I preferred to speak with the full authority of a paying customer and supportive fan of the sport.
With that out of the way, Golden Boy MMA: Liddell vs. Ortiz 3 is the worst mixed martial arts event I’ve ever paid to see on TV. Every element of this roaring trash fire was awful. The promotion was bad. The fights were bad. The officiating was bad. The commentary, from a booth made up of normally reliable types including Todd Grisham, Rashad Evans and Frank Mir, was bad. The production was bad. And unlike other legendary MMA fiascoes such as the infamous K-1 Hero's Dynamite!! USA, which I did not order live, this was not even a hilarious, so-bad-it's-good trainwreck. This was closer to YAMMA Pit Fighting, which I did pay money for: bad, but in a tedious, hard-to-watch way. Everything about this event seemed to be such a farce that it's hard for me to tell whether it was caused by simple incompetence, or by an indifference so severe that it bordered on hostility.
Of course, we knew we might be in for trouble long before the foilshirt apocalypse -- more on that later -- descended on The Forum in Inglewood. The promotional buildup delivered the first inkling that this thing was going to be a mess. How else can you interpret De la Hoya grinning his way through multiple press events, trumpeting that he was going to treat mixed martial artists the way they deserved to be treated all along, and bring boxing-like equity to fighter pay... all while repeatedly mispronouncing the name of his headline star? Is it a huge deal that Oscar didn't know how to say "Liddell" and that nobody corrected him for what felt like a long time? Taken as a single data point, of course not. And if this does in fact end up being the biggest payday of Liddell's career, as De la Hoya assured us it would be, he can pronounce it however he likes. But as I pick through the wreckage of the event itself and wait to hear the pay-per-view numbers, it sure feels like an indication that from the jump, nobody gave a damn.
As a full card of fights began to coalesce around the Liddell-Ortiz headliner, the lineup did not inspire confidence. This is no criticism of the fighters themselves; from Liddell and Ortiz at the top all the way down to the endless parade of anonymous locals on the undercard, I hope they did in fact earn the biggest purses of their careers. (Of course, loading your card with 0-0 fighters makes that a pretty easy promise to keep.) But this card exemplified all the laziest, most cynical impulses of MMA matchmaking to an extent that would make any self-respecting regional promotion blush. Pack the undercard with locals to sell tickets? Check. Snag fighters with any iota of UFC name recognition, regardless of how competitively sound they may be? Check. But where even the most interminable ten-fight Bellator MMA undercard at least features a handful of hometown fighters who are legitimate up-and-comers as well as ticket sellers, this card was full of fighters who were -- in professional mixed martial arts terms -- nobodies. Just people.
The marquee names, the ex-UFC guys? The co-main event featured Tom Lawlor, who last fought two and a half years ago and has been building a career on the indie pro wrestling circuit. That comes with a seriously hectic schedule: Lawlor has wrestled dozens of matches all over the country this year, and the six-week break he took leading into yesterday's card was by far the longest he's had in that time. Do you think he's been training MMA? For that matter, do you think he would have been inclined to risk punishment on Saturday that might prevent him from getting back into his busy pro wrestling schedule as soon as possible?
There was also Gleison Tibau, who I am glad to see continuing to ply his trade after his UFC release, in a matchup with Efrain Escudero. "The Ultimate Fighter" Season 8 winner's most recent exploits include blowing weight horribly twice over the summer for Professional Fighters League. The first time was as a short-notice replacement, but the second miss was even worse -- over 163 pounds for a lightweight match -- and led to the fight being scrapped. Golden Boy wisely went with a 160-pound catchweight, but the fact remains that Escudero is another fighter on the card whose name value far exceeds his competitive value or apparent commitment to MMA.
Speaking of catchweights, they happen from time to time in every promotion, of course, but tend to be less common at the highest levels of the sport. A UFC card with more than two catchweight fights is still noteworthy; meanwhile, I've been to local shows here in Texas where over half of the bouts were catchweight affairs. Whether they occur because a promotion is forced to do its matchmaking in the face of scarce talent, or because a fighter missed their contracted weight, I think of the prevalence of catchweight fights as a handy barometer for the level of professionalism and craft I can expect to see in the cage. By my count, four of the 11 fights on this card were contested at catchweights, and that doesn't even include one fight that was pulled from the card for a reported bad weight miss; nor does it include Lawlor, a career middleweight, fighting at his apparent walking weight of 199 pounds against a light heavyweight.
With the table thus set, there was nothing left but the event itself. My colleague Ant Walker, on-site for Sherdog, characterized the crowd thusly: "All the old-school dragon and flame shirts we used to love are back out for the evening. It's like the ghost of your closet's past haunting The Forum right now." Of course, an event that had painted itself into such a corner that it had nothing left to trade on but 2005 nostalgia would bring out the the shiny-shirt contingent. I'm actually glad those fans -- and those shirts -- had one last night with their idols. Silver Star never die.
The evening delivered pretty much what one would expect of a card full of former UFC fighters of questionable motivation and not-ready-for-prime-time local players: a lineup of generally dull fights, notable in most cases for what went wrong. While any card can turn out boring despite the best-laid plans, this card turned out exactly as it was built to; to paraphrase Denny Green -- may he rest in peace -- these fighters are who we thought they were. As I stated above, I'm happy that Gleison Tibau is still cashing checks in the game, and I hope he has enough stashed away to open that bakery when it's all said and done. He's always come across as a sweetheart. But the man born Janigleison Herculano Alves was not exactly appointment viewing even at the height of his powers, and matching him up with a chronically overweight, unmotivated Escudero yielded exactly the fight it should have.
There's no reason to break down every single fight on this card. The most dynamic performer of the evening was referee Mike Beltran, who landed a significant strike, deducted two points from Oscar Cota for different fouls in a single round and generally seemed to be agitated and on the verge of exploding all evening.
Easily the most depressing moment on the card -- other than the main event -- was the aftermath of Albert Morales's loss to James Barnes. Here's the breakdown: Morales loses via third-round submission, with referee Herb Dean having to argue with him that he really did tap. After the result is announced and Barnes gives his winner's interview, Morales gets the mic. He starts talking about serious things. In the middle of his speech, Golden Boy MMA cuts away to a pre-recorded promo clip of Liddell, leaving me and the other people I was watching with thinking that Morales had been in the middle of retiring. That would have been sad enough, but once the canned Liddell clip finishes, the production cuts back to Morales, who is kneeling in front of a woman in a dress. Yes, Morales had been proposing to his girl -- after an embarrassing loss -- only to be preempted by a recorded promo clip.
The main event between Liddell and Ortiz is perhaps the most "they are who we thought they were" moment in a night full of them. It was obvious within the first 20 seconds. Ortiz looked much the same as he had in his last few fights: an older and shopworn version of himself, but still a decent fighter, one who could still fight a few times a year if he wanted, and if his fame did not restrict him to marquee opponents at marquee prices. Liddell, on the other hand, looked like his vintage self... encased in a literal block of ice. The gunslinger stance and the low hands were pure, classic Chuck, as much of a visual trademark as his mohawk or his Iceman.TV shorts, but it was unbelievable how slow he looked. It's hard to chalk up a four-and-a-half minute fight as a case of one fighter carrying another, but Ortiz could have finished this in 30 seconds. Only showmanship, and perhaps a sneaking worry that his longtime nemesis was sandbagging, extended the torment.
When Ortiz threw the fight-ending flurry, Liddell was who we thought he was, or at least the man he had shown himself to be in 2010. After all, the most disturbing part of the end of his first career run was that the formerly iron-chinned “Iceman” was completely separated from his senses by punches he would have walked through in previous years. Chin -- or more accurately, brain -- doesn’t recover with time off, and sure enough, Ortiz melted Liddell with what was not even his hardest punch. The rest was sad formality.
The worst part is how pointless it all was. Do you think of the Chuck-Tito rivalry differently now? I don’t. I still think of it as one historically great light heavyweight having two dominant performances over another all-time great… now with a weird, depressing and ultimately irrelevant footnote. That fight taught us nothing, entertained us little and in general served no purpose other than to get the principals paid. Which is why I forked over the 40 bucks. Respect to both of them, but please stop.
On Saturday night, before the headline fight took place, I had been chatting with a member of the MMA media much more experienced and prominent than myself. I won't name him, but for purposes of this vignette, think of him as a little devil, with what is either horns or extravagantly spiky hair, sitting on my left shoulder, eh? I asked him, “If Tito slaughters Chuck tonight, does it change the story one iota?”
“No, it's designed to hurt you,” came the reply. “Because when Tito overhand rights Chuck, part of your soul will die. It'll just fragment and blow away into the ether. You'll wake up tomorrow and think ‘Did I ever really like MMA anyway?’”
Well, mission -- and existential crisis -- accomplished. I still liked MMA when I woke up Sunday, but that event was the absolute pits. And maybe it’s a good thing, because if my love of this sport can survive an event that managed to be cynical, shallow, incompetent and depressing all at once, it can probably survive anything. I’m good for the next 15 years. But if Golden Boy ever wants my money again: do better.