Image: Ben Duffy/Sherdog.com illustration
Let’s autopsy a uniquely packed week in mixed martial arts, shall we?
Between One Championship on TNT 1, Bellator 256 on Showtime and UFC on ABC 2, we had a colossal feast of fights on which to gorge ourselves. We also had the added intrigue of arguably the three biggest promotions in the sport, all on their first or second events with a new broadcast partner.
With three combat sports giants going head-to-head-to-head — not literally, as they aired on three different nights, thank goodness — it’s worth taking a look at the relative success of each card from a competitive as well as promotional angle. Here is the stock report for what we’ll call “The Big Three on TV.”
HOLDING STEADY: UFC on ABC 2
It isn’t the UFC’s fault that Darren Till pulled out of the main event with a broken collarbone, and as short-notice replacements go, a ranked fighter with the buzz of Kevin Holland was actually a fantastic get. On paper, that is. In the cage, Marvin Vettori bulldozed Holland, overcoming some danger on the feet in the first three minutes and then going full wrestler for the remainder of the fight, racking up a whopping 20 minutes of top control. It was a smart tactical adjustment by the Italian, who found himself in a high-risk, low-reward scenario against the dangerous Holland, but it probably didn’t win him many fans. More importantly, where a spectacular victory over Till might have vaulted Vettori straight to a title shot, the grinding decision against Holland leaves him more or less where he was before the fight.
It’s anyone’s guess whether that dull main event would have ruined an otherwise spectacular card, but the rest of “UFC Vegas 23” was far from spectacular. There were a couple of eye-popping finishes courtesy of Julian Marquez and Jarjis Danho, and two outstanding three-round fights. Several fighters, including Arnold Allen and Mackenzie Dern, did wonders for their individual stocks. However, there were also a couple of crushingly tedious rinse-and-repeat fights: Joe Solecki vs. Jim Miller, in particular, should come with a warning label about operating heavy machinery. The stakes just weren’t there, either, with very few contenders on the card and several fighters on brutal losing streaks. Ultimately — and this is a nuance that may even be invisible to fans who came to the sport in the Ronda Rousey/Conor McGregor era — this was just another fight night. To understand what I mean, look at the lineups of the first half-dozen UFC on Fox cards; the UFC used to bust out the good silverware for broadcast TV events, resulting in something halfway between a pay-per-view event and a free Spike TV card in terms of quality. Those days are gone, say sorry, and UFC on ABC 2 was by no means a disaster, but Vettori’s win that doesn’t really advance him much is a good metaphor for the whole show.
STOCK DOWN: Bellator 256
Bellator’s second event on Showtime delivered some of the best and some of the worst the Bellator MMA promotional model has to offer. On the up side, the main event featured the launch of its new light heavyweight grand prix. Tournaments are fun, and have a way of adding narrative weight and drama to the individual contests that make up the bracket. For an example, consider the number of people who follow regular-season NCAA basketball, compared to those who tune in for “March Madness.” For as long as the UFC is run by tournament-averse Dana White, they are also an instant point of distinction for rival promotions.
While Bellator CEO Scott Coker — a lifelong martial artist, a gentleman and by all accounts a stellar boss — would never do so, I will jump in and say that Ryan Bader winning in dominant fashion on Friday was a good thing for the promotion. The man who took the title from Bader last fall, Vadim Nemkov, resides on the opposite side of the bracket, and a rematch between the two is probably the easiest sell of any possible grand prix final. Bader absolutely thrashed Lyoto Machida, avenging a nine-year-old loss in the UFC and serving notice that he still has some life left in him at 205. If Coker follows through on his stated intention to create an interim heavyweight title so that Bader’s light heavyweight success doesn’t leave his other division in mothballs, everything is good.
The same cannot be said of the rest of Bellator 256. One thing that Bellator probably does better than any other top-flight promotion is scout and develop talent from the ground up. That means that Bellator undercards are often jammed with 3-0 prospects, often in matchups that are…let’s say, “designed to be winnable.” There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s closer to the boxing model and I wish more promotions would do it with truly promising talents. And it often pays off even from an entertainment standpoint, with 10-to-1 favorites delivering brutal finishes over sacrificial lamb opponents. Friday night was not one of those times, as six of the eight undercard fights went to the judges, which meant a whole lot of time watching maybe-good-someday fighters squaring off against probably-never-good fighters. Ick. Add in that the co-main event between Liz Carmouche and Vanessa Porto was a dud that managed to make two Top 10 flyweights look worse, and that one of Bellator’s best fighters, Goiti Yamauchi, lost a horrible split decision, and this was a long night in the FightSphere. When one of the highlights of the card was 2-0 prospect/pinup Diana Avsaragova plunking 1-2 Tara Graff, that isn’t a good sign.
STOCK DOWN: One on TNT 1
Because I’ve often been critical of One Championship’s practices in the past, I feel I should start here by stating that the organization did just about everything perfectly for its debut on TNT. The lean, mean six-fight card offered a fantastic sampler of what the Singaporean promotion does well, while leading with the elements that would be most likely to grab and hold the attention of American fans. The card featured two recent UFC stars in Demetrious Johnson and Eddie Alvarez as well as massive Senegalese wrestler Oumar Kane, who is equal parts sideshow attraction and legit heavyweight prospect at this point. The promotion of kickboxing and muay Thai bouts alongside MMA — a One trademark that I’ve always enjoyed — got a further boost from the inclusion of Rodtang Jitmuangnon, one of the promotion’s best and most exciting strikers. The decision to put the event on Wednesday night, rather than counterprogram Bellator or the UFC, was the right one, even if the time zone-staggered delay was a misstep. All in all, it truly was a case of One putting its best foot forward.
Unfortunately, we all know what they say about the best-laid plans of mice and men. Kane’s debut on stateside TV went from intriguing to farcical, as his opponents changed from Marcus “Buchecha” Almeida, one of the greatest heavyweight Brazilian jiu-jitsu artists of all time; to 4-3 Iranian wrestler Mehdi Barghi; to Patrick Schmid, a 35-year-old kickboxer with no professional MMA experience. The end result, a two-minute mauling, was decent TV while it lasted but gave us no indication of whether “Reug Reug” is actually any good at fighting yet. Johnson’s knockout loss to Adriano Moraes was not a complete disaster from a promotional standpoint. Moraes looked like a world-beater, winning the first round before flattening a grounded “Mighty Mouse” in the second with a knee strike that would have been completely illegal under the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts, but is perfectly fine under One’s ruleset. As long as One Championship is prepared to keep Moraes visible and busy with credible contenders, all is fine. Alvarez’s loss to Iuri Lapicus, in which he was disqualified in barely a minute for blows to the back of the head, was hugely disappointing; even if Alvarez had looked shaky in his first two fights for One, the Alvarez-Lapicus fight promised to be a barnburner. Instead, it fizzled out in seconds in a welter of confusion, disappointment and the sobering news of Lapicus being transported to the hospital. There are three more cards to come on this venture with TNT, starting with an excellent Christian Lee – Timofey Nastyukhin title fight this Wednesday, but there’s no question that this was a stumble out of the gate.