The biggest fight of the year is almost upon us and that means we’ve got some big questions to answer. That’s especially true in a situation as bizarre as the one between UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva and challenger Chael Sonnen. Was Silva’s recent outburst on a media conference call genuine? Whether it was or it wasn’t, what does it all mean?
And while the first meeting between Silva and Sonnen did respectable numbers on pay-per-view, can the second meeting in a little over a week live up to the expectations of pulling in over one million buys?
My colleague Dave Doyle and I do the brave work of tackling these issues. We also discuss Clay Guida’s game plan against Gray Maynard at UFC on FX 4 as well as our favorite Fedor Emelianenko moments on this edition of the MMA Roundtable.
1. UFC 148 is likely to be the biggest fight of the year. Will it sell one million pay-per-view buys?
Thomas: I certainly think it’s possible, but I’m not sure how likely it is. In part, I can’t know. It will be far easier to judge how far a UFC event is going to go in terms of mainstream appeal – and let’s be clear: anything successful in terms of pay-per-view buys is one that corralled casual fans – as we get close to fight time.
What I can tell you is what I hope will happen. I am hoping FOX rallies behind the UFC for this one. Without their participation, I’m not sure this event can sell one million pay-per-view buys. UFC 148 preliminary fights will air on FX, but I’m not just talking about that. Just as big FOX aired the Primetime series for Cain Velasquez vs. Junior dos Santos, I am hoping FOX uses its larger assets to promote this fight. There are two reasons for this. First, I believe the UFC-FOX deal tilts in favor of FOX in most circumstances. FOX is certainly under no obligation to do more than they are contractually required, but it’d be a nice demonstration of commitment to the UFC when the UFC matters most. Second, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Supporting UFC 148 won’t have any immediate or even measurable gains for FOX, but helping MMA to shine when it’s most capable ultimately pays dividends for all invested parties in the long run.
Doyle: To draw a mega buy rate, you need the planets to align. Obviously you need the right match-up. Anderson Silva vs. Chael Sonnen fits the bill. A grudge rematch? Better still. Two of the three biggest buy rates in UFC history, UFC 100 (Brock Lesnar vs. Frank Mir II) and UFC 66 (Chuck Liddell vs. Tito Ortiz II) were title rematches featuring two guys who genuinely didn’t like each other. Charismatic fighters who know how to sell a fight put the cherry on top. That helps account for Lesnar’s fights with Mir, Shane Carwin, Cain Velasquez, and Randy Couture, Liddell-Ortiz, and Quinton “Rampage” Jackson vs. Rashad Evans at UFC 114, all of which hit the magic million mark.
So the UFC has all the pieces in place that they can control. The other end of the equation is whether the fight breaks through and captures the general public’s imagination, and what else is going on in the sports world that weekend. There will be little competition for the UFC’s attention among sports fans on July 7 beyond an ordinary slate of baseball games. The Fourth of July weekend event is traditionally a big seller. The big media push began two weeks out from the fight. All the indications are that the event is already picking up a head of steam. Will it reach a million buys? I’m not going to make a prediction, but all the conditions are there.
Doyle: I think it means Chael Sonnen will be in for a difficult night on July 7. Sonnen has been given a long leash by the MMA media simply because he’s so engaging in front of the cameras and recorders. We know he’s playing a character. I’ve had more than one UFC fighter tell me that Sonnen has admitted as much to them behind the scenes.
Silva’s words on Monday were so forceful because they cut through all the facades we in the media have allowed Sonnen to build. Sonnen is, in fact, a convicted criminal. Silva didn’t mince words on that count. He also called Sonnen a cheater. You can debate the semantics on that one, but the fact remains Sonnen was suspended in two states.
Sonnen basically didn’t have a comeback to any of this.
The stakes have changed since their first meeting. Silva is now a superstar in Brazil. He wasn’t two years ago. He’s got magazine cover spreads and big-money endorsements. This time around, he sees himself as the defender of his country’s honor against a guy who has repeatedly insulted his people. What you heard on Monday was a fighter who is ready to get down to business and leave the sideshow behind.
Thomas: I hear Dave’s point and I naturally gravitate to that position, but there’s so much hot air in the fight business it’s really often difficult to gauge what is foreshadowing the future and what isn’t. It’s true an uncharacteristic Silva took everyone by surprise, maybe even Sonnen himself. And there’s no way Silva walked away from their first fight at UFC 117 thinking everything had gone according to plan. Change is in order if he wants any measure of success and Silva must recognize as much.
I also admit Silva sounds motivated for this contest. How can he not be? But talk and proclamations of exacting amateur reverse cosmetic dentistry aside, the list of combat athletes who were intensely motivated to defeat rivals and said as much to anyone who would listen to them only to fall short is endless. Silva still faces the reality he has porous takedown defense among a host of other stylistic problems that Sonnen will be able to take advantage of. More than any declarations of intent, the actual challenges Silva faces in the fight (and Sonnen’s, too) are by far the most important elements to consider.
Do Silva’s words mean anything? I’m not saying yes. I’m not saying no. I’m saying we can’t know what they really meant until after the fight is over.
Doyle: Yes and no. No, in that people tend to fixate on Jackson when he comes up with a conservative game plan for one of his fighters, but credit his fighters for their performance if they’re exciting. If you watched Friday night’s card, you also saw another Jackson fighter, Cub Swanson, score an exciting, knockout of the night-worthy win over Ross Pearson. Did Jackson get any credit for this? And of course, Jon Jones trains with Jackson. Has anyone ever called Jon Jones a boring fighter?
Jackson tailors his game plans to fit the needs of his fighter in any given fight, which is usually a good thing. But it also means he also should get some of the flack when things don’t work out.
With Condit, at least you have the justification that he got the decision over Diaz in their February bout. Even then, though, Condit took a lot of grief from fans and some in the media for his sticking and moving. There were a couple points during the fight where he could been docked a point for running, if the referees ever bothered enforcing that little corner of the rule book.
In Guida’s case, though, he didn’t even get the W. Jackson took a fighter who has made his name on the excitement level of his fights and took him out of his element to the degree that while Guida didn’t take a beating, his reputation did. Fans can watch Dancing with the Stars for free if they’re so inclined. They’re less inclined to appreciate dancing if they’re tuning in to see a fight. Jackson is one of the game’s master strategists, but if his strategy is hurting his fighter’s reputations, is that a good thing?
Thomas: I think Dave’s dead-on here. If you’re going to give a game plan to a fighter that is anathema to their style (even if it’s justified in adopting from a theoretical point of view), then you have to be prepared to eat it when said game plan completely back fires. Which it did.
Nick Diaz is not Gray Maynard and Carlos Condit is not Clay Guida. But that’s sort of the point. Condit, a fighter with significantly more striking ability, was able to execute a similar game plan to Guida’s, but against an opponent who is much more linear in movement. Trying to get Guida to copy a facsimile of what Condit did to Diaz was almost destined to fail. Guida just doesn’t have the skills to incorporate enough striking to keep evasion from looking like running.
We shouldn’t be too hard on Guida or Jackson. Even the world’s best trainer and one of his best fighter can’t always get it right. There are going to be some duds along the way.
Yet, I can’t help but think of how in conflict Guida’s performance was with Jackson’s guiding ethos. I could be mistaken (and if I am, by all means correct me in the comments), but I recall Greg Jackson once saying fighting is the art of breaking another man’s will. I’m not here to debate if that’s true, but let’s assume it is for the sake of conversation. If it is, how on earth is what Guida did to Maynard even approximating that? I’m sure it was frustrating for Maynard, but that’s hardly breaking his will.
Defense is a hugely under utilized tool and talent in MMA. Too few fighters use or respect it. But defense without offense is not offense by default.
4. Forget all the talk about Fedor Emelianenko’s handlers and management for a moment: When all is said and done, what was your single favorite Fedor moment in the ring/cage over the years?
Thomas: There are too many to count, but for me his comeback win against Kazuyuki Fujita is my favorite. Emelianenko was still basking in the glow of his incredible victory over Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and was widely expected to blow past the former wrestler in Fujita. But something curious happened along the way. An errant right hook landed on the side of Emelianenko’s head, rocking him badly. Before the Russian could latch onto Fujita for dear life the Japanese crowd rose to their feet in surprise and delight. A Japanese heavyweight champion? They were about to see it happen. But Emelianenko being who he was, he was able to hang on even after being taken down. Fedor eventually rose back to his feet and nailed Fujita with one of the most devastating middle kick-hook combinations I’ve ever seen in professional mixed martial arts. It sent Fujita stumbling and that’s when Emelianenko finished the show, soon thereafter putting Fujita away with a rear naked choke.
It was a sensational performance: first Fedor at his most human, then his most incredible. Emelianenko’s face was bloody and guest PRIDE commentator Rampage Jackson kept remarking what a champion Fedor was for being able to fight back in such spectacular fashion. I can’t say I disagree.
Doyle: When you cover mixed martial arts for a living and sit cage-and-ringside for hundreds and hundreds of fights, eventually, everything starts to blur together. When that happens, your strongest memories are of the most vivid moments in time. Randy Couture dropping Tim Sylvia with that big overhand right at the start of their 2007 fight, and the thunderous response from the Columbus crowd, was one. Brock Lesnar shooting a double on Frank Mir at the start of their first fight, getting the takedown, and pounding the bejeezus out of Mir while the crowd absolutely lost its mind, is another.
And then there was Fedor’s knockout of Andrei Arlovski. I had the good fortune of not only having a front-row press seat for Emelianenko’s Jan. 2009 win over the former UFC champion, but also the dumb luck of sitting exactly aligned with the spot in the ring where the knockout went down. From where I was sat, I never actually saw Fedor’s fist. I saw Arlovski, back turned to me, suddenly vault toward Fedor, then do a 180-degree turn in midair and crash to the mat with a terrible thud as the crowd exploded. When I replay this scene in my head, it slows down as if in the climactic scene of an action movie.
As Luke notes above, there are plenty of Fedor highlights from which to choose. But when you’re lucky enough to see a Fedor knockout up close and personal (and one that reminds you that you’re lucky to get to do what you do for a living), it’s a memory you never forget.