Unsolicited advice for the UFC

When a UFC fight card coincides with a Bellator fight card, the choice should be obvious. And yet it’s not.

The UFC has the talent — by my quick count, 83 of the 90 top-10 fighters in the Sherdog rankings. At USA TODAY/MMA Junkie, which ranks 15 per class but only ranks men (come on, guys!), it’s 101 out of 120, and no non-UFC fighter ranks higher than seventh.

But Bellator, now under the leadership of Strikeforce founder Scott Coker, is going in a new direction that cleverly stakes out a couple of niches. If you don’t believe me, listen to Kid Nate and Luke Thomas in the return of their Tete-A-Tete segment.

This weekend’s Bellator card drew an average of 1.2 million viewers, peaking at 2 million (probably not coincidentally after the UFC pay-per-view card ended). UFC 180’s prelims drew an average of 624,000, peaking at 771,000. World Series of Fighting should have picked another weekend. (I haven’t seen estimates for the UFC PPV audience — it’s not an apples to apples comparison, anyway, because a PPV “buy” usually represents multiple viewers, and you have to figure in people who went out to see it at a local viewing spot. Plus, you know, you have to pay for it.)

It was a strange UFC pay-per-view card. For one thing, the prelims were mostly fighters from The Ultimate Fighter: Latin America, plus one women’s fight that promised (and delivered) a lot of action. The TUF season had generated very little buzz — the foreign installments aren’t really promoted in the USA.

The main card opened with a battle of sheer journeymen, Edgar Garcia and Hector Urbina. Then came Augusto Montano, a Mexican prospect making his UFC debut, for a predictable demolition of Chris Heatherly, who somehow managed to lose his only prior UFC fight by omoplata.

Only the last three fights looked like typical pay-per-view fare. Top-1o featherweights Ricardo Lamas and Dennis Bermudez were a combined 12-2 in the UFC coming into this bout. Welterweight Kelvin Gastelum, a surprise winner on The Ultimate Fighter 19 months ago, continued his rapid rise with a first-round finish of former contender Jake Ellenberger. Then Fabricio Werdum won the UFC interim heavyweight belt in a thriller against Mark Hunt, a compelling substitute for champion Cain Velasquez.

It’s not that the UFC is just coasting on its brand name. This was supposed to be the UFC’s big breakthrough in Mexico, and despite losing Mexican-American Velasquez to injury, it probably did the trick. As is the case with a lot of UFC cards, several fighters had to pull out with injuries, including Velasquez, Mexican star Erik Perez and both sides of an appealing bout between veterans Diego Sanchez and Joe Lauzon. At one time, the card was solid: Velasquez-Werdum (title bout), Gastelum-Ellenberger, Lamas-Bermudez, Sanchez-Lauzon, Perez-Marcus Brimage.

This is all part of the UFC going global. In 2009, the year of UFC 100, the UFC did 15 cards in the USA, two in Britain, one in Ireland, one in Germany and one in Canada. The Germany card was the first held in a country that didn’t speak (mostly) English since 2000. In 2014, the UFC has been to Brazil six times, with a seventh scheduled. It’s been to Macau twice. Three ties to Canada. Also to Singapore, Britain, United Arab Emirates, Germany, New Zealand, Ireland, Japan, Sweden, Australia, and now Mexico. These cards tend to have a bit of local flavor. And why not?

Bellator, despite a healthy dose of international talent on the roster, has only left the USA to go to Ontario. And Coker is putting together clever cards such as the one that drew a couple million viewers over the weekend.

The main event — Tito Ortiz vs. Stephan Bonnar — was a circus. Most fans surely watched out of morbid curiosity, and what they saw looked like this:

But if you tuned in ahead of the graybeards riding on the last few waves of their UFC glory days, you saw a few interesting bouts:

  • Interim lightweight champion Will Brooks outlasting former champion Michael Chandler
  • Joe Schilling knocking out Melvin Manhoef in a battle of kickboxers
  • Bellator veteran Mike Richman taking apart well-regarded UFC veteran Nam Phan
  • Light heavyweight motormouth, former Strikeforce champion and former college wrestling star King Mo (Muhammad Lawal) getting a TKO win over late fill-in Joe Vedepo

So Coker mixed a couple of “fun” bouts (Ortiz-Bonnar, Schilling-Manhoef) with a title fight and a couple of bouts with guys we’ve heard of.

Bellator isn’t out to take the No. 1 spot away from the UFC. But in its brief history, MMA has been better off with a solid No. 2. With Coker in charge, Bellator should have that position locked down for a while, at least in North America.

But even if Bellator isn’t a direct threat to the UFC, this weekend was a reminder that a lot of things aren’t quite right in UFC land. A couple of pay-per-view cards this year have drawn fewer than 200,000 buys. The Ultimate Fighter is no longer a ratings juggernaut. Standard & Poor’s says UFC parent Zuffa may see its profit drop 40 percent from 2013.

It’s not exactly time to panic. The UFC is going global, and that’s going to be costly and difficult. It’s still surely a good idea in the long run.

The U.S. audience, though, has the right to feel a little neglected when we’re seeing the likes of Heatherly, Hans Stringer and other fighters we don’t know on a pay-per-view card.

And the UFC quite rightly avoids “circus” bouts most of the time. Randy Couture’s demolition of boxer James Toney was a rare exception. The UFC is supposed to be about the best fighters gradually climbing the ladder to the top of the ranks. No reason it shouldn’t stick to its guns on that front.

My unsolicited advice goes back to the roots, a topic about which I wrote a book. Don’t look for it in bookstores. Or Amazon. Maybe in the cloud. I wrote about The Ultimate Fighter, and I think that’s where the UFC needs to get back to building its fighters.

The current season of The Ultimate Fighter is the best in years. That’s because the fighters already have a bit of a name, and they’re looking for a breakthrough.

The basic problem with The Ultimate Fighter is that the talent pool is tapped out. The UFC has so many good fighters under contract that it’s highly unlikely that a new fighter is going to have much of an impact. The days of Forrest Griffin winning the UFC belt a couple of years after winning the TUF title are gone. Gastelum may actually be the biggest success story of recent seasons …

… except when the UFC is building a new weight class. This season, they’re doing just that. And the winner won’t just be in the UFC — she’ll be the champion.

So fans like me can’t wait to see the next bouts. Aisling Daly vs. Jessica Penne? That’s quality. Rose Namajunas vs. Joanne Calderwood? That’s PPV-worthy.

TUF 14 had new weight classes — bantamweight and featherweight. TUF 18 had a few good fight veterans in the women’s bantamweight class, though Ronda Rousey’s diva attitude made it nearly unwatchable.

The problem is when TUF goes back to scouring the depths of the talent pool.  TUF 16 champion Colton Smith lost his next three fights. A couple of good fighters have come through — Gastelum has gone from the No. 13 draft pick on TUF 17 to a legit top-10 guy. But too many of the fighters are fleeting memories.

Back up to the basic problem: The UFC has too many fighters and not enough “names.” That’s where TUF comes in.

It’s time to put existing UFC fighters on TUF.

I’m not talking a replay of the “Comeback” season, in which guys who had been in the UFC got a second chance and fought for a title shot (which Matt Serra shockingly converted, beating Georges St. Pierre in an upset for the ages). But take some of the unknown guys who have had a couple of UFC fights and put them on the show. Offer up a headlining spot on a free Fight Night card as a reward.

We’ll get to know more fighters that actually have a chance of sticking around in the UFC. There’s no point in watching TUF if it’s pretty clear only a couple of the cast members are going to be around long enough to know their names.

That’s the simple fix. The other is to keep guys from getting hurt and wrecking PPV cards. That’s beyond a simple blogger’s ability to fix.

 

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