The 10 Biggest Matchmaking Mistakes in MMA History
When an event like UFC 161 gets repeatedly slapped with injuries, but still remains an interesting night of fights, it's tough not to praise the alleged geniuses behind the UFC's matchmaking. That said, there are still way more than a few instances where you can ask “what were these guys thinking?”
Over the last 20 years of MMA, we've seen some amazing fights, but we've seen just as many that simply shouldn't have happened.
Whether these flops were wasted opportunities, gross mismatches or just plain-and-simple incompetence, there are plenty of candidates for this list. That said, which fights qualify as the worst matchmaking mistakes in MMA history?
Find out right here!
Kyle Maynard vs. Bryan Fry
The story of Kyle Maynard, a quadruple congenital amputee, is one worth being told, and it was done beautifully by ESPN last year (you can check it out here).
That said, something ESPN intentionally avoided bringing up was the fact that Maynard owns an 0-1 record in MMA. The reason, in all likelihood, was because that portion of his lengthy tale of beating the odds was basically too disheartening to bring up in what was meant to be an inspirational piece.
To quote our own Jonathan Snowden (who was in attendance for the fight),
Maynard, a congenital amputee is without a doubt a courageous man. But when you have to carried to the cage on the back of one of your cornermen, when you are backstage and they can't get a glove to stay on your hand because of your physical limitations, the cage isn't the place for you. It just isn't.
This was one of the most depressing nights of my life.
When somebody enters the cage with a serious physical handicap, it's hard not to have “freak show” cross one's mind.
It's a concept Nick Newell, a single amputee, still struggles with, despite his 9-0 MMA record. The difference, of course, is that Newell is capable of actually fighting in a cage.
Maynard isn't, and when you head into a commission-free corner of America's deep south in order to set up a fight, maybe you should take the hint. All the involved parties, truly, should've realized that they would ultimately just show off how serious his limitations are.
Not Making Fedor Emelianenko vs. Alistair Overeem Happen
Say what you want about the UFC and the untenable matchmaking of late. More often than not, though, they end up putting together the fights that fans want.
Fedor Emelianenko vs. Fabricio Werdum is the epitome of doing the exact opposite.
The absurd set of circumstances that led to Emelianenko joining Strikeforce has been rehashed many times and is ultimately irrelevant to this list. What is very relevant, however, is what happened once he ended up with the California-based former UFC competitor.
Fans want to see the best fight best, so when “The Last Emperor” wound up in Strikeforce, he logically should have been matched against their top dog, Alistair Overeem. Right?
For reasons that remain vague, it didn't work out that way, and Emelianenko would instead fight the 10-0 at the time (but 12-5 (1) these days) Brett Rogers. Whatever, though he still successfully punched Rogers' head clean off his body, which just has to set up for that fight with Overeem...right?
Once again, for reasons that remain vague, Emelianenko would next go on to face Werdum. The rest is history, as the Russian legend would lose to Werdum, then to Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva and then to Dan Henderson.
Strikeforce invested millions in Fedor and got very little in return. While they had the chance to either capitalize on the fact that they had, perhaps, the most popular fighter in MMA at that point, or build up their own homegrown heavyweight star as the greatest heavyweight in combat sports, they ultimately did neither.
Not pitting Fedor against their best-known heavyweight ultimately left money on the table, and left fans wondering “what if?”
Sean Gannon vs. Branden Lee Hinkle
We all remember when the UFC tossed credibility to the wind to cash in on Kimbo Slice. It's honestly hard to blame them, because the Bahamian brawler almost let EliteXC print their own money for a little while there.
Their first crack at cashing in on Kimbo, though, didn't actually involve Kimbo at all. It involved the “Kimbo Killer”, Sean Gannon.
A police officer who bested the street fighter in a gym's back room, Gannon became an overnight sensation online when the video went viral. UFC execs would be among the hits, and would set him up for a fight at UFC 55 despite having just two professional MMA fights and essentially no noteworthy training.
The result was a lopsided beatdown from no-namer Branden Lee Hinkle that allegedly landed Gannon in the hospital for three weeks. While Dana White would childishly brag about this while discussing EliteXC, there's no way around the fact that the UFC still irresponsibly gave him a shot in the Octagon without a real resume.
In many ways, this should have served as a cautionary tale for promotions that MMA really, truly, is a dangerous sport that should only feature well-trained professionals. Alas, few heeded that message.
Bellator's Non-Title "Super" Fights
Bellator's rigid tournament format gave them a never-ending stream of relatively legitimate title contenders for many years. That said, fighters want to fight (and their contracts usually demand it), and Bellator only had so many shows and so many fighters on roster to juggle.
This made for an awkward balancing act, where Bjorn Rebney and Co. had to find a way to maintain the legitimacy of their bread-and-butter tournaments, while still providing their champions with three fights a year.
The result? Awkward, unsatisfying, non-title “super” fights, often between their champions and one-and-done free agents plucked from the UFC's past.
Very, very few of these fights were especially exciting on-paper, and taking the belt off the table sucked even more intrigue out of them.
While most of these were as lopsided as a commission would allow (Hector Lombard vs. Jay Silva being the best example), MMA is a sport where anything can happen. On three separate occasions, Bellator's champions would make the organization look foolish.
Christian M'Pumbu, the promotion's first light heavyweight champion, lost to journeyman Travis Wiuff. Eduardo Dantas made Tyson Nam an overnight sensation by losing to to him at a Shooto Brazil event. Most recently, Zoila Gurgel was choked out standing by Jessica Eye in what would end up being the strawweight champ's final fight with the promotion.
Suffice it to say, all three of these losses wound up being a hard shot to the credibility of the promotion.
Thankfully, this practice was nixed shortly before Bellator began airing shows on Spike. However, reestablishing the value of their belt remains a work in progress.
BJ Penn vs. Matt Hughes I
Few fights did more damage to the UFC than this one.
Following B.J. Penn fighting Caol Uno to a draw at UFC 41, which left the lightweight throne painfully vacant, the UFC had another problem on its hands. They had run out of contenders for to-that-point-dominant welterweight champion Matt Hughes.
Out of equal parts necessity and a “what could possibly go wrong” mentality, the UFC decided to throw together a match between Penn and Hughes in a pairing that made very close to no sense.
Penn, at this point, had never competed as anything other than a lightweight and, once again, his most recent UFC fight was a draw with Uno (who, at that point, owned a humble 3-3-1 UFC record). Worse yet, the fight with Uno was just his most recent fight in the UFC. He actually fought Takanori Gomi just months earlier in Hawaii at Rumble on the Rock 4.
Still, for whatever reason, the UFC turned their matchmaking into a game of Perfection. They put the square peg into the circular hole and, boom, it exploded in their face.
Penn practically embarrassed Hughes, outmaneuvering the bigger, stronger fighter on the ground and choking him out in the first round.
Penn walked out of the Octagon with the belt, taking it with him all the way to Japan, where he signed up with K-1 MMA. This left Dana White fuming, and left the UFC with two vacant championships.
This hurt Hughes' drawing power and left the UFC without a potential star in Penn. Booking Penn at welterweight also completely emptied their lightweight division of any noteworthy stars, forcing them to disband it for three years.
The Chad Mendes Affair
The UFC's featherweight division is stacked in a way we've rarely seen. At this time, there is not one, not two, not three, but four legitimate title contenders for Jose Aldo.
This, however, is not at all thanks to the UFC's suits.
For whatever reason, the UFC seems to have made a hobby of actively sabotaging one of their strongest divisions by slamming its top ten fighters with absurd mismatch after absurd mismatch. While there are probably a dozen different examples, the fighter most consistently screwed over by this is Chad Mendes.
While the heavy-handed wrestler has been ranked among the top three fighters in the division for almost three full years now, he has been matched against legitimate no-names for the last year.
Among the fighters Mendes has been paired with over the last year are Cody McKenzie (who was making his featherweight debut with a 1-2 record in the UFC at that point), Hacran Dias (in just his second UFC fight), Yaotzin Meza (in his UFC debut) and Manny Gamburyan (who is 1-3 in his last four UFC fights).
Sean Shelby, the UFC's matchmaker for all its sub-155 lbs fighters, may have finally caught on to this, and most recently matched Mendes against Darren Elkins, and has him currently booked to fight Clay Guida.
That said, this series of events was a genuine disservice to the UFC's fans, to Mendes himself and to every fighter who may have benefited from fighting Mendes.
Mariusz Pudzianowski vs. Tim Sylvia
When Massachusetts first legalized MMA, most fans wondered how quickly the UFC would be able to set up a show in Boston. What usually happens in these situations, though, is a smaller regional promotion will put something together first.
For the Bay State, that show was Moosin: God of Martial Arts, and they had a huge headline fight in mind.
With Massachusetts hosting a large Polish population, they brought aboard the mammoth strongman, Mariusz Pudzianowski. His opponent? Former UFC heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia.
On paper, this was as utter a mismatch as possible, and honestly may not have been approved by a better-seasoned commission.
While Sylvia had a 2-4 record over his last six fights (including losses to Emelianenko, Randy Couture, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Ray Mercer), he was still commonly ranked as a top-ten heavyweight. Pudzianowski, meanwhile, was just 2-0 in his MMA career, with minimal training in any form of combat sport.
The results showed just how drastic the difference was between them.
Pudzianoswki shot for a takedown early, and that proved to be how long his gas tank could take him. He was winded in less than two minutes, and after some less-than-expert clinching, Sylvia maintained separation and landed hands with no response, finishing his green opponent with little trouble.
Why these two were matched together is hard to peg.
Granted, name-brand super heavyweights are a rarity (there are four in the world, basically). However, the massive crowd that appeared to cheer on Pudzianowski wasn't there to see high-level MMA (which is actually odd in retrospect, as the card was home to many fighters who went on to be relevant).
Having Pudzianowski open up a can while having Sylvia (if they still wanted him, since, again, this was the Pudzianowski show) face off with a UFC washout made much more sense.
Ross Pearson vs. George Sotiropoulos
Strictly looking at the actual matchup, this fight was just fine. What made this a dumb matchup was that these two middling lightweights (well, a middling lightweight and at-the-time featherweight) ended up coaching a season of The Ultimate Fighter opposite each other.
The Ultimate Fighter: The Smashes was a season in the same niche as TUF9, but pitted fighters from England against fighters from Australia.
Trying to brainstorm possible coaching options is a tall order, as there are only a handful of UFC fighters from either country, and the few that exist don't really line up division-wise. The bigger problem, however, was the struggles both fighters had been facing in their most recent outings. To quote myself:
Pearson, the lightweight winner of TUF9, has not been especially great since the hot start to his UFC career. He is 2-3 in his last five fights and, for most fighters, another loss would be grounds for termination...
Sotiropoulos is in a similar boat. After winning his first seven fights in the UFC, he lost to Dennis Siver and Rafael dos Anjos. While a 7-2 record is great, a three-fight losing streak is rarely forgiven in the UFC. What makes this more awkward is that Sotiropoulos is a lightweight, while Pearson dropped to featherweight last year.
These two fighters should, technically, be fighting for their jobs. Instead, they are in position for an enormous bump in fame...Most seasons of TUF offer a trampoline for already-established fighters to raise their profile by coaching. This is not the case here.
By the way, if you're still stumped on what the coaching pair should have been, the correct answer is Hector Lombard vs. Michael Bisping.
Pedro Rizzo vs. Dan Severn
Back in 2000, Pedro Rizzo was the only heavyweight contender the UFC had. No, seriously.
Couture was in RINGS at that point. Mark Coleman, Vitor Belfort, Ken Shamrock and Don Frye were all in Pride. Tank Abbott was in the WCW.
Eventual champions Ricco Rodriguez, Andrei Arlovski and Josh Barnett were yet to make their promotional debuts.
Rizzo would fight then-champ Kevin Randleman at UFC 26, but came up short on points after five rounds. In a sign of both the times and the major struggles the UFC was facing towards the end of the SEG era, Rizzo still found himself booked to headline UFC 27 just three months later.
But who the hell was going to fight him? Seriously, there was just plain nobody else.
Enter, of all people, Dan “The Beast” Severn.
While Severn is unquestionably one of the best fighters of the 1990s, his last UFC fight at that point was a losing effort to Coleman at UFC 12 in 1997. His last appearance in the Octagon, though, was actually as a referee.
Most people saw the fight as a washed up old man facing a younger, stronger killing machine. The fight would pan out exactly that way.
Rizzo had Severn unable to stand after 93 seconds of unanswered leg kicks, with each thud sounding like an announcement from SEG that they simply couldn't match the quality of fights that were being shown in Pride.
The UFC's matchmaker at the time, John Perretti, would publicly go on record criticizing the fight and insisting he had no part in it. That's just about all that needs to be said for how bad of a mistake this fight was.
Gilbert Melendez vs. Rodrigo Damm
The big knock on Gilbert Melendez, which still persists to this day, was that he was coddled and fed weaker opponents throughout his Strikeforce career. Even though I have had Melendez ranked among MMA's top three lightweights for a good while now, that's simply an undeniable fact.
Strikeforce, on a few occasions, fed Melendez in a way rarely seen in high-level MMA. His fight with Rodrigo Damm is the most egregious example of this.
Melendez was coming off a loss to Josh Thomson, and was on the wrong end of a hometown decision to Mitsuhiro Ishida about a year earlier. While that was, perhaps, the roughest stretch of Melendez's career, Damm was a legitimate no-name.
Damm fought in various promotions around the world, but had just one significant win (over Jorge Masvidal), and was coming off a submission loss to Eiji Mitsuoka. In spite of that, Damm found himself fighting Melendez for the Strikeforce interim lightweight championship in his first (and only) fight with the promotion.
Melendez, without much trouble, would knock Damm out in the second round of one of MMA's most clear-cut squash matches. Damm would stay in seclusion until reappearing years later on TUF: Brazil as the show's wily veteran.
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