Perhaps the story of Roy Nelson vs. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira is one of lowered expectations—about the fighters and the kind of fight we think of as a UFC main event.
Nelson and Nogueira both come into UFC Fight Night 39 on the heels of losses, bonded by nothing aside from their middling promotional records (6-5 for Nelson, 5-4 for Nogueira) and similarly precarious positions in the heavyweight landscape.
Their matchup smacks of randomness. We expect few surprises. To the extent there are any assessable stakes, this fight shapes up as one that would be disastrous for either to lose while not being overly meaningful to win. It’ll be held on a Friday afternoon in a temporary stadium in the United Arab Emirates at a time when most Americans will be at work.
In other words, it’s strange to think of a fight like "Big Country" vs. "Big Nog" as the marquee attraction on a show booked by the world’s largest MMA promotion.
Even for a card that will air exclusively on UFC Fight Pass—an entity we’re all still trying to get a read on—this bout seems a specious choice as a headliner.
Perhaps it’s a sign of shifting tides. As the organization’s ever-inflating schedule increases its demands on fans and the roster, we’re all being forced to readjust the perception of what it means to be a “main event.”
Because Nelson vs. Nogueira? That ain’t it.
A former IFL champion, Nelson won The Ultimate Fighter Season 10 crown in 2009 but has never broken through as a top contender in the Octagon. His swing-for-the-fences style and lackadaisical attitude have won him fans, but back-to-back defeats to end 2013 likely signaled his permanent return to the B-list.
Nogueira is one of the greatest heavyweights of all time, but his glory days are far behind him. The former Pride champ and UFC interim titlist has fought just four times since February of 2010, going 2-2. He’ll be a first-ballot Hall of Famer when the time comes, but right now it feels like that time can’t come soon enough.
A year ago, a fight between these two guys would have been fortunate to earn a supporting role on a pay-per-view or cable TV main card. Now, through the wonder of technology and the UFC’s bold international expansion, it’s ascended to Internet main event status.
This is a natural byproduct of world domination, I suppose. The UFC plans to put on close to 50 events this year, and it needs warm bodies to staff them all. Particularly, it needs bouts with recognizable faces to stock the overseas cards for the new digital network that it’s trying urgently to sell to its hardcore fanbase.
If the fight company is going to fill the 2014 calendar to bursting with shows all over the globe (not to mention multiple broadcast platforms, at all times of the day and night), they’re not all going to be gems. Not every main event will be for a title. Not every one can have No. 1 contendership at stake. Not every one can even come equipped with particularly coherent storylines.
Some of them will have to be Nelson vs. Nogueira: an entertaining, though ultimately out-of-context scrap between two likable guys on the downside of good careers.
There’s obviously nothing wrong with booking a fight for fighting’s sake—that’s sort of what is done in this industry—but if all we want is to watch a disconnected bout between two hard-swinging heavyweights, we could get that for free on Friday nights on Spike or AXS TV. We could get it at the local bingo hall or even the local bar, depending on what kind of evening we want to have.
History has taught us to expect slightly more from a UFC main event. We expect meaning and well-defined consequences. We expect the biggest fight on the card to contribute somehow to the bigger picture—the eternal, company-wide search to find the best fighters in the world.
Or at least we used to.
Big Nog vs. Big Country doesn’t really do any of that. It’s just a fight—one we might watch if we can spare the $9.99 per month and don’t have anything else going on.
Again, that’s not a terrible thing.
But it’s not main event quality, either.