Well folks, the dust has now settled from the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s first foray into mainland Europe, with UFC 99: The Comeback drawing 12,000+ to the Lanxass Arena in Cologne, Germany. Dana White and company are banking on their aggressive strategy on international promotion, and last weekends event offered a mixed bag of results and predictions for the future of Zuffa’s worldwide game plan. The card did not disappoint on the fighting side of the equation, however, and fans watching live and around the world were treated to some excitement, some intrigue, and some controversy in equal measure. What does it all mean? I’ll get to that, but I would be remiss if I didn’t start off with...
A Shout Out to Joe Silva
That’s right, the UFC matchmaker himself, the Commissioner Foley of MMA’s biggest brand (an obscure reference to a pro wrestling story line from over a decade ago... this is off to a good start) and the man with the 2nd hardest job in the MMA world (I’ll get to who has the hardest job later). Internet fans the world over tend to heap criticism on Mr. Silva and the company at large for some of their matchmaking decisions, all the while forgetting just how headache inducing a job being the UFC "booker" must really be. Dealing with an army of agents and managers everyday, juggling schedules and injury times and the egos of the fighters while trying to book almost 20 full fight cards a year with provocative, exciting contests. It's a tough job, a lot harder than banging your gavel and calling for a Lingerie Match (Okay, enough with the Foley references). The UFC’s European cards tend to draw a lot of fire for lacking superstar attractions or title fights, and this past weekend’s event was no exception. Headlined by two popular, if not superstar fighters removed from any title picture and competing at an imaginary catch weight class of 195lbs, fans cried foul claiming another lackluster European UFC card. Alright, so it wasn’t Silva/St-Pierre (you're saving that one for Toronto in 2010... right, Dana?) and it wasn’t an insanely top heavy card like the upcoming UFC 100, but for my money, every fight televised was both intriguing and exciting. The UFC offered an unprecedented (to my mind) six main card bouts, and each one was an intriguing toss-up that would answer lingering division questions. Toss in the Davis/Hardy grudge match and the guaranteed fireworks main event in Franklin/Silva, and you had a great card that was well worth the price of the pay-per-view. So props to you, My. Silva, and keep up the good work. As the saying goes (or doesn’t, I don’t really care ) you keep making them, I’ll keep watching them.
The main story coming out of UFC 99 has to do with judging, and the final verdicts rendered in some close bouts. Now, I said Joe Silva has the 2nd hardest job in MMA, because judges (and referee's, to an extent) have it hardest. Yep, the Jeff Mullens and Cecil Peoples of the world have the toughest, most thankless job in all of the sport (and by the way, that is the last time I throw anything resembling sympathy or support Cecil People’s way). Usually starting off as boxing judges working for an athletic commission, they are thrust into a very different sport with much different judging criteria and then called upon to make a judgment that is either so blindingly obvious anyone could make it, or so close that any verdict they render is bound to be controversial. Sitting cage side, without the benefit of instant replays or Joe and Mike’s commentary, they have seconds at the end of a round to make a decision one way or the other that must stand for all time. That's a lot of pressure, and its no surprise that a judge will slip up every so often (or in Mr. People’s case, get it right every so often). I lump referees in here with judges in the "most thankless task" bracket of the MMA world, because they share a very similar job description, and likewise come from a boxing or other sporting background and are thrust into a world they may not fully understand (Dan Mirgliotta anyone?). What makes me slightly more sympathetic to referees is that in their case, they (ideally) are not the ones who end the fight. Fighters are. They are simply there to make it official. A good referee, like a Big John McCarthy (not the same without you big guy) simply appears at a point, like a submission, knockout, or dominant beating, and makes what is already obvious official, while preventing permanent injury. Their job is fighter safety, above all, and unlike a judge, whose job inherently is to decide who won the fight, their job is simply to see no one gets hurt. Of course, sometimes a referee can make a blindingly bad call that may cost a fighter a fight, but in that case (barring some extreme circumstance) the fighter him/herself must share some of the blame. Too early a stoppage on that ground and pound? Well, Mr. Ultimate Fighter, your opponent shouldn't have been grounding or pounding you in the first place. Not actually unconscious from that Peruvian Necktie? Shouldn't have let yourself be put in any vaguely sexually sounding choke holds. Questionable calls exist, but if you, as a fighter, let a fight go to a point where the referee even questionably could call the fight, you share some of the blame for letting that happen. Now, no question that sometimes an eye poke or a low blow will go unnoticed by a ref, and it's an undeniable shame, but stuff like that is common to all combat sports and you just have to roll with it (says the guy not getting the finger in the eye or the foot in the bag). Conversely, there is no excuse if the ref is involved in a thrown or fixed bout (looking at you again, Dan). He's no longer a referee, even a bad one. He's a criminal.
Whew. Now that my tangent is over, back to the topic at hand. Three fights at UFC 99 drew criticism for their outcomes, so I’ll give some brief thoughts on my own interpretations on each and how justified the decision was in each case.
Spencer Fisher vs. Caol Uno : Ok, so it wasn't Fight of the Year, but Spencer Fisher put on a workmanlike performance against returning Japanese star Caol Uno, fighting off takedown attempt after takedown attempt to eventually take the UD. Following the loss, reports have circulated online that Uno's trainers are none too happy with the decision, pointing to his superior aggression and control as factors that should have won him the contest. While I see their point, in my view takedowns and takedown attempts only matter to a point - what you do to your opponent once he is down as equally as important as getting him there in the first place. Uno pressed the action the whole fight, but only really saw success with his strategy in the closing minutes of the third frame, where he mounted "The King" at will and landed some effective strikes.
The Verdict: For every time Uno scored a takedown, Fisher would rise to his feet again, and landed the more damaging strikes over the course of the contest. 29-28 Fisher. Fair call by the judges.
Rematch Potential: Remember those magic eight balls? Remember the answer, "Outcome not likely". Sounds right. Uno may be facing unemployment so soon following his return to the shark tank of today's UFC.
Marcus Davis vs. Dan Hardy: Now were getting interesting. The grudge match for the ages, with the added bonus of said grudge being real and not a product of the UFC marketing machine. Dan Hardy put his rising star status on the line against tough test Marcus "The Fake Irishman" (Hardy's words) Davis, a tough and skilled top 10 welterweight fighter. With Davis' boxing background, Hardy's pre-fight training with noted boxing coach Freddie Roach and the reams of trash talk flying back and forth between the two men in the weeks leading up to the bout, this had "Fight of the Night" all over it and it didn't disappoint. Wild back and forth slugfest that saw both men eat their share of leather before the judges gave Hardy the split decision nod. Davis was none to pleased with that verdict, refusing even to shake Hardy's hand after the decision was announced and talking long and loud about it to any press outlet that would listen. Can't really blame Davis, though. Its always hard to swallow a razor close decision that didn't go your way, and even harder when its against a lesser ranked fighter you talked endless reams of trash about.
The Verdict: When the final bell sounded, I knew we were probably looking at a close split one way or the other. The first round I gave to Davis pretty cleanly, with his takedown, mount and superior ground control. The second round is much tougher, with Hardy landing a clean knee that nearly pulled the pin on the "Irish Hand Grenade". Davis showed his trademark heart in recovering immediately, getting a solid guard and latching on several tight armbar attempts. Back on the feet, Davis landed some power shots of his own before securing another takedown. In the final frame, boxer Davis again impressed with his array of submission attempts, this time attacking the legs of Davis. Hardy eventually got a takedown of his own and landed a nasty elbow, opening a gash on the nose of Davis. Overall, I score the first two rounds to Davis, and the third to Hardy based on damage inflicted. 29-28 Davis.
Rematch Potential: High. Higher then Joe Rogan... uh, doing just about anything (that's a compliment, Joe). A razor thin decision between two fighters in an exciting bout where both legitimately hate each other. I see big dollar signs in a rematch, especially if it were broadcast as the main event of the UFN or an Ultimate Finale. Built in storyline, past controversy, and guaranteed fireworks. Impossible to pass up. Look for this to happen before the end of the year, especially if Davis can get back on the winning trail in his next fight.
Rich Franklin vs. Wanderlei Silva: Though both guys are a couple of fights removed from any title picture, and the contest was fought at an imaginary weight class, the 195 pound catch weight tilt between "Ace" and "The Axe Murder" was nonetheless an intriguing match-up, one neither guy could really afford to lose despite the above stated meaninglessness. Hey, this is the UFC, and losing main events against huge names is always a bad thing in the UFC regardless of anything else. In the end, it was Franklin, relying on his superior reach, technical kickboxing, and conditioning, who received the unanimous nod from the judges, much to the displeasure of the 12,000 angry Germans live in attendance, and the "Axe Murderer" himself.
The Verdict: The key to success for Franklin coming into this fight was his technically superior striking, which he needed to use to keep Silva from turning the bout into his trademark slugfest and making Rich the next Keith Jardine. Franklin was all "aces" in this department, landing the crisper, more accurate strikes in the first frame and keeping Silva at bay with a multitude of strikes. Franklin also displayed his underrated ground proficiency, getting the mount on black belt Silva and landing some effective shots. In the second round, Franklin continued to find a home for his left kick and his jab, hitting Silva with plenty of both. Franklin effectively controlled the pace and range of the bout for most of the second round, frustrating the all out attack of Silva, until a wild right hand buckled Franklin and brought memories of the Anderson Silva blowouts to the minds of Franklin fans everywhere. Luckily, Franklin managed to endure the trademark Wanderlei flurry that followed, and both fighters were wobbly heading back to their corners. In the final round, it was the conditioning of Franklin that came to the fore, with Silva noticeably slower, while Joe and Mike speculated that the 12 pounds of weight Wanderlei cut the previous day (yikes) were taking their toll on his conditioning. Despite Wanderlei trying to get the crowd into it, Franklin went back to his game of effective striking from the outside to take the final frame. 29-28 Franklin.
Rematch Potential: Somewhere between Davis/Hardy and Uno/Fisher, perhaps closer to the latter. With both guys heading in different directions (Franklin back to 205, Silva to 185) the chances of their paths crossing again seems unlikely. For Franklin, the win gives a much needed boost to his career, which while not suffering was certainly stagnant, hovering between "TUF Coaching Rights" bouts with Henderson and imaginary weight division battles with Silva. Both are big names and made for exciting matches, but Franklin has done enough favors for the UFC. It's time to book him a 205 matchup that will solidly advance his career in that weight class. I'd go with the winner of the Keith Jardine/Thiago Silva tilt at UFC 102. As for Silva, all signs point to his continuing south to 185 despite his problems making the weight for this bout, though the loss here effectively kills any chance of his challenging Anderson Silva any time soon. Despite the intentions of the UFC, once again Rich Franklin has killed a potential opponent for Anderson Silva.
Cro Cops back...isn't he?
Mirko Cro Cop, fresh off a victory over...Hong Man Choi (make your own joke), calls Dana White out of the blue and asks for another shot at the UFC, despite his disappointing run in the promotion ending a little over a year ago. Against his better judgment, Dana agrees to sign the popular Croatian to a one fight deal. Mirko then handpicks his opponent, settling on Mustapha Al-Turk (notable for being the only man whose feet have left the ground vertically as a result of a low blow, courtesy of Cheik Kongo), a gimme fight if I ever did see one. Turk was once again the victim of an unfortunate illegal blow, as Cro Cop pulled his finger from Turk's eye before stamping him out in the first frame, to thunderous cheers and the hyperbole heavy commentary of Mike Goldberg. Cro Cop immediately uses the momentum of this win to leverage a new deal with Japanese promotion DREAM, leaving the UFC to basically suck it.
Wow. Turns out Mirko Cro Cop is actually Ari Gold.
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