Why UFC-Style Matchmaking Works and MMA Tournaments Do Not
There is something about the word "tournament" that makes MMA fans go bananas.
Maybe because the people who watch MMA today are the same people who grew up watching martial arts tournament movies like Enter the Dragon and Bloodsport.
For the younger generation, maybe it goes back only as far as Mortal Kombat.
Never mind that the general structure of matchmaking in the UFC works much like a tournament anyway, as winners advance to bigger matchups and losers go back down a step. If it isn't strictly called a tournament, fans don't care.
Call it a tournament, though, and fans act as if it's the greatest thing that ever happened.
Whatever the reasons for this tournament love, count me as one of the outsiders who think that however appealing the idea of tournaments are, they don't work in MMA.
Over the past few weeks attention has been centered around three main pieces of MMA matchmaking.
1. The Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix "tournament"
2. Frank Edgar vs. Gray Maynard 3
3. Brock Lesnar vs. Junior Dos Santos
Immediately after the Strikeforce tournament was announced, tons of people already began criticizing the tournament by noting all of the possible issues that could derail the tournament. Among other concerns, the main ones include:
1. The possibility that M-1 Global might once again attempt to renegotiate Fedor's contract mid-tournament.
2. The chance that Fedor's notoriously fragile hands might prevent him from continuing in the tournament.
3. Speculation that Alistair Overeem might want out of the tournament if it interferes with his expected participation in the 2011 K-1 World Grand Prix.
4. The possible issues with Josh Barnett getting a fight license given his troubles with the California State Athletic Commission and previous positive steroid tests.
All of these concerns are legitimate ones, but while they're the most obvious ones, but when it comes to tournament logistics, they're just the tip of the iceberg.
Consider those two announced UFC matchups.
FranK Edgar vs. Gray Maynard 3 was never supposed to happen.
At least, not this fast.
Originally, the plan was for the winner of their second fight at UFC 125 to face the winner of the bout between Ben Henderson and Anthony Pettis.
Instead, Edgar and Maynard put on one of the greatest title fights in UFC history and an immediate rematch instantly became the most desirable matchup.
Luckily, the UFC isn't tied down by any rigid tournament structure, and Dana White was able to change the gameplan.
Unfortunate for Anthony Pettis? Yes, but ultimately it was the right thing to do.
Much like with Pettis, Junior Dos Santos was promised his own title shot at Cain Velasquez, but when the severity of Velasquez's injury became apparent, his new opponent became Brock Lesnar.
My point is this: Here are two examples of when the UFC tried to plan just one single fight in advance.
No ambitious tournament was planned, just one title challenger to face one champion. And even then, with far less-ambitious plans, changes in direction were required.
Add in Jose Aldo's injury delaying his UFC debut, and you can see just how difficult it is for a fight promotion to get their ducks all in a row even under normal conditions.
Now imagine what it would be like if the UFC had to always stick to a rigid bracket structure planning two fights in advance. It would hardly ever work.
Now look at Strikeforce, where an eight-man tournament has become the centerpiece of their 2011 forecast.
Even if Fedor stays healthy, M-1 stays quiet, Alistair stays interested, and Barnett's pee stays yellow when subjected to commission testing, can we really be so sure that the tournament will go off without a hitch? Or that it will all go down in 9-10 months as planned?
Lets imagine that Alistair Overeem beats Fedor in a five-round war by controversial decision. Do we then have Overeem go on to face someone like Sergei Kharitonov or Brett Rogers in the finals?
Heck no! We should have the ability to force that rematch.
So, no, tournaments don't work in modern MMA.
For that matter, they didn't even work in the early stages of MMA.
Want proof? Go back and take a look at UFC 3.
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