Sunday, September 7, 2008

UFC 88 - THAT EMPTY FEELING -- 9.07.08
Let us start by saying that we are in the category of die-hards that feel $40.00 per event is a bargain for even the most disappointing of UFC cards. But this was just one of those nights. There was the essentially boring matchup of Henderson and Palhares, to the seemingly lackluster performance from Matt Hammill. Then there was the main event which simultaneously shocked and disappointed virtually everyone in attendance (the sole exception of course being Mrs. Evans). This was one of the most forgettable UFCs in memory. In the cases of both losses from Palhares and Hammill, the disappointment stems from a severe strategic mistake – no willingness to take chances by either underdog. In particular Matt Hammill’s decision to abandon his wrestling strength and play into Rich Franklin’s still world class stand up game was baffling. With all the talent available to the Zuffa crew (AKA – the UFC), an ongoing point of criticism is the matchup decision making, which has been particularly poor of late. While the superiority of the talent pool, as well as the “show” quality remain undisputed, it is becoming increasingly frustrating for fans when several match-ups on any given card turn out in retrospect to have been bad ideas. While no one sitting at home had any idea that Palhares was going to offer nothing on the feet, it was the responsibility of the UFC to know that, and also to know that Dan Henderson was not going to be brought to the ground by this or any other middleweight. As Palhares was pure defense on his feet, it made for a boring fight. Likewise, for different reasons, the Franklin- Hammill fight was nearly as dull. In our humble opinion there was a seeming total lack of real desire on the part of Hammill, as well as a sort of mercy extended on the part of Franklin (either a true tentativeness due to the weight jump, or a wonderful example of how friendships makes for bad match-ups). And none of the aforementioned is actually the real reason why UFC 88 left its entire audience (both in attendance and at home) with a real empty feeling.
The real trouble came when an absolutely astounding one-punch knockout of Chuck Liddell by Rashad Evans left the Atlanta crowd and the Pay-Per- View audience with little more than a knot in their stomachs. Seriously, when was the last time that a main event with a highlight reel knockout left the crowd in attendance virtually silent? If you were watching last night, you know well the chill that goes up the spine when an absolutely shrill and shrieking voice of one woman is all that can be heard in the audience at a previously raucous show. That voice was from Mrs. Rashad Evans. And while no one would fairly say that she was wrong to be so vocal in her deserved excitement, the pure nuisance that was her screams is only symptomatic of a much deeper issue. The larger issue is the inherent schism that is growing parallel to the success of MMA as an alternative big league sport.
We have dealt with this topic before, and likely will again, as long as it looms large over the sport. We’re talking about the propensity for the sport to “jump the shark”. Happy Days analogies aside, it is the most crucial undercurrent in the MMA game, as it is the knowledgeable fans that have brought the sport to where it is, and it is the mass exodus of the die-hards that is most dangerous for the continued success of the UFC and its offspring. Put simply, when the knowledgeable fans check out, all that’s left are the “Johnny’s Come Lately” and the “Bandwagon Jumpers”. In theory, not too long after, the credibility of the sport is gone too, and all that’s left is a “reality” version of the WWE. If you think I’ve lost my train of thought, hang on, here is how last night’s main event comes into play--
After the first round Rashad’s corner could be heard saying “keep running, keep moving, it’s pissing him off, he’s getting pissed”. And that was true. Of course this was part of the game plan, and Rashad and his team deserve “mad props” for a perfectly executed strategy. But that’s also where the problem lies. While Rashad has never been a fan favorite, due to his frequent lapses into some very odd forms of showboating (last night’s Red Foxx imitation after the KO is classic Rashad). But for MMA purists, Rashad is a very frustrating case. His pure athleticism and wrestling skill are world class, and they are reminders of the dominant role wrestling has in the history and philosophy of the martial arts (not to mention wrestling’s place in modern day MMA). Rashad is on the one hand as genuine a combatant as has ever entered the octagon, and on the other hand, to die-hards, he is the devil. Not literally, but his win last night is going to have very strange ramifications for Evans, as he may end up losing popularity rather than gaining from a huge win. Liddell’s own obvious disgust with Evans game plan, both during the fight and after he woke up from it was real and understandable. There is something contemptuous about Evans pre-fight hype. About how he would stand and trade with Chuck in order to make for an exciting fight. Evans went so far as to proclaim he had successfully done just that, in the post-fight interview. But did he? Listen, despite Evans sometimes antics, he is a genuinely good guy with a heroic “come from nothing” story, and no one could blame him for not wanting to sit in front of a legend with plenty of TNT left in the right hand. But let’s be clear, Evans didn’t do that. His actual strategy of running from Liddell in the ring now looks well chosen, and the pre-fight mind games which mixed taunts and complete misdirection about his intention to “trade punches” was just evil genius. But was it honorable? Listen, we’re not suggesting anyone should feel bad for Chuck Liddell. (We’re quite sure he wouldn’t want it anyway). He’s made a small fortune on his ability to knock people unconscious, and it was his own doing that he played into Rashad’s hand by becoming very annoyed, very frustrated and very careless. He also either overestimated his own chin, or underestimated the power in Evans own wild looping right hand. But you have to feel for the guy for this reason – he made the fight. In other words, what kind of fight would this have been, had Chuck mirrored Evans and waited for him to be the aggressor? The answer is, there would have been no fight worth watching, and a riot may have broken out by unsatisfied fight fans. We’re trying to say, the more MMA (the UFC in particular) becomes a spectacle rather than a pure sport, the more the pressure and disadvantage is shouldered by the fighter with the bigger name. There was an inordinate amount pressure on Liddell to make this a fight. And he felt the pressure because it became obvious in the first minute of round one that Rashad was in no rush to engage. Shame on Liddell for letting this get to him, and for losing his cool. But can you blame him? This is the problem with a sport that is evolving from pure sport into pure spectacle. The perceived “show” becomes an influence on the outcome. And that is not a good thing. I’m not so sure that a Chuck Liddell locked in a cage with Rashad Evans without the bright lights, without the pressure to entertain the crowd, without the expectation of a highlight reel knockout of his own, with winning as the sole objective, would walk into a right hand from a wrestler not known for big right hand knockouts. This is the problem with fighters as celebs, with fights as spectacles rather than sport. And this is exactly why die-hards have no love for Rashad Evans. This is the danger-zone for the UFC. But is this where the real fans check out?? Well, not exactly. Thankfully we are a safe distance from the point of “no going back”. But the UFC and MMA in general should take the hint from last night’s audience and the surreal reaction to an incredible knockout -- near complete silence (except for one happy wife).

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