Signal to Noise: UFC on FX 7's best and worst
All the way from Sao Paulo, Brazil, we learned there's a Russian lightweight who is making a name for himself, a British middleweight who is ultra talented can't really win when it truly matters, and officiating in our lifetime is never going to improve.
Let's take a look back at Saturday's UFC on FX 7: Belfort vs. Bisping as we separate the winners from the losers, the best from the worst and the signal from the noise.
Most Sensational Reminder He's a Middleweight Threat: Vitor Belfort's Head Kick KO
He wasn't guaranteed a title shot with a win over Bisping, but the manner of victory is making everyone rethink whether or not that's the right call. For the second time since dropping to middleweight, Belfort stopped an opponent in the second round with strikes. For the first time ever in his career, he did it by setting it all up with a head kick. In other words, he isn't just beating respected talent at 185 pounds; he's doing it by demonstrating there are new wrinkles to his game. He's doing things at middleweight he hasn't done before at least from an offensive perspective. The ease with which he reaches the smallest weight of his career also makes one wonder whether his legendary cardio deficiency or ability to be overwhelmed over time in a fight might also no longer be the serious shortcoming of his game we all thought it was.
I don't know who is next for Anderson Silva and there are still tough tests for Belfort before we can give him another crack at the top, but I'm more excited to see him try it than I was before. If he can continue to augment his game into his thirties, he's worth another look.
Career Most Likely to Take After Hater Memes: Michael Bisping
I noted on Twitter after Saturday's main event I disliked trying to predict Michael Bisping fights. Several readers Tweeted me back wondering what was so hard about it. It's pretty simple, they noted: he wins everything but the most important fights. And in retrospect, they're absolutely correct. Bisping will be the UFC's most accomplished fighter to never earn a title shot unless something dramatic happens.
So why the difficulty in predicting the outcome of his fights? My own inability to make the correct choice, for staters. But beyond that, it's grappling with the weight of his limitations. Prior to this bout I believed he had a chance to overcome them because he was facing another fighter with fatal flaws and known weaknesses that actually dovetailed with his strengths. It also seemed like the narrative of his losses only happening when it truly mattered was overblown and the result of irrational Bisping dislike. Besides, the Brit can strike (in volume), scramble, wrestle and execute offensive of a range of levels. He also didn't display the same kind of mental fragility that has led to some of Belfort's own losses.
Ultimately, that didn't matter. The narrative of Bisping, however manufactured in its origins, is real. He really does lose when it matters most even if his skills and experience are considerable. Bisping's career isn't one worth hanging one's head about. He's done more than most will ever dream of accomplishing. But for the haters, critics and cynics, they were right even when some accused them of being mean, dismissive or wrong.
Best Reminder Nothing Is Ever Going to Change in Officiating: UFC on FX 7
We need to come to terms with the fact that in our lifetime, nothing is going to change in officiating. It's going to be bad and it's going to be bad everywhere. Perhaps the next generation of officiating talent will improve matters, but this one? It's hopeless. And we need to accept it.
We often hear the problem with judging or officiating is a function of poor experience or the wrong knowledge base. Either it's referees who've never worked a major show or it's boxing judges who were grandfathered in the MMA ranks. And while those problems are real, there's another reality everyone should be honest in facing: the current crop of experienced talent are hardly any better.
What we saw on Saturday were referees and judges with not simply several UFC events on their resume, but several years of UFC experience on the c.v. And what was the result? Incredibly poor stoppages, weird scores during decisions and a lot of the inbetween.
I do believe if the UFC took it upon themselves to certify judges under their own rigorous standards but were also certified by various state athletic commissions, that would improve performance. There are probably any other number of good solutions, not least of which includes the idea of the MMA community no longer looking at tenure as a measure of a referee's or judge's worth.
And that's really the core issue here. The majority of regulators don't think there's a problem or at least downplay the negative effects. Even if they believe the issue is problematic, there isn't much from a resources perspective they can do. Saturday was further a reminder tenure is positively zero guarantee of quality. In short: we are stuck. This is the reality in which we live and it won't change any time soon, if ever. Short of a major change now or a generational replacement (neither of which is a guarantee of anything), it wil not get better: not in Brazil, not in Europe, not in Canada, not in the U.S. Not anywhere. Welcome to this fresh hell.
Strongest Claim Staked: Khabib Nurmagomedov
Jon Fitch is one of the Russian's teammates at American Kickboxing Academy. He Tweeted after Nurmagomedov's victory that the Russian needed one more test before a fight with 'the sharks'. Ultimately, Nurmagomedov is his own man and apparently he wants Nate Diaz. Maybe he'll get the fight he desires. What I know for sure is that his performance on Saturday makes that conversation possible. Tavares has fought a formidable line-up of tough lightweights, but of all of Tavares' losses, this was the quickest in his career. There are still questions to be answered about Nurmagomedov, which is why I believe a fight with Diaz is premature. Regardless, he deserves a tough battle against a top-flight lightweight. More than anyone on Saturday's card, he proved was worthy of a step-up in the kind of fighter he has faced thus far in the Octagon.
Best Return From a Loss: Edson Barboza
If there's a prospect where there's hope for something more but also a recognition that his development is going to take time, it's Edson Barboza. The hard-hitting Brazilian ran into something of a road block against Jamie Varner in May, losing for the first time in his MMA career and handily so. Beating Lucas Martins isn't about proving he's ready for the division's elite, but it is about getting back on the horse. He needs time to groom his skills and on Saturday, he needed to prove he was in no way psychologically derailed. Stopping his fellow Brazilian and doing so in the rather violent way he did will do wonders for his self confidence and buy him more time to bring his skills up to speed. It was also proof the setback against Varner was as temporary as we'd all hoped it to be.
Least Impressive as a Developing Prospect: Ronny Markes
I want to like Markes more than I do, but he doesn't make it easy. He's a large, well-trained and athletic middleweight, but he never really applies those talents to stick it to his opposition. Markes isn't as bad as Diego Nunes, who fights in the most tactically-absent way I've ever seen at this level. He does have a purpose, but it's mostly about hanging on until something naturally happens. There's no urgency and little risk-taking even in a calculated way. If he is to move into anything even approximating a contender, he's going to need to step on the gas much more than he is now. All he's doing at the moment is coasting down hill with the car in neutral.
Most Questionable Value-Add: UFC on FX Franchise
With the changes coming to FX, perhaps this question will be answered for me: what, precisely, is the point of having shows exclusive to FX for a UFC main card? As best I can tell, it's to make up for the shortcomings in putting shows on FUEL.
Initially main events on FUEL featured top contenders where winners were once offered title shots. None of that has materialized and for reasons that are obvious: not enough people are watching. To be clearer, few can watch. Yes, FUEL needs compelling main events to sell tickets, but it has to have the viewership to merit putting the winner in a place to contend for a title after the fact. That's especially true in the case of a new or up and coming fighter who isn't already well known to the masses.
FX can correct for that by placing fights on a bigger platform. And by being on FX, they are able to make use of already more established names in their main event. But the problem ends up being an event like Saturday's where it's basically a one-fight card. There were other talented fighters to be sure. The UFC has many of them and it's almost impossible for them to create a show where there are no takeaways of significance.
FOX shows are about turning top stars into PPV draws. PPV is about selling the brand and fighters on the biggest stages. FUEL is about frontiering with new locations and interesting, new talent. Yet, FX isn't really a middle grade between FUEL and FOX, minus the main event. Saturday's main event probably wasn't enough to push the ratings needle and is only correcting for what FUEL can't offer. It's a sophisticated way to rob Peter in order to pay Paul, but ultimately makes little sense for the UFC's purposes.