Downes and Fowlkes on decisions, bonuses and the UFC hype machine
From MMAJunkie.com (By Ben Fowlkes and Danny Downes February 16, 2014 5:00 pm):
In this week’s Trading Shots, MMAjunkie columnist Ben Fowlkes and former UFC/WEC fighter Danny Downes look at back-to-back events with record-setting numbers of decision finishes and try to figure out whether it’s possible to have technical, meaningful fights while still having some fun.
Fowlkes: I’m trying not to freak out here, Danny. I’m trying to tell myself that the last two UFC events, which included a combined 20 decisions in 24 fights, were just flukes. Not that I’m against decisions, per se – I’d argue that most of MMA’s greatest fights were ones that went the distance – but a lot of these fights have lacked what I’ll call a sense of urgency, which is my polite way of saying that they sucked.
What gives? Are we looking at the natural consequence of an event schedule so ambitiously expanded that it necessarily ropes in not-quite-ready-for-primetime players? And is the UFC’s decision to do away with KO and Submission of the Night bonuses in favor of the intentionally vague “Performance” bonuses only going to add to the problem?
Downes: First off, let’s get this whole bonus theory out of the way immediately. Even though “Performance of the Night” makes me think of a Broadway play, it has nothing to do with the recent string of decisions. Fighters may think about “Knockout of the Night” and “Submission of the Night” bonuses, but they don’t change the way they compete because of it. When Dana White gives you the pep talk after weigh-ins and tells you how much the bonuses will be, you might dream about what you’d do with it, but it doesn’t change how you’ll fight.
Winning is the only thing that counts. If a bonus comes along with that victory, that’s just … uh … a bonus. Do you really think that someone walking to the cage last night said, “Well, if I can’t get the knockout bonus, I think I’ll just cruise to a decision?” Different fighters have different styles and different levels of risk aversion. Look at Jamie Varner’s last fight against Abel Trujillo. He went out there swinging and earned some bonus money, but would you call that a tactical approach?
Wouldn’t it be more reasonable to say that MMA fighters in general have gotten better? The talent gap at the lower end of the pool has evened out. Everyone knows how to defend a rear-naked choke and everyone practices their muay Thai. Yes, there’s still a big difference between good and great fighters, but if two evenly matched fighters step in the cage together, aren’t they going to stalemate?
Fowlkes: I guess I hope they won’t. Ideally two evenly matched fighters would make for an exciting, competitive fight, though that hasn’t been happening too often lately. I’d prefer that the UFC keep trying rather than resorting to squash matches (like the one between Erick Silva and late replacement Takenori Sato) where a finish is basically guaranteed, but so too is the empty feeling that comes with leading lambs to the slaughter.
My question is, if your theory is correct and the fighters are all getting better, then why aren’t the fights themselves getting better? I’m not some guy from the “Just Bleed” crowd here. It’s not like I’m asking for bar brawls at the expense of technical expertise. The top two fights on Saturday night’s card might have gone to decision, but I enjoyed them both for their displays of skill and strategy. Most of the fights leading up to that point, however, were about as forgettable as they come. What I keep asking myself is, were the main and co-main events better because they were more meaningful, or were they were more meaningful because they featured better fighters?
Downes: It’s hard to divorce those options from one another, but I would argue that MMA fans and journalists aren’t as merit-based with their accolades as they would like to think. Do you remember when the movie “Inception” came out? It was a fun movie, but people would go out of their way to christen it the most cerebral movie ever when it really wasn’t. Why would they do this? Because if you enjoyed a movie like “Inception,” that means you’re smart. Last night’s main event was like the “Inception” release. People were tripping over themselves to discuss all the technical brilliance of this “chess match,” because liking Mousasi-Machida made you a “smart” fight fan. It was the MMA hipster class at its worst.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not trashing last night’s main event. I actually quite enjoyed it (probably because I’m so intelligent and appreciative of nuance and technique). The point is that people were walking into that fight with preconceived notions that it would be a striking masterpiece and they interpreted everything to support that belief. It’s what scientists call the confirmation bias. You can bash the hype machine all you want, but doesn’t it make you care more about fights? Isn’t the issue here more about promotion than ability? Isn’t all the buzz surrounding the Daniel Cormier vs. Patrick Cummins fight a perfect example of this?
Fowlkes: First of all, “Inception” was a good movie. At least it wasn’t another half-assed remake or 90-minute riff on a toy or comic book or SNL sketch, and I appreciate that. If “Inception” came on one of the movie channels right now (and it very well might), I’d watch at least 20 minutes of it. Similarly, if I saw Machida-Mousasi on replay right now, I’d at least watch long enough to see the lack of expression on Mousasi’s face when he gets kicked upside the head. If anything, that fight benefited from lowered expectations rather than elevated ones.
There was a time when five rounds of Machida sounded like a punishment. I didn’t hear too many people trying to sound smart back when they were complaining about this guy and his infernal obsession with elusiveness and octagon control. This time he got in there and got down. Dude even threw a flying forearm shiver there at the end. That’s the MMA equivalent of when Joseph Gordon-Levitt choked out those henchmen in a zero-gravity dreamscape.
It’s one thing to sell me on the idea of a fight. That’s what the UFC is doing with Cormier and Cummins, and it just so happens that the sales pitch is good enough to get people to ignore the fact that the fight probably won’t be very competitive at all. But that’s what I mean by the difference between meaningful fights and good ones. Cormier and Cummins? Not very meaningful. Not even much of a reason for it to happen, except that Cormier went to all this trouble to make weight and the MMA community seems to want to reward him with an easy paycheck just for that. If he wins (and come on, he will) it won’t change anything for him. For Machida, a dominant and strategic and yet still entertaining win over Mousasi actually meant something. I don’t need a gimmick to care about that fight. The fact that it helps determine who moves where in the division, that’s enough. Can’t we have that and have fun fights? Isn’t that the merit-based scenario you’re asking for?
Downes: I don’t know what the balance should be. It feels like a damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenario. People want “meaningful” fights, but trash the rankings system. At the same time, they call BS on fights where the two combatants aren’t evenly matched on the rankings scale. Many also criticize the Bellator tournament format, but isn’t that the best way to “determine who moves where,” like you ask?
When you book fights months in advance, injuries and other problems arise to mess up the plan. You say that you want the fights to mean something, but is that what the majority of fans want? I would argue that main motivation for fans is entertainment. Obviously it makes for a more compelling experience when the stakes are raised (playoff football > regular season football), but the Super Bowl has the highest stakes of all and no one was particularly entertained by this year’s game. Then again, we tried to have “fun” fights like Stephan Bonnar vs. Anderson Silva, but that didn’t work out too well for a variety of reasons.
Maybe the last two events have just been bad luck. You’d like to think that when two straight events set the record for the number of decisions, things will regress back to the mean. The one thing I do know, however, is that MMA has progressed a lot in a short amount of time. Maybe recent happenings are growing pains, maybe they’re signs of things to come. Whatever they are, we’ll all still tune in for the next performance.
For complete coverage of UFC Fight Night 36, check out the UFC Events section of the site. And for the latest on UFC 170, stay tuned to the UFC Rumors section of MMAjunkie.
(Pictured: Nicolas Musoke and Viscardi Andrade)