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As much as you might want to forget it already, Bellator 149 was a reminder that classic freak-show fights will always creep their way into the contemporary MMA canon. Have you even stopped to consider that the leading candidate to next face “Kimbo Slice” Kevin Ferguson is 53-year-old former football star Herschel Walker?
As this sport goes, Bellator MMA President Scott Coker is not the only one cooking up a questionable brew, either. Did you know that former Pride Fighting Championships boss and current Rizin Fighting Federation chief Nobuyuki Sakakibara was in Brazil this week to meet with Wanderlei Silva about fighting back in Japan, despite “The Axe Murderer” being handed a three-year suspension in Nevada last week?
Yes, whatever awaits Slice and Silva next will almost assuredly reek of the worst incarnation of MMA freakery. However, lest you be soured on this sport’s absurdist nature, let me assure you that MMA’s carnival DNA doesn’t always need to be a disappointment.
UFC lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos this week broke his foot in training, killing his title defense against 145-pound champ Conor McGregor, at least for now. In a past era, with a fight with stakes so high, this would almost assuredly mean postponement. Instead, we’ve now reached a point where a fighter like McGregor is so integral to the success of an Ultimate Fighting Championship mega-card and so instrumental in its overall quarterly and annual bottom line that finding a replacement becomes the paramount concern.
In turn, we will be treated to McGregor taking on Nate Diaz at 170 pounds. Make no mistake, it’s worlds apart from what Sakakibara is trying to cook up with Silva, but McGregor-Diaz and Zuffa’s increasing affinity for fights like it, distinctly recalls Pride Fighting Championships. I don’t mean for the worse, either.
Given their combative personalities and outstanding offensive gifts, McGregor-Diaz is a lovely fight. It’s not perfect, but it’s the perfect response to the crisis that the UFC faced. Donald Cerrone just fought for the 400th time in the 12 months and had been wrecked by dos Anjos just two months ago. Meanwhile, Jose Aldo and Frankie Edgar were unavailable to step in at any weight. Belts be damned, McGregor-Diaz is the most scintillating option that can be put together in this moment, so we’re going to get it.
That last sentence, in a nutshell, was at the heart of the matchmaking during Pride’s salad days. I didn’t always appreciate it as much as maybe I should have, either. Ten to 15 years ago, when I was young and bold enough to enter online MMA arguments during the height of the UFC-Pride rivalry, I was quick to espouse my belief that, structurally and philosophically, the UFC’s product was superior to Pride’s. This had nothing to do with their respective rosters at the time, as Dream Stage Entertainment’s aggregate of talent was clearly superior. Rather, I felt that the UFC, by having a proper array of weight classes and a more defined competitive hierarchy -- one where the product was predicated on challengers fighting one another in hopes of fighting the divisional champion -- was more “sporting.”
This was a period when Pride’s annual grand prix tournaments, while providing classic bouts and indelible memories, often tasted bittersweet and seemed to allow the fights we craved to slip through our hands. Sure, Quinton Jackson’s destruction of Chuck Liddell in 2003 signaled his ascent to the 205-pound division’s mega-elite, but the world didn’t want to have to wait another four years for Liddell-Silva. Of course, especially as we celebrate the recently-departed Kevin Randleman’s memory, it was breathtaking and uplifting to witness him clobber Mirko Filipovic, but it still painfully postponed the “Cro Cop”-Fedor Emelianenko matchup we desperately sought.
My argument was typically met with cries of “UFC nuthugger!” However, it was no fundamental allegiance to the product. My motivation in watching prizefighting has always been the rather elementary question of “Who is the best fighter?” Even when Zuffa had an inferior roster to DSE’s, the UFC’s formula seemed more focused on answering that question.
It’s over a decade since then, and now, I feel a bit differently. It’s not that I want the UFC to start launching annual tournaments or anything like that, but I am more sympathetic to the product DSE put in the ring. Back then, even with the likes of Liddell, Tito Ortiz and Randy Couture, the UFC acronym was Zuffa’s real currency, and any money to be made in the Octagon trickled off of those three letters. Promotionally, it made it much easier for Dana White and Co. to dictate with relative impunity who would fight who, when and at what weight.
Conversely, Pride’s product relied on its biggest stars and sought to use them as often as possible, because that’s why its audience bought tickets and watched on Fuji TV. Title belts were nice trinkets, but by and large, Pride didn’t give a damn about its own title belts because its fans didn’t particularly care about them, either. Sure, blockbuster fights between stars like Fedor-Cro Cop, Silva-Kazushi Sakuraba or Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira-Bob Sapp would do bigger business, but in between those spectacles, the surest way to draw money and do it consistently was to use those half dozen or so superstars any way feasible.
Unlike the UFC back then but much like the UFC now, DSE had to make concessions to these fighters to do business. Maybe it meant taking on a bunch of their questionable teammates or protégés, like in the cases of Hidehiko Yoshida and Silva; or maybe it was constant politicking over money, like Fedor; or maybe it was constant politicking over money and opponents, like Cro Cop. Consider the 2006 open weight grand prix, Cro Cop’s defining MMA achievement. He essentially held out of each successive round for more money and the ability to pick the least difficult opponent every step of the way. Alas, DSE needed him. Fans didn’t pay to see a tournament; they paid to see the stars that filled the brackets.
The UFC brand itself still shines brighter than the vast majority of its roster but no longer its entire roster. The likes of McGregor, Ronda Rousey and Jon Jones have become legitimate sporting stars, an exclusive cabal responsible for the vast majority of the UFC’s financial success. It’s not just that these fighters can now call their own shots but rather the fact that their presence is too important to squander.
The flow chart for the UFC used to be fairly straightforward if a championship fight got screwed up. If an injured party was only mildly injured, postpone it. If it’s more serious, get a new challenger or an interim title on the go, assuming there are folks willing to take the fight. However, that flow chart becomes infinitely harder to implement in an environment where the USADA’s ramped-up drug testing and IV rehydration bans make large weight cuts on short notice more difficult. As a result, fighters have more bargaining power when accepting short-notice fights. Plain and simple, it’s harder for the UFC to bend top-level fighters to the company’s will.
This is how we wind up with McGregor-Diaz, and there ain’t a damn thing wrong it. A few years ago, we would be waiting until UFC 200 for McGregor-dos Anjos and forging ahead with Holly Holm-iesha Tate in the UFC 196 headliner. Those days are gone, and for the better, because more McGregor -- and fighters like him -- is good for MMA. All you cats who have spent years crying about Diaz being undercompensated, the Stockton, California, native himself included? He’s about to get the biggest payday of his life. He can buy all the nunchucks and katanas he wants.
In Pride’s heyday, DSE produced a ton of legitimate freak shows, deserving of the snarling term, which offered us neither sport or entertainment. It is fair that Emelianenko rampaging over “Zuluzinho” Wagner da Conceicao Martins on New Year’s Eve remains a punchline. The fact Emelianenko broke his hand in the process is a reminder of how injurious these idiotic spectacles can be. Are we better off having watched basketball player-turned-pro wrestler Paulo Cesar Silva lumber around the ring and try to hit Takashi Sugiura with a two-by-four, like a 7-foot-tall “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan? No, we are not. However, MMA is a sport of degrees and magnitudes, and when DSE didn’t push its open-minded matchmaking to the nth degree of absurdity, it could be quaint and refreshing. That’s the stuff that McGregor-Diaz is made of.
From its ad hoc construction and it taking place at welterweight to the essential vulgar nature of both individuals involved, McGregor-Diaz reeks of the carnival, right down to its core. It certainly is no freak-show fight. No, McGregor-Diaz is cut from the quirky cloth that gave us Mark Hunt atomic butt-dropping Silva on New Year's Eve on a few days' notice, Marcus Aurelio’s shocking upset of then-lightweight king Takanori Gomi and beleaguered light heavyweight Alistair Overeem destroying Sergei Kharitonov, setting in motion his stalwart heavyweight campaign.
McGregor-Diaz is not from the inane gene pool that gave us Don Frye-Yoshihiro Takayama or Semmy Schilt-Akira Shoji, however morbidly entertaining they might be. No, it’s the ethos that gave us a charming-if-lopsided Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira-Dan Henderson rematch. It put together chubby light heavyweight prospect Murilo Rua and veteran heavyweight Mario Sperry for arguably the greatest Chute Boxe-versus Brazilian Top Team fight ever and made Silva a no-brainer for an open-weight tournament.
No, it’s not the overwhelmingly necessary McGregor-Edgar fight, which may never happen at 145 pounds, nor it is a rematch against Jose Aldo. It’s not a lightweight title clash with Rafael dos Anjos. In a pinch, however, McGregor-Diaz at 170 pounds will do just fine. On paper, it doesn’t offer the competition that those other three bouts would, but we’re still being treated to one of the best fighters in the sport facing a perennially dangerous offensive antagonist who inhabits the two toughest divisions in MMA. Three months ago, we would’ve never dreamed of the pairing, yet Wednesday, their profane press conference worked its way through the glut of the western mainstream sports media.
McGregor-Diaz is oh so very 2016, but it still recalls the best features of the outside-the-box matchmaking that, on occasion, didn’t embarrass Pride but bolstered it. More than that, in a post-Kimbo-Dada world, it’s a reminder that not every trip to the carnival needs to be a truly frightening freak show.