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On a card with no shortage of compelling scraps, James Vick gets the biggest fight of his career in the UFC Fight Night 135 main event on Saturday in Lincoln, Nebraska. With a 9-1 record in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, Vick has long sought high-profile fights that can elevate his stature. That’s easier said than done in the lightweight division, where the talent pool is as deep as it gets and it’s not hard at all to get lost in the shuffle. Vick beat quality fighters like Joseph Duffy and Jake Matthews without getting a lot of credit from the larger fan base. That left Vick searching for the right opponent to move him into the top mix.
That opportunity finally came along in the form of Justin Gaethje. The former World Series of Fighting champion has made a big impact in the UFC in a very short time due to his crowd-pleasing style. Two of Gaethje’s three fights have been main events; all three won “Fight of the Night.” Gaethje’s all-action offense makes for an exciting fight every time out, and his fights pretty much always end violently. Gaethje has lost two straight against top opponents, so his motivation level is going to be extremely high. A win over Gaethje in a televised main event would finally be Vick’s opportunity to prove he is as good as the division’s elite fighters and that he deserves to continue to fight in prominent slots.
To hear Vick tell it, he’s taking on a punch-drunk idiot who walks forward into punches and is easy pickings for any high-caliber fighter. It’s certainly an interesting tact, completely burying the quality of what would be the biggest win on his resume. It’s reminiscent of the time Vick challenged the UFC to give him higher-profile fights, vowing he’d then use the leverage from those wins to hold up the promotion for a bigger contract. There’s a definite sharpness to many of Vick’s observations, but he hasn’t come to realize that many thoughts are strategically better left unsaid.
Trash talk is of course a big part of any individual combat sport. It pretty much always has been, and it’s hard to see that ever changing. However, it’s important to recognize the purpose of that war of words. It’s not to “win” a verbal battle with no prize at stake. Rather, the goal is to make the fight as big as possible and to make the fighters involved come across as larger-than-life stars. There is no part of the fight game that is more cooperative than the verbal battles that precede the physical ones.
This is something the savviest fighters have always recognized. Georges St. Pierre knew the game of promotion well. He’d let his opponent talk trash and then he’d play the aggrieved gentleman offended by the terrible things his scurrilous foe said. It worked to perfection against the likes of Matt Serra, Dan Hardy and Josh Koscheck. Those opponents knew their role, too: It was to say nasty things about St. Pierre that would rally St. Pierre’s fans behind their favorite. The goal was not to tear down anyone before the fight but to set up an easy narrative for the fans to invest in.
Occasionally, a fighter is so skillful with his words that he is able to demean the ability of his opponents and still get away with it. Conor McGregor fits the bill in this regard, as he has spent much of his career talking about how much better he is than the opposition. There are two keys to this, however. First, the fighter needs to come off as such a larger-than-life star that the opponent is a secondary consideration. Just watching this star is an attraction in and of itself. Second, the fighter needs to be competing against the best. McGregor could get away with badmouthing the featherweight, lightweight and welterweight champions because, ultimately, they were the champions. No matter what McGregor said, fans knew Jose Aldo was the real deal.
Vick, unfortunately, does not succeed on either of these counts. He is not a larger-than-life personality that has fans gravitating towards his fights. Gaethje is the A-side for this fight. Telling fans the A-side isn’t special doesn’t help the B-side much. Moreover, Gaethje has lost his last two fights. Some fans are going to be receptive to Vick’s argument that Gaethje isn’t that good, which is an argument Vick shouldn’t want fans to buy into. As Gaethje has pointed out, if Vick loses, he will have lost to a bum. Plus, even if he wins, the win isn’t half as impressive. It’s a lose-lose proposition.
That doesn’t mean Vick’s trash talk doesn’t serve some purpose. He has dissed Gaethje so thoroughly that their fight has a definite grudge match feel. It feels like neither man can afford to lose, raising the stakes. The problem is what happens after the fight. Vick has ensured that if he wins, it won’t be as big, and if he loses, it will be all the more devastating. That isn’t exactly the goal of fight promotion. Vick won the war of words, but it was ultimately a Pyrrhic victory.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.