Let us get the obvious out of the way first: based on events that transpired in 2011, I am not especially interested in seeing Lyoto Machida -- or Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, for that matter -- face Jon Jones again so soon. The same would have held true for Ryan Bader or Brandon Vera had they emerged victorious Saturday at UFC on Fox 4.
UFC President Dana White had other ideas, however, and based on his knockout of Bader in the UFC on Fox 4 co-main event, it looks like Machida is going to get to the chance to avenge his loss to “Bones” approximately a year after he was choked out by the reigning champion last December. Of course, this is assuming Jones takes care of business against Dan Henderson at UFC 151; if he loses, “Hendo” against “The Dragon” is a much fresher proposition.
This is not meant to be a gripe about the UFC’s decision to recycle old contenders. As a matter of fact, the promotion deserves to be commended for taking a risk and coming up roses. By throwing four previous “Bones” adversaries into the proverbial Yahtzee cup and hoping at least one would fall out a viable title challenger, White was leaving himself vulnerable to a barrage of criticism. Imagine if the featured bouts had gone the way of UFC 149, a card that will likely go down as one of the worst in recent memory. If that had happened, White would have had a full-fledged disaster on his hands.
Instead, the much-maligned card was a smashing success. Forget about ratings, which will no doubt be diminished by the presence of Michael Phelps and the rest of NBC’s Olympic blitz, this all-action event was exactly what the promotion needed after a summer full of injuries and complaints of lackluster cards. The fact that it occurred on Fox made it even more significant. The more it impresses its partner, the more positive promotion the UFC figures to get from the network down the road.
“It was a great night. I sweat these shows like you don’t even know; they take months off my life,” White said. “But this night was great; they were great fights. Everyone delivered. I always want to have the best possible showing. I know how talented these athletes are and what they are capable of, and when they don’t do, it is disappointing.”
When White announced that the most impressive performer among the quartet of Rua, Vera, Machida and Bader would receive the next light heavyweight title shot in the days leading up to UFC on Fox 4, it seemed like a move to appease Fox. Injuries and withdrawals had taken the shine off the event, and the promotion needed to do something to generate interest and make the network happy. It did not matter that none of the four men in question had been particularly competitive against the current champ; this was about creating a buzz.
Initially, the reaction was largely negative when just Rua and Vera were part of the equation. However, thanks to a revision that included Bader and Machida in the title picture, the event had a distinctly big-time feel by the time fight night rolled around. It could be argued that Fox shows are the most important ones the UFC puts on, and the four fighters on the marquee suddenly had a tangible and significant carrot dangling in front of them.
If the stakes were not what they were, there is no guarantee the fights would have turned out the way they did. In hindsight, White’s decision to use UFC gold as bait for four light heavyweights with something to prove looks like a stroke of genius. If, months from now, Machida can somehow reincarnate himself as the unsolvable riddle he appeared to be during his title reign, it will look even better. Even if he does not, it will not diminish the excitement he helped produce at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
“You have this situation where everybody’s an expert. Everybody’s a genius. Everybody’s got an opinion. But you can’t put a number or a ranking or a rating on someone’s heart and determination,” White said.
White's words were in reference to Vera, who has appeared to be down-and-out on more than one occasion during his UFC tenure. After a spirited effort against Rua, “The Truth” appears to be revitalized -- as does the UFC on Fox brand. In the end, that is the most important lesson of the weekend. The UFC must continue to do whatever it takes to make each Fox card matter, to make each one compelling to more than just the devoted followers of the sport.
This time around, that meant giving four former contenders a shot at immediate redemption; next time, it could mean something else. The promotion did a good job of keeping the momentum going moments after the last fight had ended. Normally, White would have made his big announcement regarding Machida’s No. 1 contender status during the UFC on Fox 4 post-fight press conference. Instead, the news was wisely delivered at the conclusion of the Fox broadcast in a nod to those who were not going to stay up and stream a UFC press conference online.
The date for the final Fox card of 2012 is Dec. 8, and, with it, the UFC has another opportunity to raise the bar. A hypothetical Jones-Machida rematch might not be a huge pay-per-view draw, but having the company’s rising champion on national television could boost both Jones’ and the UFC’s stock. Again, this is dependent on Jones defeating Henderson in September. It would also pick up where UFC on Fox 4 left off, with Machida getting the shot he earned on a memorable August evening as part of a card that was not originally billed as must-see TV. To really put an exclamation point on its first full year working with Fox, the UFC needs to go all-in by putting one of its biggest stars, Jones, on the network.
The relationship between Fox and the UFC remains a work in progress with plenty of promise, and the show on Saturday will be a tough act to follow. Come December, the UFC needs to do everything it can to surpass it.