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Success breeds success. It’s an old expression but one grounded in reality, a common-sense observation that has also been borne out by empirical research. An already elite NBA team tends to have an easier time attracting the best players willing to take the midlevel exception, an infrastructure more likely to develop its own draft picks and a fan base less likely to panic if a season gets off to a slow start. Best executive awards in all the sports tend to go to teams that improve rapidly rather than teams that dominate over time.
In the case of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, its matchmakers tend not to get a ton of credit for their efforts these days. Smaller promotions need to book fights very carefully. The wrong result can significantly hurt business, and MMA fans are not nearly so tolerant of protective matchmaking as boxing fans. The UFC, by contrast, has the vast majority of the best fighters locked up in every major weight class and a constantly regenerating series of intriguing fights. As a result, Sean Shelby and Mick Maynard don’t often get much credit for their efforts, particularly compared to Joe Silva 15 years ago, when putting together UFC fights was a much more fraught endeavor. Every so often, however, a particularly savvy bit of UFC matchmaking highlights the quality of the people putting the fights together.
Divisional dominance brings about its own set of benefits and challenges. A champion who has run through the competition tends to become a star in the process, but it then becomes difficult to find opponents that fans believe will give the champion much competition. That’s what has taken place at middleweight, where Israel Adesanya has largely cleaned out the division. Adesanya has become one of the UFC’s most bankable stars, but the number of attractive matchups for “The Last Stylebender” has grown smaller and smaller. He has defeated his Top 6 contenders in the most recent UFC rankings a combined seven times, with only Sean Strickland escaping his wrath. His unsuccessful foray at 205 pounds further limited his options.
A champion running through overmatched competition can sometimes sell on its own, but it has to be spectacular in nature. That was central to the appeal of Ronda Rousey at her peak. She was dominating her opponents and drew massive interest in her fights from fans wanting to see what she’d do next. Some of her biggest fights were against opponents the oddsmakers installed as the largest underdogs. Unfortunately, that dynamic hasn’t been at play with Adesanya recently. Aside from his wreckage of Paulo Costa, most of Adesanya’s recent fights have been defined by caution and nimble counterstriking. It’s impressive for its skill but doesn’t produce excitement fans are going to go out of their way to see.
The middleweight division thus has faced two simultaneous issues: the lack of intriguing challengers for Adesanya and the lack of excitement in his recent fights. Enter former Glory champion Alex Pereira, who seems the perfect fit on both fronts. The story is familiar by now: The former kickboxing rival of Adesanya, the only man to knock him out in competition, hunting him down in a new sport. This has all the makings of a big fight, but it wasn’t that long ago that it would have seemed a completely outside the box pick.
Less than two years ago, Pereira had a 2-1 MMA record and little reason to believe he’d be getting a rematch with the then 20-0 Adesanya anytime soon. The track record of kickboxers seguing to MMA is not strong, as the experiences of the likes of Gokhan Saki and Tyrone Spong have demonstrated. Still, the UFC gave Pereira a shot and flagged him as someone important by putting him in the featured prelim bout at Madison Square Garden for his Octagon debut. Pereira did his part in winning his first two UFC bouts, but there was strong reason to doubt he’d steadily rise through the ranks beating contenders who would hone in on exploiting his ground deficiencies.
The UFC saw the landscape, with few obvious challengers for Adesanya, and gave Pereira the chance to jump the queue. Of course, Pereira would have to beat someone in the top mix at 185 pounds. With hindsight, Strickland was the perfect selection. An opponent like Marvin Vettori, Derek Brunson or Jack Hermansson would surely seek to test Pereira’s ground game. Strickland, on the other hand, was just prideful enough and crazy enough to strike with Pereira. He threatened as much leading into the fight, but there was still doubt about whether it was a psychological ploy. It turned out not to be, as he marched straight forward at Pereira with the bravado of a young, hard-headed Chris Leben charging at Anderson Silva. It turned out about as well for Strickland.
Even had Strickland won, it wouldn’t have been the end of the world. Adesanya-Strickland was a fresh matchup. Either way, the winner would be featured right before Adesanya’s fight on one of the biggest cards of the year—prime advertising for the next middleweight title fight. However, Pereira was clearly the preferred winner, and he was what we got. The UFC made the right selections with Pereira every step of the way, picking the right opponents at the right times at the right positions. Now, it can reap the rewards: a compelling, marketable fight that is likely to either bring the best out of Adesanya or cost him his title. Credit to Pereira for an impressive win UFC 276 on Saturday, and credit to the UFC for some very savvy matchmaking.
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