Despite UFC 120's best efforts, MMA's future in UK lukewarm
Michael Bisping's victory at UFC 120 once again proves he's good, but not great
British fighters finished 1-3 in London and were underwhelming to say the least
If the UFC wants to expand to Europe, they'll need better efforts from UK fighters
UFC president Dana White is fond of saying nationalism doesn't apply in mixed martial arts. He doesn't express it quite like that, but essentially his thinking suggests if a good fight is within view, humans will watch regardless of the neighborhood they're from. Two Brazilians can meet in Montreal and MMA fans will care just as if their very own Canadiens were going after it. And in most cases, this has proven to be true. During Pride's heyday, the majority of the Japanese company's most beloved fighters, the guys who really drew at the gate and created an aura around events, were not native. Yet local fans showed up in droves for the fight and spectacle.
So why am I unconvinced the same formula will apply over time to British MMA? For the same reason White has boosted Englishmen Michael Bisping and Dan Hardy with such an intense promotional push. The UK needs a GSP to really take off. We'll touch on that at the bottom.
1. Bisping: middleweight contender? Headlining UFC 120 from the O2 Arena in London, Bisping (20-3) walked into his fight against Yoshihiro Akiyama (13-3) unbeaten in 15 appearances on his home soil. By surviving an early right hand to the head that had him seeing double and turning up the volume on his punching, Bisping did more than enough to make it 16 against the primped judoka.
At this stage of his career, Bisping is considered by most to be a quality pro and a favorite over all but the world's best middleweights. But that's hardly good enough, not if he's to carry the UFC banner much longer in the UK.
The question that should occupy Bisping, his promoter and his fans: can he become more than he currently is? Because "if I can't do it now," the 31-year-old fighter astutely pointed out at the post-fight press conference, "I'm never going to do it."
At least he's willing to acknowledge that. Bisping is under no delusions of grandeur, not after what Dan Henderson did to him at UFC 100. The fact is Bisping has stumbled against his toughest opponents -- which is the level of fighter he'll have to face moving forward.
Bisping should provide answers shortly. After out-pointing Akiyama, he said he'd like a bout against one of the division's toughest threats, then hopefully a title shot. Considering the lack of depth in the UFC middleweight division (remember 185 is one of those weight classes that features legitimate talent outside the UFC) that's a plausible scenario.
Yushin Okami has a showdown against Nate Marquardt in Germany this November in a title eliminator. Is Bisping of that caliber? I haven't seen much that makes me think yes. He brings footwork, punching volume and takedown avoidance. Against the upper echelon, that hasn't been enough.
Guessing here, but based on the schedule UFC put together at 185 over the next few months, the winner between Demian Maia and Kendall Grove could line up against Bisping next. Whether a title shot materializes out of that, as Bisping said, is ultimately up to the UFC. But I can see it happening.
2. Hardy and Hathaway vanquished. Without Bisping's unanimous decision (30-27 three times), British fighters would have gone 0-4 during the evening's televised fights and 2-6 overall.
Hardy, who last appeared in the Octagon suffocating underneath Georges St. Pierre, was starched when Carlos Condit landed a left hook late in the opening round. The stoppage can't be considered anything but a serious setback for the mowhawked 28-year-old. Hardy, like Bisping, just can't get over the hump. He'll rack up wins against solid but unspectacular opposition only to fall short against the best. The future does not appear bright.
Undefeated coming into the night, John Hathaway had nothing but the future in front of him. He can take solace in a weak effort against veteran Mike Pyle (21-7-1) by making it a learning experience. Not yet 24, Hathaway (14-1) remains a worthwhile prospect, so much so that I think he can turn out to be the best English mixed martial artist yet. But that optimism was stunted after the loss to Pyle, 35, who began his career in 1998 and was saddled with the tag as someone who did well in the gym, had a terrific feel for training, but wasn't equipped mentally to accomplish much as a fighter.
"It's back to the mental preparation," Pyle said. "It just took me a little longer than most people to get over the UFC jitters. This is the big show. It's a lot bigger than any other show I've fought on. I have to train for that and think I've taken the proper steps.
"I'm seasoned. I train with the best, I feel, that's out there. I just knew I'd be able to outwork the kid for sure. I just knew in my heart that I could beat him."
See, Hathaway's trainers should tell him, there's no rush.
3. Condit asserts himself at 170. The big winner tonight was Condit, who earned "knockout of the night" honors and $60,000 for landing a flush left hook to the jaw to prompt a finish at 4:27 of Round 1. Condit (26-5) was reared against legitimate competition outside the UFC for seven years before joining the company in 2009. He's now 3-1 in the UFC (the only loss a split decision against Martin Kampman in a great fight) and stands poised to take the next step.
"It was the biggest win of my career so far," said the lanky 26 year old.
Despite joining up with MMA guru Greg Jackson in Condit's hometown of Albuquerque, N.M., Condit said he has not disqualified himself from one day challenging St. Pierre (should he continue his reign as welterweight champion), a fellow Jackson-trained fighter, which drew applause from Dana White at the post-fight press conference. GSP won't be up next, but there are more than enough options to keep Condit sharp. He's just the type of fighter who could draw Jon Fitch into a war.
4. White on tape-delay. In case you weren't aware, UFC 120 was tape-delayed to the States to lure a prime-time audience for Spike TV. Canadian fans could watch live at 3 p.m. ET. Same, of course, for anyone in the UK. American fans weren't so lucky. So they could do one of two things: exude a modest amount of personal responsibility and avoid the results or succumb to the magic of the Internet.
Still, some fans were apparently enraged because ESPN had the gall to include results of a minor UFC card (there wasn't a championship fight) on its news ticker during college football on ABC.
What was White's response to this anger?
@DanaWhite: You guys needs to e mail and tweet ESPN for [expletive] up the results not me.
Search "espn ufc" on Twitter to get a sense for the reaction White prompted. Yes, this is the UFC president, with more than 1.2 million followers, telling people to COMPLAIN to ESPN for publishing MMA news. It's mind numbing. Maybe next time they'll just choose not to cover it at all. How quickly we forget where the sport was five years ago. To be offended by ESPN or SI or any mainstream sports news outlet considering MMA relevant enough to publish results in real time is asinine.
A better suggestion, as pointed out by a lucid observer via Twitter: How about directing complaints to UFC's TV partner, Spike TV?
5. MMA alone won't be enough in the UK. This is just a feeling. I can't base it on anything empirical and, to be completely transparent, I'm rooting to be wrong. But I get the feeling MMA in the UK will face difficulty over time if British fighters can't, say in the next five years, raise their games to a UFC championship caliber.
As I mentioned in the opening, Dana White strongly disagrees, and he's smart to do so based on what we know of MMA and how people across the globe have reacted to it in recent years.
"It doesn't matter what country you're from, it's about the type of fighter you are," he said when asked about British fighters' struggles. "When you think about it, we've taken the fight business to a whole 'nother level. You never put on a fight with two Brazilians in Montreal. It's insane. It wouldn't work. But it does with this sport."
Yes, MMA can be captivating, as it was when Mauricio Rua rematched Lyoto Machida at the Belle Centre in May. It's what I like to call "sticky" -- once someone with an open mind is exposed to it, he or she usually wants to see it again. More than 17,000 fans packed the O2 Arena (a 1.6 million pound gate) for a card featuring a good but not great British middleweight, a good but not great British welterweight, a well-regarded British prospect who fell flat, and a host of others who don't look like they have what it takes.
MMA is "in" for 2010. Two or three years down the road, without an emerging British star, will the UFC continue to pack a place like O2? The likelihood is strong that the sport will continue to grow in the UK. But the rate and scale of that growth could be impacted significantly by whether or not British fighters are capable of winning against the best.
This is why the UFC pushed Bisping and Hardy so hard from the outset. They needed British fans motivated by the prospect that local fighters can compete against anyone. And this is why UFC will continue nurturing British prospects up the ranks.
Because of the UFC's investment in the UK and the continent, MMA is embedded on the minds of fight-friendly European fans. Gyms are popping up. More kids are trying it. All this leads me to believe the UK -- and other areas -- will cultivate fighters good enough to be the best. It just hasn't happened yet. (If it does, this is moot.)
But what happens if British fighters can't take the next step? Will the crowds keep coming for more good-but-not-great names? Will London mimic Montreal -- which became MMA crazed after Quebec's St. Pierre broke through -- and support two Brazilians in the main event?
I guess, I'm not so sure.