Looking ahead to busy if not overly significant weekend in UFC
You can't hate on Dana White for the love he feels. The UFC president is passionate about mixed martial arts, the sport he ostensibly governs, with a fervor likely never experienced and surely never exhibited by Roger Goodell, David Stern or any of the other suits that sit at a commissioner's desk.
Sometimes White's passion gets the best of him, though, as was the case back in 2008 when he trumpeted the UFC's growth thusly to SI.com: "Remember that I told you this: In the next five to eight years, this thing's going to be the biggest sport in the world -- bigger than the [expletive] NFL, bigger than Major League Soccer, bigger than World Cup soccer or whatever the hell they call it. Bigger than anything. So remember I told you that."
We remember, Dana, and we trust that you've noticed that your five-year window is nearly closed. So maybe it's going to take the full eight for the fight promotion you run to become bigger than the football team you root for, the New England Patriots, not to mention the entirety of the wildly popular sport in which Tom Brady & Co. compete. And while surpassing the marginal MLS is a reachable goal, even the UFC's biggest stars have a long way to go before they'll be at the level, globally, of iconic footballers Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Still, some of White's forecasts for the growth of his business have come true. He said the UFC would become so pervasive a sports brand that the promotion one day would stage two events on the same night in different parts of the world. And that is coming true this weekend. Sort of.
On Saturday night, the finale of Season 16 of The Ultimate Fighter will help anchor a fight card in Las Vegas. And Dec. 15 also is the date of the UFC on FX event being held in Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia. However, while those fights will be taking place on Saturday night Down Under, it'll be Friday night here in the States, thanks to the time difference. So that means two nights of UFC action for those who just cannot get enough.
But is there really enough to go around? The UFC on FX card (Friday, 9 p.m. ET, FX; prelims on Fuel TV at 6) is headlined by a lightweight bout between George Sotiropoulos, coming off two straight defeats, and Ross Pearson, a loser in three of his last five. The next night, at the TUF finale (FX, 9 p.m. ET, prelims on Fuel TV at 7), we get a reconstituted main event between Roy Nelson, who's barely clinging to relevancy in the UFC heavyweight division, and the once-rising-but-more-recently-stagnant Matt Mitrione, a fill-in for injured Shane Carwin.
Is this what we've all been waiting for? Is this, finally, the sign that the New York Football Giants and Manchester United are about to be surpassed?
That's clearly not the case. Just do the math, in fact, and it adds up this way: One plus one equals less than one. That is, the weekend's two events, combined, have less sizzle than one average UFC fight card. And Friday's fights will have TV competition from a Bellator event (8 p.m. ET, MTV2) headlined by a heavyweight championship fight and also featuring the Season 7 lightweight tournament final, while Saturday's will go up against big-time boxing telecasts on both HBO and Showtime.
How to navigate your way through the weekend of combat sports? There's nothing must-see about any of it, but there are moments worth paying attention to. Here are some things to watch for:
The main men: Nelson vs. Mitrione isn't a bad fight, really. It's just not Nelson vs. Carwin -- not in its potential impact on the heavyweight division, not in its potential impact on the face and other cranial regions of one of the fighters, and certainly not in the buildup of animosity. Shane doesn't like Roy and wanted to shut him up, which gave a certain bullfight aura to the bout. There'll be no olé in watching the happy-go-lucky Mitrione try to use Nelson as a steppingstone to elevate his career. But a fight's a fight, and a fight between two heavyweights is a big fight no matter how little they're waving the red cape.
Looking for work: Just like the 15 seasons' worth of TUF finalists before them, welterweights Mike Ricci and Colton Smith will be vying for what Dana White always likes to tout as "a six-figure UFC contract" when they meet in Saturday's finale. Ricci trains at Montreal's TriStar gym, so he's been preparing with the likes of Rory MacDonald, which can't be a bad thing. As for Smith, he's still trying to live down his unsportsmanlike debut on the show, in which he feinted like he was going to touch gloves with his preliminary opponent but instead shot for a takedown. Not cool. But if Colton becomes the Ultimate Fighter, he'll have something new to be known for.
Take two: You get only one chance to make a good first impression. Failing that, the next-best thing to try for is to erase a bad first impression. That's where Hector Lombard stands. The former Olympic judoka from Cuba arrived in the UFC in July riding in the fast lane: He was on a 25-fight unbeaten run, having finished 15 of his last 17 opponents. But all of that happened in organizations such as Bellator and a couple of Australian promotions, the Cage Fighting Championship and Australian Fighting Championship. Life isn't so easy in the big leagues, as Tim Boetsch showed in a split-decision win over Lombard at UFC 149. Now Hector gets submission machine Rousumar Palhares, who is also coming off a loss (to Alana Belcher in May). It's an opportunity for someone to get on track.
Heavy duty: No one is going to confuse Rich Hale or Alexander Volkov for Junior dos Santos, Cain Velasquez or anyone else in the Top 10 of the UFC heavyweight division. But when Hale and Volkov fight in the main event of Bellator 84 on Friday night in Hammond, Ind., the promotion's big-boy championship belt will be on the line. And that adds a bit of luster. First of all, they're heavyweights, so whatever is lacking in speed, movement and sustained cardio is made up for by the sweet anticipation of a thudding KO. And as for the level of fighting, I'd rather watch the NCAA Division III national championship football game than a contest between a couple of middle-of-the-road Southeast Conference teams, wouldn't you?
A different ring to it: Saturday night's sparring session between premium cable boxing outlets features a couple of interesting live fights ... and one that's not live but whose appeal might trump that of all other combat sports offerings this weekend. On Showtime (10:30 p.m. ET), former two-time world champion Amir Khan will try to get back on track after two losses when he takes on Carlos Molina in a junior welterweight bout. And on HBO (9:30 p.m. ET), super bantamweight champion Nonito Donaire defends against bantamweight belt holder Jorge Arce, a five-division champ. That latter fight will follow a rebroadcast of last Saturday's stunning knockout of Manny Pacquiao by Juan Manuel Marquez. I saw the still image of "Pacman" lying face down on the mat, and I want to see the punch that put him there. I'm probably more excited for that, in fact, than for any of this weekend's live fisticuffs.
Questions? Comments? To reach Jeff Wagenheim or contribute to the SI.com MMA mailbag, click on the E-mail link at the top of the page.
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