It's turning into another one of those eventful weeks in the mixed martial arts world. From surprising ratings for UFC on FOX 3, to the fallout from Dominick Cruz's torn cal, to New York state again shelved MMA legalization, to the latest from B.J. Penn, there's plenty to talk about.
So without further ado, Luke Thomas and I get into this week's hot topics in the latest edition of the MMA Roundtable:
1. What lessons should the UFC learn from the UFC on FOX 3 rankings?
Doyle: I think the UFC is learning that it's going to be a tricky balancing act as the company tries to save big-name fights for pay-per-view while also needing star power to drive a television rating. Mixed martial arts ratings over the years have proven that fans need to be sold a marquee name in order to draw eyeballs on network TV. It was true on CBS with Kimbo Slice and Gina Carano, and it's true now with FOX.
Unfortunately, with the casual viewer, simply selling the notion of "tune in and see great fights" without the star power doesn't work. The flip side of this, of course, is that the UFC makes the bulk of its profit on PPV, so it can't go giving away too many Cain Velasquez vs. Junior Dos Santos-level fights for free. In order to ultimately make this work, they're going to have to figure out how to provide FOX marquee names without killing the golden goose.
Thomas: I generally agree with my colleague Dave here. UFC tried to book a card that was less than a pay-per-view and yet still promoted it as if it was such. The casual audience didn't buy the argument and failed to tune in. Dave's right they'll need some sort of more marquee headliner to accomplish that goal.
I generally think that's harder than it looks. Certainly we know FOX expects more than Nate Diaz vs. Jim Miller. We also know Brian Stann vs. Hector Lombard is virtually no improvement in that regard. But how far does the UFC go? It's a delicate balancing act, but it's partly a function of the number of the shows UFC runs. They are constantly forced to rob Peter so they can pay Paul. Everyone cheered UFC 144 when it turned out to be something of a success, but what's been the upshot in Japan since then? Did it jumpstart anything? No, it didn't. I'm not saying UFC can't go back to Japan, but I am saying I'm not sure I see the point even if they can. Frankie Edgar vs. Ben Henderson would've been the perfect fight for FOX. Two guys guaranteed to deliver action in a title fight. Oh, and it just so happens to be two guys who need that big time exposure to turn them into pay-per-view commodities.
Lastly, UFC's sponsorship issue hasn't really improved since moving to FOX. It's something they want to accomplish and frankly, need to accomplish to really get the kind of exposure and legitimacy they crave. So let's do a quick thought experiment. What's the best way to lure Nike: put growing stars in big fights that could deliver big ratings on FOX or go to Saitama again? The defense rests.
2. What should be done with Urijah Faber now that Dominick Cruz is out with a torn ACL?
Doyle: If this is your typical torn ACL, we're looking at, in a best-case scenario, a minimum of about 16 months without a title fight, dating back to Cruz's win over Demetrious Johnson. If we're using Georges St-Pierre and his knee injury as a guide, then you pretty much have to go the interim-title route. So the question from there is, who should face Faber? I'm not sold on Renan Barao as a bankable co-main evener yet, particularly in coming off a less-than-spectacular decision win over Scott Jorgensen. Michael McDonald, however, just might be ready. Eight wins in a row, six of them stoppages in under seven minutes, and he's got quite a bit of momentum coming off his knockout of Miguel Torres. Fans still regard Faber as the biggest star of the lower weight classes; a win makes McDonald a star and a loss, well, if it's to Faber and it isn't a blowout, the fans will likely look at it as an acceptable defeat. If McDonald is up for it on relatively short notice, Faber-McDonald for the interim title is the best available option.
Thomas: Faber vs. McDonald is a decent choice, but I'm not so sure why Barao is a hard sell. Yes, McDonald oozes promotability, but why rush him? He's 21! He needs a few more fights to season before he starts to tangle with the upper echelon of the division. Barao didn't look great against Jorgensen, that's true. But Jorgensen is like Mike Pierce: it's hard to look good against him. Yes, you can beat him, but you're not going to thrash or ragdoll him. Jorgensen's lost under the Zuffa banner, but only by decision. And before the Jorgensen fight, Barao showed Brad Pickett some serious knuckle game in an absolutely scintillating performance. I don't know if he'll do that against Urijah Faber, but I'd sure love to see him try. He's got the talent, the experience, the athleticism, the world-class team and the timing couldn't be better. Barao deserves that slot. Let's give it to him.
3. Just how long will it take to get MMA regulated in NY?
Thomas: It's basically impossible to say, but the political powers of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and his weaponization of parliamentary procedures will ensure as long as Silver gets his way, the UFC has no chance in the New York legislature. The court case involving freedom of expression violations that is ongoing is their only short-term hope. Lawyers who operate in a variety of different capacities of law believe the UFC has a reasonably strong case, but we obviously won't know until the case for this kicks into high gear. I will say it reminds me of what Nick Diaz is doing in Nevada. I get the sense he feels as long as he's subject to the commission's whims, he's got no chance of avoiding penalty. But by moving to a court case, he has some legal leg to stand on that a legitimate courtroom and judge will be legally obligated to acknowledge. UFC knows trying to work through the legislature is something they have to do (for media, public appearances, etc.), but their best short term chance at success is by taking the ironically circuitous legal path of a judge's hearing.
Doyle: I agree with my esteemed colleague about the UFC's issues with the legislature. Nothing to add there. As to if/when the state will come around on legalizing MMA, my answer is this: To hell with ‘em. There's no doubt New York is a lucrative market, and there's symbolic value to playing Madison Square Garden, one of the world's most famous fight arenas. But MMA has gotten this far without New York. NYC-area fans have proven they'll flock to the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. which is a 15-minute train ride from Manhattan's Penn Station, which sits underneath MSG. Fans in Western New York will continue to go to shows in Ontario and fans upstate will keep going to Montreal events. I don't mean to be dismissive to the fighters, trainers, promoters, etc. who live in New York State and deserve to be able to earn their livelihood in their home state, but when push comes to shove, the sport has gotten this far without the backing of one stubborn legislature and will continue to thrive without it.
4. Will B.J. Penn eventually return to the UFC?
Thomas: The more time that passes, the more likely it is Penn will not return. He'll settle into his life and most importantly, it'll make the uphill climb of getting back into fighting shape - something Penn has always and especially resists now - even more difficult. But I think he will return. He's leaving the door open, which itself is a signal he will return under the right circumstances. Part of those 'circumstances' are out of the UFC's control. If Penn stays as he is today, a return is impossible. But the squeaky wheel gets the grease. UFC can improve the chances of Penn getting up for a fight camp with the right offer. If Penn demands enough and the UFC wants him bad enough (meaning they can find a marketable angle for the fight), I bet there is a correct offer. Maybe it's one last retirement fight for a princely sum of money at Blaisdell Arena. Maybe it's a fight against someone at lightweight or welterweight that excites him. Who knows? The point is the right package (opponent, venue location, money, etc.) is out there. It's up to the UFC to find the right offer.
Doyle: Short answer to the question: Yes. Longer version: Look, he's B.J. Penn. He's one of the most ferocious competitors who has ever graced this sport and he cares deeply about his legacy. Penn has only won once in his past five fights. That's not how he wants to go out. He's playing coy and cool about his future prospects now, but one of these days he's going to wake up in Hilo and find himself bored. And as UFC headline fights continue to drop out on a regular basis, eventually, someone is going to need an opponent and one of them will be the fight which re-ignites his competitive fires. I'll finish with what Dana White said when he was asked a couple weeks back if Penn would return: "He'll be back. It's tough, when there are 16,000 people in the arena chanting your name, it's tough to walk away from that. B.J. Penn is a fighter. You hear some of these guys, and Tito [Ortiz] was one of these guys, he said he wanted to be famous. B.J. Penn is a fighter."
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