5 Things We Learned from UFC 169
If UFC 169 did not exist, we would have to invent it as an example.
UFC 169 flopped from the first online prelim to the last title fight. Of 12 fights, 10 went to decision, the most in UFC history. The most important, a rematch between bantamweight champion Renan Barao (33-1-0) and former champ Urijah Faber (30-6-0), ended with a premature stoppage by referee Herb Dean.
Barao clearly controlled the fight. He dropped Faber with an overhand right and pounded him on the ground. Faber stayed in belly-down side control, and the California Kid was only able to turtle up and cover his face against the barrage of punches Barao threw. Though Faber gave a thumbs up to signal he was surviving, Barao pled with Dean to end the fight.
I think [Dean] is the best referee in the business. He rarely ever makes mistakes, but he made a mistake tonight. Barao gets screwed and Faber gets screwed. It's the cherry on the 10-decision, record-breaking catastrophe this evening.
More than just a boring card, UFC 169 shed light on some issues the promotion will have to deal with moving forward.
The UFC Needs More Star Power
Jose Aldo and Renan Barao inherit the positions of absentees Georges St. Pierre and Anderson Silva. They have to.
Dana White assures fans that he isn't worried about the lack of stars. He'll need to play this hand carefully to make that true. Fighters need to be shifted around, rivalries built, personalities developed and pumped. UFC's success comes in large part from personality and icons. Champions give fans focal points; they're a way to brand the UFC with different faces.
GSP and Silva stand alone as pillars of pure athleticism. We need replacements. Aldo and Barao fit the bill nicely, both dominant champions in their respective divisions and possessive of extreme athletic gifts.
Aldo's already ranked No. 2 on the pound-for-pound rankings, which serve as a fairly reliable popularity gauge if nothing else. It tells us who we're supposed to pay attention to. On January 15, Dana White hinted at a large jump for Renan Barao on the P4P rankings, per Paul Putignano of Yahoo! Sports:
If Barao goes out and stops Faber, he's probably the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world.
If it's premature, it's most likely because the pound-for-pound lists need some management. Ronda Rousey seems to be crossing the line that divides feisty from childishly petulant. Jon Jones lost some credibility to Alexander Gustafsson. Demetrious Johnson and Cain Velasquez represent thin divisions.
Weidman's all-American nice guy lacks the dynamism of Silva, who lost face twice to Weidman. Vitor Belfort's TRT usage singles him out for ridicule. Mind, all these personalities have immense drawing power and talent, but they aren't legendary in the same way as GSP or Silva. The UFC needs to build some more kings.
Putting Barao above Aldo is putting two clean, well-respected, articulate fighters at the top where GSP and Silva used to live. The UFC will be looking to shuffle the star deck a little this coming year.
The Heavyweight Division Needs New Blood
This shocks no one, but it bears repeating. The UFC has a 230-pound elephant in the room regarding what to do about their heavyweight division.
Alistair Overeem (37-13-1) spent three rounds thoroughly beating veteran Frank Mir (16-9-0). No. 9 ranked heavyweight Overeem used his Dutch kickboxing skills to open Mir's face until it bled a mask. Overeem measured himself and didn't commit to knockout attempts, earning a unanimous 30-27 victory.
Overeem definitely beat Mir, but this means nothing beyond weeding out one of the two most experienced but disappointing heavyweights. This match was maintenance. Mir came off three losses into UFC 169. He's lost one third of his fights. His sun has set, and beating him thoroughly only earned Overeem the right to stay put.
Overeem fares only marginally better, coming off two knockout losses that started whispers of a glass chin. He's lost one fourth of his fights. After the fight, he called out not champion Cain Velasquez or even runner-up Junior dos Santos, but Brock Lesnar.
Brock Lesnar, a former WWE star who contributed a 5-3 UFC record and lost badly after a bout with deadly diverticulitis. The fight would draw, but a sport trying to gain legitimacy won't get it courting WWE jetsam, and Dana White already squashed the idea of a Lesnar reemergence.
An honest fan can't see Overeem or any other heavyweight standing a chance against Velasquez, who has more speed, athleticism, ferocity and wrestling. The division's next most athletic competitor, Daniel Cormier, moved down to light heavyweight to fight Rashad Evans, and the other matchups are unworkable without rehashing the same tired circle.
In summary, the No. 9 ranked heavyweight fighter, fresh off two KO losses, ousted a fighter coming off three losses. Both fighters have more than a 1-4 loss-to-win ratio, and the winner called out a man who isn't in the UFC. He stands small chance at a title. That is not the summary of a healthy division.
The Sport Is Evolving
We've only had the UFC for 20 years. It's come a long way, and a huge part of that is a declining rate of finishes. The numbers have stabilized, but last night was simply an especially pure reminder of the sport's continual growth.
Finishes used to be the main drawing power for the UFC, siphoning away a portion of boxing audience who grew tired of the sweet science's, well, scientific fixation on technicality and subtlety. Boxing matches end in knockout and technical knockout often, certainly, but far less than the days of UFC 20, when it felt like every match ended in a bloody TKO or submission.
The UFC has more money, more clout, and more legitimacy than 20 years ago. The fighters have more well-rounded skill sets. They receive better pay and better contracts.
Most importantly, rankings mean enough, culturally, for the fighters to fear losing them. They incur more risk every time they fight and so take fewer chances. The loss of a title shot, after all, means more lost potential income than losing a $50,000 bonus check.
Jose Aldo Will Takeover as Unbeatable King
At no point in the Jose Aldo-Ricardo Lamas fight did Aldo ever look in trouble, and after 16 straight wins and six successful title defenses.
For the first four rounds, Aldo assaulted Lamas with the trademark violent intent. In the post-fight interview, Lamas said he wanted to prove to Aldo that he wasn't afraid to stand up with him.
That was foolish; Lamas should fear Aldo's striking. Aldo's hooks and leg kicks landed hard and clean, without an effective answer from Lamas, who didn't follow his game plan to take Aldo to the mat and wrestle.
Dana White agreed in the post-fight interview to let Aldo fight lightweight champion Anthony Pettis, which makes the point clear. The featherweight division offers no substantial challenge to Aldo's authority.
White says he'll have to surrender his featherweight belt to fight Henderson and fight for it again if he returns. If he wins, Aldo will hold two of the more competitive belts in the organization. If he loses, he returns to a division he has clear hold over, no harm to his reputation done.
If he can hold his position after a move to lightweight, Aldo is well on his way to becoming the same long-time division emperor as Anderson Silva, Georges St. Pierre or Fedor Emelianenko. The UFC often pumps up young prospects as the next big thing only to have them fade quickly or get knocked out; the lasting big things are years in the making.
Undercard Fighters Are There for a Reason
With a lot of hoopla in mind about the disparity in fighter pay, it's important to remember that the pyramid is broad at the bottom and narrow at the top in terms of skill. It's a cruel truth, but the undercard amounts to a bloody appetizer for the main course.
The undercard came to exactly 105 minutes of unimpressive fighting, not a second of which showed a fighter willing to expose himself to risk in order to finish. Clint Hester's first 30 seconds had steam when he tried time and again for a knockout with the same long hook, but Andy Enz showed a professional's resolve and in the end neither established their range.
When two high-level athletes battle, we understand that there's a chess match of sorts going on, with success measured in tiny fractions of split-second opportunities and mistakes. When undercard guys do it, we only see cowardice and lack of development. They lack the skills that make tentativeness a technique rather a product of fear.
We watch the undercard to see which guys will endanger themselves for our amusement. They earn their way to the big time by getting us riled up for the main event. For a main event that riled us up for all the wrong reasons, the undercard was more like the shaving before an injection than a bunch of oysters before a steak dinner.