Posted 02/24/2014 by Mike Fagan in Untethered MMA

UFC 170 Review

Mike Pyle took mount on landed elbows and punches, forcing T.J. Waldburger gave up his back, but not the punishment. Pyle continued his attack, and Waldburger tried to hip escape, which just left him in an awkward mount for more punishment. He gave up his back a second time before trying to hip escape a second time, all the while Pyle maintained his stream of offense before Herb Dean mercifully stepped in.

Ninety minutes later, Dean found himself in the cage for the main event between Ronda Rousey and Sara McMann. The fight turned into a slug fest early; McMann landed a couple hard punches that seemed to surprise Rousey, but the champion composed herself, pressed the challenger against the fence, and worked strikes from the clinch. A Rousey left knee met McMann’s high up the right side of her rib cage, sending McMann to all-fours and clutching the point of impact. Rousey followed with a short flurry of arm punches, but Herb Dean got in the way before any further damage accrued.

The disparity is wide. (You can view for yourself. Here is the Pyle/Waldburger finish. And here is the Rousey/McMann finish.) In a vacuum, Dean’s decision in the main event doesn’t look so bad. It’s fine to assert yourself when a fighter takes a shot, clutches the landing point, and voluntary falls to the mat. It’s a hard justification when put in contrast to Dean earlier lack of urgency.

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So Rousey beat another outmatched opponent – McMann closed at a best-available line of +350; the closest Rousey betting line since the first Tate fight – and now we must ask, “Who’s next?”

Following the main event, Mike Goldberg and Joe Rogan ran through the women’s bantamweight division, and only two contenders stand out: number-one-ranked Cat Zingano, who was promised the next title shot when her injury heals; and Alexis Davis, who defeated Jessica Eye on the undercard. Neither inspires much excitement.

On Friday, Cris “Cyborg” Justino announced she would cut down to 135 pounds to fight for Invicta’s bantamweight title in the summer, then challenge for Rousey’s belt at the end of the year. With the weight cut and Tito Ortiz’s removal as her manager, the door to Rousey vs. Cyborg opened a little wider; UFC President Dana White cautiously mentioning in the post-fight press conference, “If she’s healthy, maybe we can do it.”

However, it might be Rousey’s drawing power, not Cyborg’s health, that makes this fight a reality. Ticket sales flagged leading up the event – despite cheaper tickets – and the final gate showed: 10,217 in attendance for a total of $1.56M in ticket receipts. For context, here are the UFC’s recent gate numbers at Mandalay Bay:

Ultimate Fighter: Rousey vs. Tate Finale – 4,853 for $322,000
Ultimate Fighter: Jones vs. Sonnen Finale – 5,918 for $569,000
UFC 156: Aldo vs. Edgar – 10,275 for $2.4M
UFC 143: Diaz vs. Condit – 9,015 for $2.4M
UFC 137: Penn vs. Diaz – 10,313 for $3.9M
UFC 126: Silva vs. Belfort – 10,893 for $3.6M
UFC 109: Relentless – 10,753 for $2.3M
UFC 106: Ortiz vs. Griffin 2 – 10,529 for $3.0M
UFC 100 – 10,871 for $5.1M

UFC 170 is the worst PPV gate at the Mandalay Bay in almost ten years. UFC 64 (Franklin vs. Silva) and UFC 58 (Franklin vs. Loiseau) both did sub-$2M gates, though better than $1.5M. You have to go back to 2005 to find a worse gate at Mandalay: UFC 51 (Ortiz vs. Belfort). Every UFC event prior to 2005 did under that $1.5M as well, including the first fight between Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz at UFC 47.

The business considerations may not be so important if the UFC hadn’t pushed her as its biggest star leading up to the event. I mean that literally; leading up to the event, Dana White told the media Rousey was “the biggest star we’ve ever had.” That seems specious given the above data, but whether it’s true or not (it’s not), the UFC wants us to believe it is, and they are going to have to put her in a situation to succeed at some point.

The pay-per-view number will give us a better indication of Rousey’s drawing power, but anything above 350,000 seems like a major success at this point. And hoping for 350,000+ seems like a low bar for the “biggest star in company history.”

And that’s what makes a potential Cyborg fight so interesting. Rousey is a level above every other woman under UFC contract. She’s an incredible athlete, and her deficiencies in the non-grappling phases make for exciting fights, but there’s only so many times people will pay to watch an otherworldly talent beat up mere mortals. Cyborg is a legitimate test with a legitimate story and the only other legitimate claim to being the best female fighter on the planet. That’s where the money is.

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I didn’t find the Cormier-Cummins matchup as offensive as others. It would have been nice if the UFC could have found a better replacement, but it’s understandable that the company couldn’t find a light heavyweight to fight Cormier on short notice. Given that Cormier 1) didn’t want to waste a weight cut and 2) wanted a paycheck, it’s fine to throw him a body as a pseudo-tuneup.

What is offensive was the marketing leading up to the fight. Cummins, even after the prefight histrionics, closed as an 8-1 underdog, but the UFC sold the fight as a potentially competitive affair and Cummins as a legit threat, despite a 4-0 record and literally quitting his job pouring coffee to take the purse. Here’s Deadspin’s Tim Marchman on the danger of this type of selljob:

…just as it was insulting that they decided to match Cormier against some guy, and that promotional figurehead Dana White insisted that the some guy in question had every chance of winning because anything can happen in the UFC. In all, it amounted to saying that the sport is random, that the skill and talent of top fighters don’t matter, and that there’s no real point to any of it past hustling the public into the tent.

This speaks to a larger problem of UFC marketing where every challenger is “perfectly built” to beat the champion, every undercard fighter has “perfect” or “improving” technique, and past losses are euphemized as “stumbles” and “setbacks” or otherwise ignored. It sells out the UFC’s elite (i.e., the elite of MMA elite), and ultimately does a disservice to all parties: the star fighter’s brand is stunted, the challenger looks like a fake, and the UFC promotionally incompetent.

Mike Fagan is a weekly contributor to MMA Owl. He also hosts Untethered MMA every Thursday at 7 p.m. ET. Follow him on Twitter

Mike Fagan