Sports Entertainment, Nick Diaz and The Proper Balance
There is, of course, a certain amount of synthesis/crossover between professional wrestling and mixed martial arts. Anyone seeking to deny the existence of similarities between the two, inspired by the former and haphazardly copied back and forth ever since, is, for lack of a better term, executing a worked shoot. Perhaps there were boxing fans denying their sport’s alignments with the “sports entertainment” of WWF in the immediate aftermath of Mike Tyson’s “ring enforcer” gig at Wrestlemania 14, I don’t know; if there were, their protests should be similarly dismissed. The very logic of claiming that the top three pay-per-view entities of all time haven’t liberally borrowed from each other… it boggles the mind. The goal of boxing, mixed martial arts and professional wrestling is no different, in toto, than the goal of the NFL, MLB and the myriad atrocious networks and their cornucopia of terrible television shows: for all, it is and remains to garner as many patrons/viewers/customers as routinely as possible.
What we ought to be debating are the merits of when and where our beloved MMA should borrow from its predecessors and competitors, and when it should not. Obviously, MMA can’t stack their numerous PPVs with the same stars month in and month out, which the WWE can do with little concern regarding quality of performance or injury. MMA, like boxing, suffers another crippling inferiority when their matchmaking rubric is compared to that of professional wrestling; as competitive, unscripted enterprises, they can’t dictate who will win the fight before it happens. The people may love Urijah Faber more than any other fighter in the world, but that doesn’t translate into a Hulk Hogan-type run as champion, no matter what effect that would have on Zuffa’s bottom line. Boxing, creatively, decided to just make a bunch of people “world champion” at any given time, creating an insanely corrupt promoter-manager nexus that pipelines certain talent while neglecting others (this dynamic is unfortunately mirrored by a number of smaller MMA promotions) based on a formula more dependent on their own whims than those of the fans. Unless the UFC decides to dilute the meaning of their championship belts by issuing Pan-Asian, Intercontinental and TV Titles – as Nate Wilcox recently suggested – their control over who controls the title is effectively minimized to shunting the allotment of title shots towards their preferred champions.
There is no faster way to evaporate the credibility and goodwill the UFC enjoys among the vast majority of MMA fans – and this writer – than to appear to manipulate their titleholders.
As a competitive enterprise (and self-proclaimed home of “the best in the world”), the UFC has a vested interest in signing and keeping the best mixed martial artists in the world for the sake of credibility. Zuffa was rightly criticized for their decisions to release top ten stalwarts like Jon Fitch and Yushin Okami, no matter their opinion on their worth or future viability as title contenders. They were also correctly derided for their failure to pursue Ben Askren, the undefeated former Bellator champion who would, at the very least, find a home in the UFC’s welterweight division. Allowing talented fighters to potentially put together winning streaks outside of Zuffa that allow them to claim, even if laughably so, a right to the #1 ranking is categorically against Zuffa’s interests, but that’s not why the fans complained about these moves; the fans complained about these moves because they want to see all of the best fighters in the world in the same place, at the same time, fighting each other over and over again.
The alternative approach – and the one I hope Zuffa recommits to – is reflected by the signing of Jake Shields. After departing Strikeforce without an offer after beating their shiny new Dan Henderson toy, Zuffa quickly snapped up Shields, who was riding a fourteen fight winning streak spanning five years, two weight classes and several organizations. Shields as a fighter had never been regarded as a barnburner, perhaps never less than after the Henderson fight; nevertheless, after a rather lackluster split decision victory over Martin Kampmann, Shields, having proven himself a worthy if unexciting contender, was given a title shot against Georges St Pierre in front of 55,000 at Torono’s Rogers Centre. That is proper. That is the way things ought to be.
Shields is 4-3-1 since coming to the UFC, but in a lot of ways, that record is reminiscent of one Leonard Garcia; the aforementioned Kampmann bout was a razor-close split decision, as were his victories over Maia (bad decision) and Tyron Woodley (God awful decision), and the no-contest is due to his win over Ed Herman at UFC 150 being overturned due to an unspecified drug test violation (Colorado doesn’t mess with HIPAA). Granting Shields his unanimous decision win over Yoshihiro Akiyama (and his surprisingly competent eye-poking against GSP), he’s a few scorecards away from being 1-6-1 with a failed drug test since coming over. His talent, however – his technique, his cardio, his desire – is unquestioned, as is his ability to beat countless fighters in his weight class on any given night. That HAS been enough to keep his job in the UFC despite his ugly style, and it SHOULD be enough to keep his job despite his ugly style.
The UFC has moved away from awarding title shots based on merit as of late, and that concerns me. Brock Lesnar’s 2-1 (1-1 in UFC) title shot vs. Randy Couture remains a special case, as Randy requested Brock as his comeback fight as a condition of ending his holdout/lawsuit and coming back to defend his heavyweight belt; I’m speaking more of Chael Sonnen and Nick Diaz. The former received a title shot in one division (where he hadn’t competed since 2005) immediately after losing one in another; the latter received a title shot after losing a #1 contender’s bout (in a fight that the then-champion now says he “wasn’t hungry for”) and is now mentioned as a potential contender despite being r-e-t-i-r-e-d and on a two-fight losing streak. Sure, these bouts made more money than Jon Jones or GSP defending their belts against anyone else would have. But I don’t care. That’s good for Zuffa’s bottom line, but it’s bad for the fighters, it’s bad for the fans and it’s bad for the sport.
I watch the UFC because I want to see the best fighter in the world be determined. A Nick Diaz title shot does nothing to solve that mystery. We’ve seen that show before – and we know how it ends.