This is a long one (that’s what she said), so I’m hiding it behind the jump. Seriously, I wrote almost 3,000 words about a free show on Spike that has no championship matches and zero big fights, and there’s another show next weekend with bigger fights and championship matches that I’ll have to preview as well. Lovely.
Read on for the preview. Also, this is your chance to take part in the first ever official J. Botter Weblog Poll! Scroll to the end of the preview for your chance to pick the winner of the UFC 89 main event and semi-main event, and thanks to Automattic and the WordPress.com folks for finally making that feature available.
UFC 89: THE BUSINESS PERSPECTIVE
UFC 89 is the latest in a long line of events created exclusively for the British market. While these events bear the same nomenclature as the shows held in Las Vegas or other major markets, they have come to be viewed as “lesser” events by fans.
This viewpoint is the result of the marketing emphasis placed on the United Kingdom shows. For starters, these events are shown on Spike TV, a cable channel that nearly every American with cable has access to. The Spike events result in more eyeballs watching the show but a dramatic decrease in the profits Zuffa rakes in for the show due to the lack of pay per view revenue.
Due to the free nature of these shows, they will draw a significantly larger amount of viewers than even the largest pay per view events. Compared to other “big” television shows, however, the ratings for these events are tiny. They’re considered good ratings by Spike TV standards, but bad when you stack them up against even mid-level network television shows. Because of the relatively low rating, it’s tough for Zuffa to attract big brand advertisers who will pay the kind of money that will help offset the cost of losing pay per view revenue.
And just as in life, everything trickles downhill: because of that loss of revenue, the company typically won’t be interested in putting big main event fights on these free shows. It’s smart, at least from a business perspective; why would you put a big fight on free television when you can get people to pay for it?
You wouldn’t. And neither does Zuffa. There have been exceptions, of course, most notably the broadcast of Quinton Jackson’s light leavyweight title defense against PRIDE import Dan Henderson.
For the most part, however, these shows are headlined by a main event that would typically be second or third from the top on a pay per view card. They’re above Fight Night events but below pay per view shows on the totem pole. They’re also a way for the UFC to say “thanks” to Spike for their continued support of the brand and the company, and let’s face it: without Spike, the UFC would be nearly nothing today. Without The Ultimate Fighter and Spike’s willingness to give it a chance, the UFC wouldn’t have experienced the popularity surge it currently enjoys and mixed martial arts as a whole would be less popular in the US than it currently is.
So yes, it’s good for Zuffa to throw Spike a bone a few times per year. Keeping that relationship in fighting shape is worth the hit in revenue they’ll take.
Which is why we ultimately get these free shows on Spike, typically headlined by or involving Michael Bisping in some fashion. He’s far and away the most popular and well known British mixed martial artist in the world, and the decision to build these shows around him is a smart one, especially since that he’ll be a weekly player on the winter 2009 version of The Ultimate Fighter, where the series will feature a team of fighters from the United States against a team of Bisping-led British fighters.
It’s a big enough show to keep Bisping in the limelight while not overshadowing the marketing for the Anderson Silva vs. Patrick Cote fight at UFC 90, which takes place the following Saturday. The Silva/Cote fight wasn’t expected to be a big-drawing fight on PPV, as Anderson Silva, despite his utter dominance and ability to finish every fight he’s in, hasn’t been proven as a pay per view attraction. That may have changed after Silva’s last win, a brutal beating of James Irvin that was also a Spike event, but for now, the company will go into UFC 90 with Silva’s status as a money draw in question.
Enough with the nonsense. Let’s get to the fights, shall we?
MICHAEL BISPING VS. CHRIS LEBEN
When the post-mortem is completed on the career of Michael Bisping, one singular moment will stand out as the smartest decision he ever made: the move from the light heavyweight division to middleweight.
Bisping was an undersized light heavyweight. While most light heavyweight fighters walk around at somewhere between 215lbs and 22lbs and then cut weight to make 205, Bisping walked around somewhere around 207. The guys who cut ten or fifteen pounds to make the weight limit end up walking into the cage at their normal weight, which gives them a significant size advantage over smaller light heavyweights like Wanderlei Silva and Bisping.
After losing a split-decision battle with eventual number one contender Rashad Evans, Bisping announced that he would be moving to middleweight. He said that’s his natural fighting weight, and the size advantage enjoyed by his opponents would be reversed in the middleweight division. For the first time in his UFC career, Michael Bisping would be larger than his opponent in the cage.
Bisping made his middleweight debut on the undercard of Serra vs. St. Pierre 2. Facing Charles McCarthy, Bisping expoded out of the gate, battering McCarthy with punches, kicks, Muy Thai clinch moves, and pure speed. He decimated McCarthy so thoroughly that the overwhelmed fighter could not continue into the second round, giving Bisping his first middleweight win and sending a message to the rest of the 185lb division: The Count is for real.
Bisping followed that strong showing with a TKO of Jason Day at UFC 85. Once again, Bisping looked like a world beater, smothering the Canadian fighter with punches, kicks and knees until the fight was stopped.
Bisping will walk into the cage against Chris Leben (8-3 UFC), another Ultimate Fighter star who is known for both his iron chin and his penchant for throwing wild, swinging haymakers without any thought to protecting himself. Leben was scheduled to take on Bisping at UFC 85, but was arrested in Oregon on charges stemming from his DUI arrest. With Leben jailed, Jason Day took the fight on short notice, but Bisping made quick work of him.
The old saying is that styles make fights, and in the case of this match, it’s entirely correct. I fully expect this to be a wild, violent affair, with both men trading punches with little regard for their own safety or any form of defense. Leben has an iron jaw, but Bisping is the toughest opponent not named Anderson Silva that Leben has faced in his UFC career. The Count is too fast, too accurate and too well-conditioned to lose this fight.
Should Bisping win the fight, he should be the number one contender in the middleweight division. He’s the only guy in the division who I believe stands better than a 10% shot at beating the current middleweight champion. While he may be deserving, I don’t think he’ll get a title shot. If Bisping beats Leben in quick fashion, I fully expect Zuffa to schedule one more fight, perhaps with someone like Yushin Okami, because no matter the outcome of that fight, you have a guy who is ready to step in the cage with Anderson Silva. If Bisping beats Okami, then he gets an immediate title shot. If Okami were to win, then you’d have Silva facing off against the last man to beat him. Okami beat Silva by DQ due to an illegal kick on January 20, 2006 — nearly three years ago.
Leben can surely take punches in bunches, but The Count’s speed and raw skill will be enough to overcome his strong jaw.
PREDICTION: Michael Bisping
KEITH JARDINE VS. BRANDON VERA
Ah, the rare fight where I absolutely cannot stand either fighter. Keith Jardine’s style is painfully awkward to watch, and outside of a great (and boring) decision win over Chuck Liddell, Jardine hasn’t done anything of note since beating current light heavyweight champion Forrest Griffin.
Two years ago, Brandon Vera was one of the most-hyped fighters in the entire company. A one-year layoff for Vera due to contractual issues, however, seems to have crimped his style. His move to the light heavyweight division would seem to give him an advantage, yet he’s still perfectly content to ride out a decision. While this strategy may help pad his record, it doesn’t help him move up the ladder and earn a title shot or earn any points with fans.
A dominating win by either of them will put them directly in the title picture. Jardine’s win over Liddell cannot be discounted, no matter how ugly it was. Jardine, however, was mauled by Wanderlei Silva in his last fight, a beating so ugly that Silva was holding Jardine by the throat with one hand while punching him with the other. A dominating win by Jardine would probably put him 1-2 wins away from a title fight. A boring decision will do him no favors.
Likewise, a dominant and quick win from Vera will put him 1-2 wins away from a shot at Griffin. He’s going to have to revert to the Brandon Vera of old instead of the new Brandon Vera that rides out decision wins. UFC is very high on Vera, and he’s going to get plenty of chances to move up the rankings, but only if he starts finishing opponents.
The story of 2007-2008 is that if you’re popular, it doesn’t matter how many fights you lose. Look at Brock Lesnar, for example: the guy lost his first fight in the cage to Frank Mir, but then was largely responsible for pulling in 625,000 PPV buys for his August fight against Heath Herring. If Vera can start putting people away, the fans will get behind him, and it won’t matter if he loses a few.
PREDICTION: Brandon Vera
RAMEAU THIERRY SOKOUDJOU VS. LUIS CANE
The man known by most fans simply as Sokoudjou exploded onto the MMA scene at PRIDE 33 with a shocking win over Antonio Rogerio Nogueira. Nogueira, the brother of UFC interim heavyweight champion Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, was a 16 to 1 favorite in the fight, and so Sokoudjou’s 23 second knockout of Little Nog catapaulted him to instant stardom amongst hardcore mixed martial arts fans.
Sokoudjou followed that victory up with yet another upset KO, this time over Brazilian superstar Ricardo Arona at PRIDE 34. With one knockout punch, Sokoudjou was cemented as a superstar, and the strength of those two victories alone earned him a UFC contract upon the demise of PRIDE in 2007. Sokoudjou debuted at UFC 79 on December 29, 2007, and fell victim in the second round to a Lyoto Machida arm triangle. Sokoudjou returned at UFC 84 in May and scored a victory over Kazuhiro Nakamura when the Japanese star sustained a leg injury at the end of the first round and couldn’t continue the fight.
Luis Cane is 1-1 in the UFC, but has a career record of 8-1. He lost his UFC debut in December of 2007 when he kneed James Irvin in the face while Irvin was on the ground and was disqualified. He returned against Jason Lambert at UFC 85 in June and defeated the UFC mainstay by TKO in the first round.
Sokoudjou is a judo expert, and his striking ability is among the best in the division. He comes across as a flash in the pan because of his quick KO wins in PRIDE, but I can assure you that Sokoudjou is certainly for real. He’s marketable and personable, and I can tell you with certainty that the UFC is excited about his prospects for the future. But he’s also a good fighter who will prove to be a dangerous striker to anyone he faces.
Luis Cane’s record is an indication of his striking skills. Of his 8 career victories, 7 have come by way of knockout. He’s a vicious striker with real finishing ability. Despite that finish ability, I don’t think Cane has what it takes to finish Sokoudjou. I think this fight will certainly end early, but I see Sokoudjou coming away with the win.
And here’s a quick look at the last two fights:
MARCUS DAVIS VS. PAUL KELLY – Davis is an experienced boxer and an all-around veteran, but I think Kelly is going to surprise a lot of people in this one. He may be inexperienced, but he’s got great fight vision.
PREDICTION: Paul Kelly
CHRIS LYTLE VS. PAUL TAYLOR – Chris Lytle is known as The Gatekeeper for a reason: he beats lesser-known fighters while losing to the top echelon of welterweights. He’s a crafty veteran with a decent chin and the same reckless abandon for his own safety possessed by Chris Leben. Paul Taylor put up an impressive performance against Paul Kelly in his last fight, but he’ll simply be overmatched by the UFC veteran in this one. And while even the strongest of Lytle wins won’t grant him a title shot, it would go a long way towards getting him rematches with Karo Parisyan, Josh Koschek, Matt Serra and other top fighters who he’s lost to in the past.
PREDICTION: Chris Lytle