Tuesday, October 20, 2009

UFC 104: Preview

It's been well over a month since Rich Franklin (25-5) suffered a first-round, TKO loss to Vitor Belfort (19-8) at UFC 103 (Sept. 13th). Since then, there have been no live UFC fights. That's a considerably longer break than fans have recently grown accustomed to, but, starting with UFC 104 (Oct. 24th), there are three UFC events scheduled in the next five weeks. One of which, UFC 105: Couture vs. Vera (Nov. 14th), will be shown for free on Spike TV, and the other, UFC 106: Lesnar vs. Ortiz (Nov. 21st), features three of MMA's biggest draws: Brock Lesnar (4-1), who will defend his heavyweight title, and a rematch between Tito Ortiz (15-6-1) and Forrest Griffin (16-6).

That UFC fans have so much to look forward to is great, but, unfortunately, the hype for those other cards has stolen some much-needed buzz away from UFC 104: Machida vs. Shogun. It goes down this Saturday at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, California and marks the UFC's return to L.A. after a two-year absence, which means that, if nothing else, there should be plenty of big-name celebrities in attendance! The pay-per-view (PPV) portion of the card begins at 7pm/PST and will be preceded by a commercial free broadcast, of at least two live under card fights, on Spike TV, beginning at 6pm/PST.

The lack of hype surrounding UFC 104 is also attributable to the seemingly limited interest, especially among casual fans, in the main event. It pits the UFC's reigning light heavyweight (LHW) champion, Lyoto "The Dragon" Machida (15-0), against, fellow Brazilian, Mauricio "Shogun" Rua (18-3). As a huge Machida fan and a believer that "Shogun" can recapture the brilliant form he showed in PRIDE, I am personally very interested to see this title fight, but, from a marketing perspective, it's clear that a number of factors are working against it.

First, neither fighter is a citizen of the USA, the U.K., or Canada. Second, neither speaks flawless English, and, third,
both fighters are laid back enough not to have their personalities stick out in the minds of the public. It's a sad fact, but that combination of attributes can, and usually does, limit a fighter's marketability to the UFC fan-base. Brazil's Anderson Silva (25-4) has been fighting an uphill battle for fan interest for years, despite having an electrifying style and a %70 (T)KO rate in the UFC.

In addition, there's a perception among many UFC fans that "Shogun" has not done enough to deserve this title shot. After all, they say, he has gone just 2-1 in the octagon with wins over only past-their-prime fighters: 44-year-old Mark Coleman (16-9) and 39-year-old Chuck Liddell (21-7). The perception of "Shogun" as undeserving has been magnified by casino oddsmakers giving
"The Dragon" about 1-to-5 odds. That means you'd have to wager $25 on Machida in order to win a mere five bucks. By contrast, "Shogun" is getting 13-to-4 odds, or over $80 profit on the same $25 bet. This apparent proof of an impending blow-out has only added to the public's notion that "Shogun" didn't earn this shot.

As is often the case, the reality of the situation is quite different from the perception. In truth, "Shogun" is a world-class fighter who was once ranked #1 at LHW and has lost just once (legitimately) since 2003. That loss came in his octagon debut at UFC 76 against, then, future LHW champion Forrest Griffin. Rua's only other recorded loss in the last six years was due to a freak arm injury he suffered in 2006 against Mark Coleman, but "Shogun" avenged that loss at UFC 93. Shogun is also a bonafide showman, known for pushing a relentless pace and throwing impressive flying knees. His muay thai striking is highly advanced and may be just what's needed to penetrate Machida's seemingly impervious defenses.

The fact is, Machida has been so dominant in the UFC, going 7-0 without losing a single round, that only a handful of fighters would be given even the same odds to slay "The Dragon" than "Shogun" is getting now. In fact, there is probably only one recent LHW combatant currently in the UFC who would receive significantly better odds. That fighter is Anderson Silva, but he's currently the middleweight (MW) champion and is also such good friends with Machida that Zuffa, the holding company that owns the UFC, would literally have to pay both fighters a million dollars to get them to square off. With other LHW contenders like Tito Ortiz, Thiago Silva (14-1), and Rashad Evans (14-1-1) all having just lost to Machida, and "Rampage" Jackson (30-7) currently claiming he's retired, there is simply no LHW more deserving than "Shogun."

Ironically, the biggest reason for the limited buzz surrounding UFC 104 may be that Lyoto Machida looks poised to dominate the division indefinitely. Joe Rogan certainly seemed convinced of that when he famously welcomed fans to "The Machida Era" immediately following Lyoto's near-flawless destruction of then-champion Rashad Evans at UFC 98. As long as Machida's
star power remains limited (for reasons mentioned above) and his style continues to confound opponents, it will be difficult for Dana White & company to promote his matches. The UFC is currently marketing him as a vaguely mysterious, karate-kid-esque figure, but it's not clear yet if the fan-base will respond to that approach. While "The Dragon's" otherworldly skill may be hampering UFC 104's attractiveness to consumers, it's also the best reason to tune in on Saturday. Lyoto Machida is one of only a handful of current fighters that consistently elevate MMA to its rightful place as a breathtaking art form-- the opportunity to witness him fight should not be passed up lightly.

Of course, there's also a highly decent main card scheduled
for UFC 104. It's chock-full of fierce strikers like Josh "The Dentist" Neer, Anthony "Rumble" Johnson, and Spencer "The King" Fisher. It includes a co-main event, that's likely a HW title shot eliminator, between, fast-rising Mexican-American superstar, Cain Velasquez and, highly experienced bruiser/UFC newcomer, "Big" Ben Rothwell. There's not a single PPV fight that appears likely to make it to the judges scorecards.

The following rankings come courtesy of the USA Today/SB Nation poll, which compiles results from twenty different MMA websites to create the most comprehensive rankings available.

Ranked fighters at UFC 104 include
Lyoto Machida (LHW #1), Mauricio Rua (LHW #4), Cain Velasquez (HW #11), Ben Rothwell (HW #19), Joe Stevenson (LW #20), Spencer Fisher (LW #21), Yushin Okami (MW #4), and Chael Sonnen (MW #10).

"UFC 104: Machida vs. Shogun" Is Scheduled As Follows:

Lyoto Machida (15-0) vs. Mauricio "Shogun" Rua (18-3) --- For Machida's UFC Light Heavyweight Title.

Ben Rothwell (36-6) vs. Cain Velasquez (6-0)
Josh Neer (25-8-1) vs. Gleison Tibau (19-6)
Spencer Fisher (23-4) vs. Joe Stevenson (30-10)
Anthony Johnson (7-2) vs. Yoshiyuki Yoshida (11-3)

PRELIMINARY CARD (Guaranteed to air on Spike TV)
Ryan Bader (9-0) vs. Eric Schafer (11-3-2)
Patrick Barry (4-1) vs. Antoni Hardonk (8-5)

PRELIMINARY CARD (May not be televised)
Yushin Okami (23-4)vs. Chael Sonnen (23-10-1)
Rob Kimmons (22-4) vs. Jorge Rivera (16-7)
Razak Al-Hassan (6-1) vs. Kyle Kingsbury (7-2)
Stefan Struve (17-3) vs. Chase Gormley (6-0)

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