It was thrown together at the last minute. At first blush, it came off like a ploy to drum up interest in a card that probably needed it. Technically it wasn't even a level playing field considering one fight was scheduled for three rounds; the other, five.
Yet on a night when everything turned aces for the UFC on national television, Saturday's impromptu four-man light heavyweight quasi-eliminator tournament actually, amazingly, accomplished more than it set out to do.
Whether you agree with the decision to insert Lyoto Machida against Jon Jones or Dan Henderson, or you're in the camp that wanted Mauricio Rua to get that shot, or you think neither deserve an opportunity to reclaim the UFC belt right now, the truth is this: In a situation that begged for mixed martial arts to produce the way it so often has, the action, stakes and final decision in Los Angeles rendered down to a thick, rich, captivating drama.
Even the post-event announcement on Fox from UFC president Dana White was pitch perfect.
Of course, this time it worked, almost as if no other outcome was possible. But anyone who’s paid the slightest bit of attention over the years knows nothing is guaranteed, which is why UFC has shied away from publicly promoting more tournaments, even if on paper it might make total sense.
Caol Uno and B.J. Penn fighting to a draw or shoddy math forcing a second tilt between Demetrious Johnson and Ian McCall will always linger as reminders of what can go wrong. No one wants those sort of awful outcomes, but nothing ventured is nothing gained and once in a while, a little risk is just what’s needed to compel fighters to do something memorable, for good or for ill.
A fight could always be foiled by a finger to the eye. One never knows. The bouts at Staples Center could have been stinkers leaving nary a decision to make. But they weren’t. They were terrific. Fortunately, none of the many disastrous hypotheticals one can come up with didn’t materialize. Rather, Machida made an unequivocal statement, one that possibly prompted "Shogun" and/or Brandon Vera to fight their hearts out.
Stakes can matter.
The UFC operates with a certain unique flexibility, making nights like Saturday possible. Few sports, leagues or promotions are capable (and more to the point, willing) for on-the-fly, out-of-the-box solutions. Though this might also leave UFC open to ridicule when things don’t work (just imagine the howls that would have come down from on high, had results taken an ugly turn), fault-finders surely aren’t soothsayers. No one can accurately predict what will happen from one fight to the next, one event to the next, one round to the next.
Almost all of us (raising my hand here) pegged Rua an easy winner over Vera. Instead, the talent-laden “Truth” put on a display that led people to wonder where this guy has been the past five years. Yes, at best he won a single stanza of the fight’s three-plus rounds, and eventually, of course, was knocked cold, but as White succinctly said afterward, you can’t put a “ranking on heart and determination.”
The question is, were it not for the quasi-tournament, were it not for the lingering possibility of a title shot, would Vera have brought it the way he did?
Things lined up perfectly for the UFC, there’s no doubting that. History tells us they won’t always, and the promotion has to be careful not to force manufactured stakes on its fighters or fans. But once in a while it’s the smart thing to do, and generally speaking, Zuffa gets it right.
The promotion certainly did this weekend. Next time? Your guess is as good as mine.