This fall will be the UFC’s season of the diminutive fighter.
First, the “Ultimate Fighter 14” will air in mid-September and showcase the bantam and featherweights, and then Dominick Cruz will defend his 135-pound title live on Versus (meaning tape-delay on the West Coast) on Oct. 1 for those with modest cable packages. If you’ve watched the lighter weight classes over the years, then you know the dueling banjo nature of these match-ups. The UFC knows that you know and suspects that if you don’t, you’ll catch on quick. The little dudes are being dropped into your living rooms for free because they are infectious to watch. It’s all coils and springs.
And yet the bottom line is that, if Urijah Faber isn’t involved, neither Cruz nor featherweight champion Jose Aldo is big enough to market as a viable pay-per-view event headliner. That’s why Aldo is defending against Kenny Florian as a co-main event at UFC 136 in Houston behind the Gray Maynard/Frankie Edgar re-rematch for the 155-pound strap. The UFC has been slowly building up to showcasing its lighter divisions since integrating the WEC’s roster in early-2011, and the fall is when the true unveiling starts to happen.
The airing of Cruz’s title defense against Demetrious Johnson in Washington, D.C. is strategically smart. Cruz is one of the most exciting non-finishers in the sport, with a style that’s very busy and full of blurry nuances. He gets hit less than any professional fighter. He is equal parts frustrating and fascinating with his head movement and striking. There are no lapse moments. And most importantly, he’s one of the best pound-for-pound fighters to ever be as anonymous.
Former WEC matchmaker matchmaker Sean Shelby and UFC President Dana White are brushing off the gem, so to speak.
“You put [Cruz] on free TV because I believe in that model,” White recently told Tim Marchman of SI.com. “I believe that you put great fights with great fighters on free TV. And you build these guys up, and you build the fan base, and you get more and more people to know who they are and want to see them fight in the big fights.”
As for what TUF 14 will do for the bringing out the smaller weigh classes? Lots.
Admittedly, when Dana White first did the “holy s---” thing right after watching the fights to get in the TUF 14 house, this seemed like a ploy to augment the distance between the thud-like TUF 13 and the new season. But there is some evidence that he could be telling it like it is. For one thing, Jeff Hougland -- who debuted successfully against Donny Walker at UFC 132 -- was a reject from this season’s tryouts. So was the recently signed British fighter Vaughan Lee, who is set to fight Chris Cariaso in England at UFC 138. It speaks to the intrigue of TUF 14 that some of its rejects are finding their way into the UFC the old-fashioned way -- through the back door. This bodes ever better for the guys that stuck.
It also means that this season’s coaches -- Michael Bisping and Jason Miller -- are more incidental to the big idea. The true stars being trumpeted are the crop of smallies that they’re coaching, and more pointedly the divisions that need our attention.