In a whirlwind of a heavyweight title fight Saturday night, Cain Velasquez wrested the UFC heavyweight belt away from Brock Lesnar. No controversies in this one — Lesnar was gracious in defeat, and referee Herb Dean stopped it at exactly the right time.
The reaction: Lesnar’s wrestling isn’t enough for him to succeed, the era of the colossal heavyweight might be over, Lesnar might not have a “fighter’s heart” and Dana White has to be fretting about business with his big-time draw defeated. And that’s just at Bloody Elbow, a reasonable MMA blog (and a great partner for USA TODAY). Somewhere in that mix, we even saw an argument that Lesnar might turn around and go back to pro wrestling.
The question about Lesnar’s heart comes from designated provocateur Jonathan Snowden and seems a little harsh after Lesnar’s twin comebacks from diverticulitis and the first-round battering he took from Shane Carwin. The questions about how his skills can and will match up with other talented heavyweights will be intriguing for a couple of years to come — if he isn’t slowed by age and whatever toll pro wrestling and illness took on his body.
The question about Lesnar going back to pro wrestling is a by-product of The Undertaker showing up and saying something to Lesnar, which seems the work of a desperate entertainment company or a desperate man. From my conversation with Lesnar in the weeks leading up to the fight, I think he’s very happy with his lifestyle and has no interest in going back to anything else. He wants to train in his private gym in Minnesota. He’s tired of talking and won’t want a scriptwriter putting words in his mouth.
So that leaves the question of the impact of Lesnar’s loss on the UFC, which Bloody Elbow’s Kid Nate rounds up as a short-term loss and long-term potential gain.
This much we can say with confidence: The UFC was building up pretty well before Brock Lesnar’s emergence. And only in his last two fights has Lesnar been asked to carry a card with little help. He first fought for the title against Randy Couture, a huge figure in UFC history making his return to the Octagon. He defended/unified the title on a star-studded UFC 100 card. Only in his comeback bout against Carwin and Saturday’s bout against Velasquez was he THE guy — and in the Spanish-speaking media, Velasquez was the guy.
So UFC naysayers can put the gloating to rest. This isn’t EliteXC screaming in terror as Kimbo Slice tumbles or Strikeforce trying to salvage the Fedor relationship and aura.
But there’s an underlying issue. Technically two, and one possible solution covers both of them.
Issue 1: The fighters who ruled the UFC as it went through explosive growth are starting to fade. That includes older stalwarts such as Chuck Liddell, Randy Couture, Matt Hughes and Tito Ortiz. It includes BJ Penn, shockingly dethroned as lightweight champion by lower-profile Frankie Edgar, and Anderson Silva, who is still middleweight champion but saves his explosiveness for brief forays at light heavyweight. Stretch a few years into this growth period, and it includes Lesnar, who hasn’t faded but isn’t quite as invincible as he once seemed. The exception is Georges St. Pierre, who has his critics after failing to finish a couple of opponents.
Issue 2: The UFC has been stretching its marquee fighters through an increasingly busy schedule of “numbered” events — 13 in 2009, 15 in 2009, 17 in 2010. That has led to a few pay-per-view cards with main events or co-main events featuring fighters who might be well-known to the devoted fan but not so much to the recent converts that UFC needs to keep those buy rates and ticket sales up. The UFC is getting by with good numbers, but the unrest among fans who don’t want to pay for all these cards is palpable. (Particularly if you’ve ever hosted a live chat.)
How can you make the fans happier while building more marquee names? One possibility: more fights on free TV. More “Fight Nights” and cards on Versus, which is nice for those of us who are a little too old and married for the Spike demographic.
The UFC Primetime shows, featuring up-close-and-personal looks at the fighters, can only do so much to build them up. When you have someone unpredictable like BJ Penn, it works. For Lesnar and Velasquez, it didn’t. TV producers can only do so much to push the “hard-working private Midwestern guy vs. hard-working Mexican-American guy” angle. Through three episodes, we saw more farmland than we’d see in a six-hour John Mellencamp video retrospective.
Free TV may not always be big business — for some reason, casual MMA fans have yet to realize how entertaining WEC cards can be, even without Urijah Faber — but they can help build these guys up. We can meet someone on The Ultimate Fighter and watch him progress to pay-per-view.
The problem isn’t that the UFC is doing too many pay-per-views. But as they build worldwide, they’ll need to do so with a mix of pay and free TV. Without The Ultimate Fighter and the exposure to casual fans, would the UFC be anywhere near the status it enjoys today?
Lesnar isn’t the problem. His next fight should draw some interest, and a possible championship comeback would be huge. Yet he shows why the UFC has been wise never to put all its eggs in a couple of baskets. And the emergence of relatively unknown champions such as Edgar and Velasquez shows why we need more time to meet these guys.