By Seth Falvo (@SethFalvo)
We’re just hours away from UFC on FOX 4, where four men will attempt to become the least impressive light-heavyweight title challenger since Elvis Sinosic by winning in the most impressive manner possible. To paraphrase Jeff Fox, the winner of the upcoming Jones vs. Henderson bout will defend his belt against the winner of tonight’s semantics game. There’s got to be a catch, right?
Of course there is. Even the dimmest MMA fans among us have already interpreted this as a way for Dana White to back out of giving Brandon Vera a title shot if he were to actually defeat Mauricio “Shogun” Rua tonight. Shogun is obviously the preferable contender, but just in case he blows this somehow, we’ll shrug it off and put the winner of Machida/Bader in the cage with Jones/Hendo, right? Quite the contrary: This semantics game was designed to give Lyoto Machida a title shot with a victory.
Right now, some of you are screaming “What kind of idiot hack journalist are you, Seth?!” at your screens. First, allow me to welcome you to Cage Potato – you’re obviously new here. Second, let me lay it out for you with four simple reasons.
1.) A victory over Ryan Bader is more impressive than a victory over Vera/Rua. Seriously. Heading into tonight, Ryan Bader is the only fighter out of the four “contenders” who has won two straight fights, having recently defeated Jason Brilz and Rampage Jackson in his last two bouts. Before that he was caught in a fluke guillotine by Tito Ortiz and dominated by Jon Jones (as was everyone else on this list, so that’s understandable), which make up the only two blemishes on his record. He’s the youngest of the four, the most decorated wrestler of the four and is always a game opponent.
The same simply cannot be said for either Brandon Vera or Shogun Rua. Excuse me if it seems like I’m harping on this, but Brandon Vera has not won a meaningful fight since he defeated Frank Mir back in 2006. He’s coming into tonight with a victory over a gift-wrapped Eliot Marshall, yet Vera almost managed to snatch defeat from the bitter jaws of victory and get knocked out in that fight. A victory over Brandon Vera earned Jon Jones a crack at Vladimir Matyushenko. There’s absolutely no reason why a victory over Brandon Vera should earn Shogun Rua a crack at Jon Jones.
As for Shogun? Let’s face it: He’s a thirty year old post-prime PRIDE veteran with bad knees. He hasn’t won back-to-back fights since he beat the mummified versions of Mark Coleman and Chuck Liddell that were on the UFC roster in 2009 (although he arguably should have won three straight). If he loses tonight, he’ll have lost three of his last four fights. I hate to say this, but if Shogun Rua loses tonight, it may be time to move him away from the title picture for good. But then again, “loses” is a bit misleading because…
2.) Vera won’t “win” so much as Shogun will “lose” if the unthinkable happens. It feels strange to argue that the casual fan’s opinion doesn’t matter, because, as I’ve pointed out before, it matters even more than most of us edumacated fans would care to acknowledge. Hell, their lack of interest in these Fox cards is probably what led to this mess in the first place. To the casual fan - who knows nothing of either Brandon Vera or Shogun Rua - a win is a win regardless. Plus Vera actually winning would kind of have that Rocky feel to it, so as long as he is exciting he will have earned a chance to get destroyed in a title fight, right?
There’s just one problem – “The Most Impressive Victory” won’t be determined by an ‘American Idol’ voting system. It will be determined by Dana White, who is anything but a casual fan.
Let’s admit it: If Vera goes out and wins tonight, hardcore fans like ourselves will all be wondering what was wrong with Shogun. And why wouldn’t we? We’ve been following the vicious knockout artist since his days of fighting in Muay Thai smokers in some dude’s house. We know what he’s capable of, and we know that a can like Vera shouldn’t be able to beat him. If he gets submitted, we’ll say that he just got caught; kind of like how we reacted to Werdum submitting Fedor. If he actually gets knocked out, we’ll wonder if Rua should start to consider retirement. We know too much to perceive it any other way.
Besides, if Vera does manage to beat Shogun Rua, it will more than likely be by neutralizing Shogun’s aggressive attack with a “Stick. Move. Wall. Stall. Rinse. Wash. Repeat.” offense. And as much as the casual fan may like a good story, the casual fan absolutely hates this style of fighting. With the turd on a plate that was UFC 149 fresh in his memory, the last thing Dana White wants to do is give a boring fighter a title shot.
I hope you aren’t done philosophizing, because…
3.) Likewise, Rua can’t “impressively” defeat Brandon Vera. I’ll keep this one short, because it’s essentially everything I just said in the last paragraph applied to Shogun instead of Vera. We know how mediocre Brandon Vera has been since 2007. Perceptions, rinse wash repeat joke, you get the idea. The bottom line here is that if Rua goes out and smashes “The Truth,” then, well…yeah. He was fighting a guy who only had a job in the first place because of Thiago Silva’s fake urine shenanigans. If Vera actually stays in this fight, we’ll all be talking about how bad Shogun looked to allow the 2012 Truth to be competitive against him. It’s a lose-lose scenario for Rua, which will make a Lyoto Machida victory look more impressive by default.
4.) Lyoto Machida vs. Jon Jones could give us the satisfying ending to the Anderson Silva vs. Jon Jones super fight we’re looking for. One of the reasons that the UFC has been driving boxing towards extinction was that Dana White wouldn’t allow his best fighters to duck each other. His fighters knew that it was all about protecting the UFC brand, not their own. If the fans wanted to see two guys fight, they either signed a contract to fight or started learning Japanese.
I used the past tense because, let’s face it, all of that is going on between Jon Jones and Anderson Silva. Both men have pretty much cleaned out their divisions, yet a super fight between the two is out of the question. These guys aren’t stupid. They know they’re too valuable to be released from the UFC, yet they can potentially lose all of that value with this proposed fight. It has to be Dana White’s worst nightmare as a promoter, and it can easily turn the fans that were drawn to the sport to avoid fighters ducking fights over to Bellator.
The UFC needs a way to either motivate both men to fight each other or make the fans lose interest in this fight, and Lyoto Machida provides both. Assuming that Jon Jones defeats Dan Henderson (because if he doesn’t, there goes the “I lose marketability” concerns), this sets “Bones” up with a fight against Anderson Silva’s Black House teammate, Lyoto Machida. This keeps some focus on the super fight, but it also keeps fans interested in the current title fight instead of dismissing it. In other words, with Vera/Rua, the fan perspective is “Look at Jones ducking Silva,” but with Machida, the perspective is now “Let’s see how Silva prepares Machida for Jones.”
We’ve seen Anderson Silva get fired up over cocky, disrespectful comments before (Sonnen, anyone?), and we’ve seen Jon Jones make plenty of those. If Jones goes on to defeat Machida again, does anyone honestly rule out the possibility of him calling Black House overrated? Didn’t think so. That could easily be enough to push Anderson Silva past protecting his image and into a fight with the cocky American. Likewise, if Machida actually defeats Bones, we’re no longer even entertaining the Silva vs. Jones discussion. Jon Jones just lost to Anderson Silva’s teammate, Silva has been vocal about not wanting to fight his teammates so we know a title fight between Machida and Jones is out…why do we want to see Silva move up to fight Jones again? The UFC’s best interest is providing fans with a satisfying ending to the Silva vs. Jones super fight, and Jones vs. Machida easily has the best chance of doing this.
So there you have it. Lyoto Machida just has to defeat Ryan Bader to earn a title shot. Assuming that Sensei Seagal has been close by, Machida will probably win the casual fans over with a flashy knockout if he wins. As long as Jon Jones defeats Dan Henderson, Jones will get Machida, Henderson will get the rematch of the decade against Shogun Rua and Brandon Vera will finally get a pink slip. And all will be right in the world.