By Matt Saccaro
Fans didn’t think it could get worse than UFC 169. Then they watched UFC Fight Night 36—a night of fights so horrid even the technical artistry in the main event bout between Lyoto Machida and Gegard Mousasi couldn’t save it.
The negativity ran deeper than the amount of decisions on the card—which was the most common criticism. A decision doesn’t necessarily equate to a bad fight. But a decision that lacks action and is fought between C and D level fighters who aren’t even known by everyone at their respective gyms, let alone the fans, does equate to a bad fight.
I discussed the recent plague of decisions at length after UFC 169. I concluded that the UFC faced three issues:
1. Fighters that are so evenly matched they negate one another.
2. Fighters have become risk-averse—fearful that one loss will send their contract to the paper shredder. Removing submission and knockout of the night bonuses probably didn’t help spur such fighters on to accomplish great in-cage feats.
3. The baseline quality of the average UFC fighter is far lower than it used to be. The days of elite athletes fighting in the “Super Bowl of MMA” are long gone. Welcome to the age of lowered standards; The UFC needs warm bodies to fill out a Fight Pass card in Djibouti. The term “UFC caliber” means nothing.
For the time being, the UFC seems content to ignore these problems to focus on “World Fucking Domination.” They don’t realize marketing what amounts to UFC-branded regional shows in other countries is losing them their fans in the United States. Just look at TUF’s most recent ratings. Fans simply don’t care about the UFC like they did in the halcyon days days of SpikeTV, Brock Lesnar, and PPVs that didn’t hearken to boxing’s age-old strategy of a good main event preceded by an army of no-names. Fans don’t care because what’s there to care about? The product is, to put it simply, lacking. The few remaining big names are islands in a sea of wiki-less, generic UFC fighters™.
This is the situation Bellator finds the MMA landscape in as the Viacom-0wned promotion starts its 10th season—which features some pretty intriguing tournaments. In fact, I’m looking forward to these tournaments playing out more than I’m looking forward to the slew of upcoming UFC Fight Night cards. True, many of the Fight Night cards have more talent in their main events, but their undercards and prelims are lacking. I have more interest in watching Bellator hopefuls like Goiti Yamauchi, Marcin Held, Liam McGeary and Bubba Jenkins than I do in watching many nameless fighters hired only to fill air time on prelims and on televised portions of UFC cards.
“But Bellator has a bunch of no-names too,” you say? Fair enough. Bellator’s shows and UFC Fight Night cards are, at the worst of times, both regional events with more pomp; the quality of fighter is, to make a tired reference, virtually identical. But I can watch Bellator’s prelims for free. They aren’t forcing me to buy a half-finished, poorly put together, potentially dangerous digital network to watch fights that belong in a strip club parking lot in Raleigh-Durham. And, at the risk of dozens of CagePotato commenters calling me “Mat Sackofshit,” I think that free Bellator cards are in some ways more interesting to watch than free UFC cards. Sure, as I mentioned, the UFC’s free cards almost always have better main events than Bellator’s, but the undercard on Bellator’s free events are tournament bouts—and unlike many undercard matches on Fight Night cards, they actually have implications.
Furthermore, Bellator actually encourages their fighters to stand out and develop personalities. Meanwhile, the UFC is trying to generify their fighters as much as possible—not letting them wear masks (unless you’re from a market the UFC wants to reach) and putting them all in uniforms. Case in point: David Rickels’ caveman-themed walkout would’ve never happened in the modern-day UFC.
This isn’t to say that Bellator doesn’t have problems. They have loads. They can’t sell tickets. Their reality show was a bust. Their PPV last year became one of MMA’s most cringeworthy failures, as was their acquisition of Tito Ortiz (signing Rampage Jackson was frowned upon too but at least he made it into the cage). It’s unlikely that any future Bellator PPV will reach any notable or even average heights. Their matchmaking doesn’t correspond with the supposedly sacrosanct tournament system, and they’ve pulled some pretty shady stuff in the past.
Still, Bellator isn’t out of the fight. They’re closer to the UFC’s level than they’ve ever been—and not necessarily because they upped their game, but because the UFC diluted and lowered theirs to the point where a Friday night SpikeTV Bellator card matched (and in some cases exceeded) the entertainment value of a UFC Fight Night card on Fox Sports 1 (or Fox Sports 2, or UFC Fight Pass).