So UFC Fight Night 137 took place on Saturday in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Maybe I won’t go so far as to call it “a happening,” like Gorilla Monsoon, but at the very least, it happened.
Unfortunately for Eryk Anders, things didn’t really “happen” so to speak. However, even if the vaunted ex-University of Alabama linebacker ended up getting a sobering experience and perhaps a lesson about taking fights on short notice from Thiago Santos, other things still happened. Granted, not all of them were great. Mostly, UFC Fight Night 137, which featured 14 fights, was an intense reminder that the promotion is going through the motions as it figures out its business model in 2018; and it continues to make it as arduous as possible on fans and spectators.
Maybe you stayed tuned for all seven hours and maybe you didn’t, but at the very least we got two notable retirements -- one a little more dignified than the other -- and there were 10 stoppages, so at least we dodged our Saturday night stretching even longer. Whether I hit you in the heart and expressed your feelings as a fan or just made you think I’m just a jaded old man, here’s five takeaways from UFC Fight Night 137:
Is the Event Over Yet?
Look, I’m not going to totally blame the UFC, at least creatively speaking, for the inevitably bad ratings that we’ll find this card registering from Neilsen. Glover Teixeira and Jimi Manuwa had been teasing the desire to fight one another, the UFC had a Brazilian date, Teixeira is Brazilian and they lined that sucker up. The company’s mentality is what it is at this point: WME-IMG negotiates with sports management groups who control local arena rights, and they use the UFC as a bargaining chip. “Oh, you want Ben Affleck to film his next passion project in your city next year and use your venue for a scene or two? Well, you have to take this UFC.” It’s big business at the highest level, but in this case, the UFC clearly tried to line up a preferential card for a Brazilian audience at a time where all too often the promotion goes to a territory and fails to actually put locals on the card. However, Teixeira got injured, then Manuwa got injured and we ended up with Santos-Anders on less than a week’s notice. That’s not the problem, though.
No one, no matter how much they love professional prizefighting, wants to watch 14 fights in a row. It takes seven hours or more. You can say, “Well, dummy, just don’t watch them all.” Whose interest does that serve? What does it mean if the UFC is putting on over a dozen fights no one will watch? How does that help the athletes who actually compete in those contests?
I love watching prizefighting, and I don’t want anyone to ever lose an opportunity. However, even if I may have qualms about some of the shadowy figures funding international MMA promotions behind the scenes, a fighter cut from the UFC is not necessarily losing his or her “opportunity.” The regular roster fighters for promotions like Bellator MMA, One Championship and Absolute Championship Berkut are not going poor; and the Professional Fighters League is still promising to give a million dollars to all of its forthcoming tournament winners. However, what breeds familiarity and, in turn, success and popularity, is when you’re invested in an event and you see two fighters that blow your mind and show you what hand-to-hand combat can resemble.
This is how miscellaneous fights of yesteryear like Roger Huerta-Leonard Garcia end up on the cover of Sports Illustrated or how something like Chan Sung Jung-Dustin Poirier is a universally accepted unanimous “Fight of the Year.” I know that the UFC has almost 600 fighters on its roster and that matchmakers Sean Shelby and Mick Maynard have obligations to fulfill those contracts, but asking the consumer to watch a 14-fight card is not just hurting the product; it hurts the fighters, too. By the time the main card rolls around, you’re exhausted, you care less, you’re less invested and you pay less attention. A main event is supposed to be what the words say -- the main event -- and even if mutilated by late-notice injuries, when people watch your headliner and just wonder when the night will be over, you’ve got a monkey wrench in your machinery.
Is This Contract Over Yet?
I don’t want to sound like I outright hated UFC Fight Night 137; keep reading and I’ll have multiple glowing memories to share. At the same time, it’s not enough to even point out that hardcore, diehard fight fans have turned on the UFC product. At this point -- and yes, I know the Fox relationship is up when the calendar rolls over and the promotion shifts to ESPN -- even the UFC’s broadcasting partners have turned on the product.
Approximately 46 hours into this marathon card, Ryan Spann and Luis Henrique Barbosa de Oliveira were in the Octagon. Now, granted, the fight was mostly marked by both men hopping horrible guillotine choke attempts, but nonetheless, a bout was still happening and the fight was on the line with just over 90 seconds to go. What happened?
Fox Sports 2 just suddenly flipped to a baseball promo, right at the conclusion of the fight. One second, Spann is in side mount, and the next, I’m looking at the back of Justin Turner’s Dodgers jersey. I’m not saying I don’t enjoy a hot pennant race, but could you get dissed harder by your own broadcasting partner? I want to say this was just a lazy program director who goofed up, but there’s no way this happened by accident. You could take this as simply sour grapes and a couple folks in the truck goofing around, but there’s something so well-timed and brutal about such a screw-up that it seems hard to imagine it wasn’t somehow premeditated.
Well, At Least Someone Still Has Some Dignity
The best thing to take away from this card was Thales Leites’ retirement. If there’s anything we will remember on an otherwise forgettable card, it’ll be that a good middleweight went out with a level of grace not witnessed since Chris Lytle choked out Dan Hardy in his Midwest homestead, even if it had to be Wisconsin instead of Indiana.
I loved everything about Leites’ unanimous decision over Hector Lombard. The fact that he lost the first round and had to battle back. The fact that in his final fight -- well, allegedly his final fight, since we know how this sport goes -- he had to use the same striking people have mocked for 15 years of professional fighting, even though he was facing one of the biggest pound-for-pound hitters in MMA history. The fact that there was Leites’ dorky muay Thai exchanges. Just at the moment when it seemed like the fight was up for grabs after 10 minutes, Leites slashed Lombard’s eye, earned a doctor check and somehow let us know it was going to be a Hollywood or Sao Paulo ending.
There was no debate about the result. Nearly every MMA fan and journalist scored the bout 29-28 for Leites. There was no discrepancy, no error. Leites is not a hall of famer; he is and was what my friends always term a “Hall of Very Gooder.”
Frankly, he’s had a goofy career. When he debuted in the UFC back in 2006, he was the hottest middleweight prospect on the planet; he promptly gassed out and got absolutely pistol-whipped on cable television by Martin Kampmann. However, he earned his way to a UFC title shot, even if it will be infamously and legendarily remembered as perhaps the worst MMA title challenge in history, as he humiliated himself so badly against Anderson Silva that UFC President Dana White lost his mind after fans literally turned off the pay-per-view. He needed his teammate, an actual legend in Jose Aldo, to lobby for him to get another promotional contract after nearly four years out of the company.
At the same time, Leites always hustled and figured out how to work his highly predictable game against any opponent, and 28 times out of 37 career fights, he won. He got his hand raised in the country in which he was raised. He had his trainer, the normally stoic and unemotional Andre Pederneiras, completely mark out for his inevitable decision win, getting hype and pointing at him as the decision was read before putting him on his shoulders for a victory ride. These people literally risk life and limb for our entertainment, so it’s only spiriting that anyone could go out in a just and human blaze of glory, especially in the right place at the right time.
Not Everyone Gets Out of this Game So Well
Leites wasn’t the only one that hung up the gloves in Sao Paulo; Evan Dunham did it, too. Unfortunately, things didn’t go quite so well for the Oregonian. Especially since the UFC broadcast called him a “Las Vegan” despite the fact Dunham has seemingly had an Oregon Ducks hat stapled to his head since the moment of his birth.
I wouldn’t necessarily appraise Dunham as historically notable as the aforementioned Leites based on their careers and accomplishments. At the same time, Dunham toiled in a vastly better weight class and dealt with a myriad of injury issues over his career. However, it just goes to show how cruel the fight game can be. Leites, for all his foibles, will be remembered for an empowering, redemptive retirement moment. Dunham will be remembered for getting stuck in his ribcage by Francisco Trinaldo’s kneecap and the time Mike Goldberg announced he’d choked out Sean Sherk and instantly retracted it in one of the biggest gaffes of the most gaffe-prone MMA play-by-play guy in history.
While I may disagree, Dunham arguably won the first round, and as I alluded, he was a fantastic fighter who always entertained and was mostly shortchanged by falling into the wrong weight class and the failings of the human body. Who asks to fight Rafael dos Anjos, Donald Cerrone and Edson Barboza consecutively? In a way, it’s a clue-in that many of the fighters we remember weren’t ever champions or truly great, but they still thrilled us. It’s not a career I would wish on my hypothetical children, but nonetheless, it serves as a reminder that the people that populate this sport and have the propensity to knock your socks off aren’t always the same athletes that wind up in the annals of immortality.
Everyone is Just a Roster Fighter
I debated how to compose our fifth lesson. I had two competing ideas. One, that Anders is a vivid reminder that fighters are born and not built, and two, that over a marathon 14-fight event, you’re unfortunately reminded of how many fighters on the UFC roster you simply don’t care about. For better or worse, we combine these ideas.
It was just four weeks ago I wrote in these same column inches that, even though the touted Anders underperformed against Tim Williams at UFC Fight Night 135, we shouldn’t throw an athletically gifted baby out with the bathwater. I still feel the same way, especially given the fact that his poor performance against Santos seemed to stem from taking the fight on a week’s notice and gassing so badly he couldn’t stand up at the end of the third round. Nonetheless, there’s a very real lesson here: Not all fighters are great athletes, and not all great athletes can be fighters.
If he was a little faster, a little bigger, a little more aggressive, Anders would be playing for a National Football League squad on Sundays (or Thursdays, or Saturdays, depending on the season). Likely, none of us could beat this man in the 40-yard dash, yet that’s what his entire MMA future was predicated on. When do you stop excusing slip-ups? I see journalists talking about Anders lack of experience, but he went 5-0 as an amateur dating back to February 2012; that’s well over six years ago. Anders is a great talker -- self-effacing, in fact, given his post-fight quip that he hadn’t been so tired since his wedding night -- and is definitely the sort of athlete that any red-blooded male would want to be. However, that’s not what makes you a fighter. On a night when any fan who was able to sustain the 14-fight barrage watched 28 athletes get in the cage, it makes you all the more attuned to the fact that, frankly, some people can just fight.
Apropos of this week, as Jon Jones was handed his pathetic, 15-month suspension from the United States Anti-Doping Agency, you recognize that some people, for lack of better terminology, just know how to beat someone up. I know Jones, for all his idiocy and malfeasance, is a one-in-a-million talent. However, if you watched Jones take the favored Andre Gusmao to school at UFC 87 despite being a pro for less than a year, all while hitting suplexes and spinning back elbows, you know what I’m saying. You just knew.
MMA is a bizarre, difficult and extreme sport that attracts a certain kind of person. Sometimes, they’re high-level athletes that just didn’t quite make it in a stick-and-ball sport that pays far more money on a rookie contract. However, we collectively have a defeatist vision of those said athletes, imagining that what we’re watching is mere child’s play until Lawrence Taylor shows up to punch someone in the face. Some people can catch a ball, but they can’t catch those hands. They can tackle someone on the field, but tackling someone in the cage is a lot different. Maybe someday Anders fights for a UFC title, and honestly, he charms me and makes me root for that outcome. With that said, we’re past an era where assuming someone who got the genetic leg-up on the rest of opposition is destined for gold. Some people -- a rare breed -- can just fight.
That’s why we watch, even if it takes seven hours.