Fight plan: Steering UFC back on course
Between Forrest Griffin's hand injury, the unexpected ripple effect of the postponed Frank Mir-Brock Lesnar heavyweight title fight and the UFC's overwhelming urge to make a Quinton Jackson-Rashad Evans title fight happen ASAP, it's becoming painfully clear that the light heavyweight title picture is a mess from top to bottom.
Consider it the toll the UFC must pay for shifty matchmaking designed to get desired results, instead of making sure the most deserving fighters get a fair shake.
That's not to say the entire situation is an unsalvageable wreck. With the huge talent pool the UFC has to play with and the hectic schedule the promotion maintains, a streamlined and manageable light heavyweight division is within reach.
Actually making that grab for sanity, however, means that the following six fights should happen -- not so much for the sake of legitimacy, but to remind hard-core fans that the UFC isn't making a hard left into the same world of transparently Machiavellian machinations that eventually torpedoed the former pillar of fight sports, professional boxing.
1. Rashad Evans vs. Lyoto Machida
After trying to railroad an overworked Quinton Jackson into a title fight with Rashad Evans, the UFC now has to deal with the reality of Lyoto Machida as the top contender for Evans' crown.
UFC president Dana White confirmed Wednesday that Evans and Machida will meet at UFC 98 on May 23 -- but only because Jackson won't be ready for Evans by then. It's good to hear that the 14-0 Machida will get his shot, but it's still perplexing why he didn't get a fair deal from Dana White and company from the start.
Machida's treatment was especially frustrating in light of his one-round dissection of the highly regarded Thiago Silva at UFC 94. If you're going to hold back a top-flight fighter for being too "conservative," an unjust stance to begin with, at least have the decency to give him his due when he does live up to the lay fan's perception of what qualifies as "exciting."
A big part of being a legitimate sports enterprise is cultivating an environment in which turning a buck takes a backseat to the credibility of the sport itself. I guarantee that NBA commissioner David Stern lets out a sonic boom of a groan every time the San Antonio Spurs reach the NBA Finals, but you don't see him keeping them out of the playoffs in the name of the bottom line. And you can call me Captain Conspiracy, but unless fans make a stand against semi-rigged matchmaking, it will be fans and fighters who end up with the short end of the stick while the UFC keeps printing money.
2. Forrest Griffin vs. Quinton Jackson
First and foremost, this fight does right by both the fighters and the fans.
Forrest Griffin won't be back from his hand injury until late summer, and Quinton Jackson is in desperate need of a break after taking two fights in three months. That aside, this fight would serve as a legitimate No. 1 contender match instead of the sham the UFC tried to pull with the Jackson-Jardine main event at UFC 96.
The third upside here is that it would be a money machine for the UFC given the popularity of both fighters and the controversy surrounding Griffin's unanimous decision over Jackson at UFC 86. Given that making big-money fights is a driving force behind much of the UFC's matchmaking, this matchup seems obvious.
3. Thiago Silva vs. Keith Jardine
They're both good; they both got knocked down a peg in their most recent fights; and it's high time the UFC stopped treating such fighters like hot potatoes.
There's no point in matching Silva and Jardine against no-names in uninspiring rebound fights. Do right by all parties involved and give these two quality scrappers a chance to reintroduce themselves to the masses in a match that any fan would deem worth watching. If nothing else, this is the kind of fight the UFC can use to back up a main event without sacrificing quality in the name of thrift or preplanned agendas. Best of all, we would be guaranteed a stare-down that would echo through the ages as the grizzled sadism of Jardine goes nose-to-nose with the unhinged, Travis Bickle-esque psychosis of Silva.
4. Brandon Vera vs. Matt Hamill
Vera and Hamill put on dominant performances at UFC 96, and both did it against fighters they were expected to turn into highlight-reel fodder. Accordingly, they're both right back where they started before these fights: clearly a cut above the fistic proletariat, but still a step or two away from distinguishing themselves.
Although tossing them into the proverbial pit with a top-tier fighter didn't work when Vera was dealt Jardine and Hamill drew Rich Franklin, pairing them against each other would give everyone a chance to make a solid assessment of two fighters who find themselves in the limbo that separates prospects from contenders.
One way or another, you'll end up with a solid, marketable contender and a gatekeeper to keep the middle tier of the division in order. Creating roles like that for fighters in limbo would go a long way toward clearing out an oversaturated division; having a reliable on-call gatekeeper is the best way to prevent carrying any deadweight.
5. Jon Jones vs. Jason Brilz
Besides getting the chance to see whether Brilz's smothering powers match up with Jones' arsenal of improbably effective throws, this is the kind of matchmaking strategy that should be used when you're lucky enough to stumble across a jaw-dropping prospect like Jones. Not to deflate Brilz's cheering section or anything, but he'll have trouble treading water once he steps into the deep end of the contender's pool. It's safe to say Jones is the UFC's brighter prospect, and he needs some cage time with serviceable opponents who still present a legitimate challenge.
There's no need for fancy platitudes here. Jones could very well be developed into a future champion, but he could just as easily join Vitor Belfort on the crash-and-burn express. The matchmakers will have a lot to do with how that whole drama plays out.
6. Ryan Bader vs. Tim Boetsch
Let's get the obvious out of the way first: Bader has a date with Carmelo Marrero at the next "Fight Night" show, and barring any tampering with the laws of reality, Bader should dominate.
That said, the focus needs to turn to how the UFC will handle Bader. Bader and Jones are the best light heavyweight prospects on the roster. Boetsch represents the ideal solution, as his rugged wrestler/striker style is a mirror of Bader's own, but the disparity in skill favors Bader.
Thanks to Boetsch's high-octane, short-burst fighting strategy, he has become a fan favorite. Bader would not only benefit from the experience of tangling with Boetsch, but he can also further his own name at the expense of his quarry. Balancing exposure with experience is a challenge for any matchmaker, but this fight represents the perfect synthesis of the two. Besides, can you honestly say you wouldn't want to see these two throw down?
Tomas Rios is a contributor to Sherdog.com.
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