Matchmaking the 205 class
UFC 114 was designed to do more than just settle the feud between Rashad Evans and Quinton Jackson. It was also planned to rebuild the narrative of the matchmaking process in the light heavyweight division.
One of the most underappreciated aspects of UFC's success has been the tireless efforts of its matchmaking department to construct compelling storylines, and following Mauricio Rua's title-winning drubbing of Lyoto Machida at UFC 113, the division was in dire need of clear-cut contenders.
The only thing anyone knows following UFC 114 is that Evans, by virtue of his unanimous decision over Jackson, will challenge Rua for the light heavyweight crown at some point this year. Beyond that, there is no obvious direction for Jackson to head in, and the contentious nature of Antonio Rogerio Nogueira's split decision over Jason Brilz has radically altered the perception of both fighters.
However, as always, the situation is never intractable in the UFC thanks to the promotion's collection of elite talent and ability to quickly slot fighters into any number of upcoming events. In the interest of helping matchmaker Joe Silva and company with the jigsaw puzzle before them, here is some foolproof medicine for what ails the light heavyweight class. Being the reasonable man that I am, I'll settle for a cut of UFC 114's pay-per-view profits as payment for services rendered.
Not surprisingly, the artificial racial conflict and general vitriol between Jackson and Evans largely eroded with the sound of the last bell. What remains for Jackson is a fresh loss on his record and the hard-gained knowledge that fight sport doesn't take kindly to moonlighters. While the UFC certainly won't be cutting him loose, he seems to have learned his lesson with his venture into acting after claiming Fox tacitly threatened to sue him should he lose to Evans. That doesn't change the fact that he is no longer on the short list of light heavyweight title contenders.
There is a fight out there for him, however. One that fans have been clamoring for and would undoubtedly settle both Jackson and his opponent's place in the division. The fight is a rematch with Forrest Griffin, who won a unanimous decision over Jackson at UFC 86 that netted him the light heavyweight title and set off a firestorm of controversy over the judging of the bout.
With the UFC always in need of nontitle bouts that can carry pay-per-view events, this is a financial slam dunk worthy of Darryl Dawkins given the forum-busting popularity of both fighters. Beyond the allure of a healthy bottom line, the winner could be easily sold as a legitimate title challenger since they're both former champions and still very much in their athletic primes.
Besides, what better narrative in sports is there than the rematch?
Going into this fight, the feeling was that Nogueira would leave the adopted Nebraskan Brilz's face looking like a crop circle. Instead the fight was an impossible-to-score affair that, upon multiple viewings, makes a good case for the judicious usage of 10-10 rounds. Despite the obvious nip/tuck nature of the fight, the vast majority of fans appear ready to form a ragtag street gang dedicated to defending Brilz's honor.
This makes it practically impossible for UFC to leverage Nogueira's win into the launching pad for a title bout, which leaves another obvious solution -- just do it all over again. If a short-notice match between Brilz and Nogueira could crack the top 10 trending topics on Twitter, a rematch could easily anchor a Fight Night card, which is another ongoing UFC matchmaking need: sellable, relevant main events for non-pay-per-view cards.
While it's no secret that UFC rarely books rematches because they feel it keeps matters from moving forward, the light heavyweight division didn't make any forward progress at UFC 114 save for Evans securing a title shot. Besides, there's another reason why the light heavyweight division could use some time to recalibrate itself that no one seems to be discussing.
Slated to headline the next UFC Live on Versus event against Belarusian bruiser Vladimir Matyushenko, Jones has captured the imagination of fans and analysts alike in the space of just a few fights thanks to his gravity-insulting throws and Woo-ping-caliber striking. Like any brilliant prospect making moves, the compulsion is to fantasize about him immediately fighting the very best the division has to offer with no regard for the real world consequences of pushing prospects at light speed.
It's almost a given that Jones will eventually challenge for the title. That comes with good reason considering the awe-inspiring manner in which he has excelled against quality opponents such as Matt Hamill and Brandon Vera. With that said, he remains a 22-year-old with 11 professional fights who needs more cage time against live opponents. Merely being a spectacular talent has proven poor protection from being thrust into the limelight, however. Cain Velasquez has less experience than Jones and is currently next in line to challenge for the UFC heavyweight crown.
Regardless of whether Velasquez and Jones are capable of winning a title right this second, they should be used in a manner that is cognizant of the fact that their long-term value will be maximized by bringing them along the same way boxing prospects are nurtured. The most infuriating and unfortunate aspect of the UFC's matchmaking process is that fighters are often treated like they have 20 fights worth of experience in feeder organizations, which means an undefeated run in the Octagon often leads to incredible opportunities at the most inopportune time.
Even if you're one of those Bizarros who doesn't like rematches of quality fights, you should be willing to bite the bullet if it means ensuring Jones is kept out of the title picture for the time being.
For entirely different reasons, Machida belongs in the same boat as Jones at least for a fight or two. Losing for the first time can be a jarring experience; losing in lopsided fashion like Machida did to Rua in their rematch is the sort of psychological blow that requires careful consideration from matchmakers.
If anyone has earned a fight designed to make him look good, it's Machida. All too easily forgotten is the fact that Machida has done almost nothing but take fights no one wanted any part of at the time. Wins over Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou and Thiago Silva may not seem like big deals in hindsight, but it was Machida who revealed that the hype train on both fighters was carrying the world's supply of enriched uranium in the first car.
Either way, it's high time the world was reminded that Machida is still the No. 2 light heavyweight, and that isn't going to change anytime soon.
Tomas Rios is a contributor to Sherdog.com.
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