What to love about the UFC-WEC merger
Surprises in sports are too often of the unpleasant variety, but on Thursday the UFC threw us a bone. Instead of the typical midweek card announcement, we got a whopper from president Dana White: The Ultimate Fighting Championship will merge with World Extreme Cagefighting in 2011.
And Zuffa, which owns both promotions, won't waste any time showing off the baby pictures of what some consider its long-overdue love child: On Jan. 1 in Las Vegas, reigning WEC featherweight champion and pound-for-pound dynamo Jose Aldo will find (and presumably dazzle) a whole new audience at UFC 125.
But there are plenty more reasons to dig this move, which many have clamored for but few seemed to see coming. Let's focus on five:
1. Deeper UFC cards
Look, I'm as understanding as the next guy when it comes to the quality of UFC event lineups, but the organization's cards have become undeniably leaner over time -- especially as fan sophistication grows and expectations are raised. You want us? Fine, you got us. Now give us enough reasons to stick around.
Exhibit A: UFC 125. There's depth there in the sense that you'll find some recognizable names (Clay Guida, Nate Diaz) and personalities (Roy Nelson, Takanori Gomi), plus at least one legitimate blue-chipper (headliner Frankie Edgar). But any main event featuring Gray Maynard has the potential to compel nascent fans to hastily click over to a Nick at Night "Perfect Strangers" marathon. And Shane Carwin's departure (back injury) and Chris Leben's uncertain status (arrest on DUI suspicion) could be additional excitement drains. Yet Aldo's presence alone will sway plenty of fence-sitters when it comes time to pony up for the pay-per-view.
2. A greater appreciation for "outsider" promotions
As far as mixed martial arts has come in the past 10 years or so, and as willing as advertisers and networks have become to get behind the product, most folks' understanding of the sport still can be summed up thusly: MMA = UFC.
To some extent, White and his crew have earned that connection -- with lots of elbow grease, smart timing and a few breaks along the way. But the sentiment also overlooks the good stuff happening in some of the other circuits, most notably (in the U.S., at least) Strikeforce and Bellator. Perhaps news of the merger will pass right over the heads of casual MMA fans, but astute observers just might notice the WEC-to-UFC talent infusion and start getting curious about the Gilbert Melendezes and Eddie Alvarezes tucked away in the "nether" circuits.
3. A lightweight royal rumble
Among the reasons to detest college football, one stands out: a lack of conflict resolution. The BCS blows, and the rankings are a joke. Which are the best teams? Your guess is as good as mine, pal.
Not so for the UFC, whose divisional hierarchies and matchmaking are mostly fair and transparent. Which is why we won't have to wait long to see the winner of Benson Henderson-Anthony Pettis (the WEC's final lightweight title fight) face the Edgar-Maynard winner. Lightweight was the only division where the UFC and WEC overlapped, so there could have been quite a bit of jockeying and politicking for favorable placement in the UFC's new 155-pound pecking order. Uh-uh. No foolish dues-paying period for the new guys, no slow buildup ploy in the name of creating buzz for the lesser-known WEC transplants. Let 'em fight and let the chips fall.
Plus, the stalwarts in the division who seemed to have nowhere left to go -- B.J. Penn, Kenny Florian, Sean Sherk -- suddenly have a whole new pool of opponents to wade into. The only loser I see here might be Evan Dunham, who was all but held up at UFC 119 in September and whose climb to a title shot probably gets extended by at least one fight because of the merger.
4. No more Napoleon complex
Score one for the little guys. As in boxing, the lower weight classes routinely put on some of the best fights around while being summarily ignored by the masses. Does the merger mean you'll see Dominick Cruz and Miguel Torres on Wheaties boxes at your local Costco anytime soon? Maybe not, but at least they'll get a chance to enjoy the same exposure, recognition and cash flow as the rest of Zuffa's fighters.
And again, we get more quality fights. Score one for us.
5. OK, it's all about Jose
Because there's simply nothing cooler than a double-flying knee knockout. Outside the constant buzz of Brock talk, there seemingly was one subject that captivated MMA fans in recent months: When will Aldo make the jump? Forgetting the cart-before-the-horse nuisance -- Aldo wasn't yet ready to leave featherweight, and therefore the WEC, behind -- the notion was understandable. Now the UFC gets the fighter some consider Anderson Silva's rival as the world's pound-for-pound best, Aldo gets his close-up, and we get more crazy-cool KOs for our PPV dollar.
So let's just enjoy this for a while before we start begging White to hijack Bellator's Joe Warren.
Jason Langendorf is an editor for ESPN.com.
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