Matchmaking usually isn’t so easy when it comes to people at the top of their divisions.
You have to balance out fighters who have an idea of who they want and don’t want to face. You have to balance out matches that make sense in building contenders for a title opportunity with matches that fans would want to see. And there are always timing issues.
This week, we saw two different examples of that.
A fight with Donald Cerrone vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov would have made sense this month, since both are on
winning streaks in a log jammed lightweight division. But sometimes the strangest things get in the way, like Ramadan, a Muslim holiday observed by Nurmagomedov which wouldn’t allow him to fight this month. But after Cerrone finished Jim Miller, he brought up Nurmagomedov’s name as a possible next opponent. Nurmagomedov, on Twitter, quickly responded that he was ready for such a fight.
Since champion Anthony Pettis and fellow TUF 20 coach Gilbert Melendez aren’t fighting for the title until December or January, it’s a situation where everything would seem to work out perfectly for a Cerrone vs. Nurmagomedov top contender fight from a timing standpoint.
Timing. Check. Makes sense as far as two top contenders on winning streaks. Check. Both fighters down with the idea of the match. Check. Fan appeal. While not off the charts, it’s not a fight people would complain about.
But there’s always something making things not perfect. In this case, Pettis rolled over Cerrone on Jan. 26, 2013, finishing him in just 2:35. If Nurmagomedov wins, a 23-0 record in this sport and in this weight class would be one of the great streaks in modern MMA. But a Cerrone win throws the winner of Benson Henderson vs. Rafael dos Anjos into the mix. They’re headlining the Aug. 23 show in Tulsa. Henderson and dos Anjos both have wins over Cerrone. And if Gilbert Melendez wins the title from Pettis, Henderson has a win over Melendez as well.
But there are worse curses than too many viable contenders in one weight class.
Because on the flip side, you have the flyweight division.
Usually, when UFC announces a championship fight, the challenger isn’t a surprise. Dana White frequently hints at what is next. And just following things logically will get you to UFC’s destination most of the time. Even the fights that some complain make no sense, like Chael Sonnen’s shot at Jon Jones last year, hardly came out of the blue. Any time there is a potential fight with greater public appeal than any other in the class, like Georges St-Pierre vs. Nick Diaz as well, or the Ultimate Fighter reality show coaching is involved meaning a match-up that is thought to have a three-month ratings impact, it should never shock people when UFC makes that call.
Demetrious Johnson vs. Chris Cariaso for the flyweight title fits into none of those categories. Cariaso, who gets an Aug. 30 title shot at Johnson in Sacramento, Calif., was not a name on the tip of people’s tongues for a next title shot.
Cariaso (17-6), would appear to be behind as many as eight fighters before you’d come to his name for a title shot. But that’s where timing fits in.
UFC evidently decided they wanted two title fights at UFC 177, and Johnson was going to be ready. The name White had spoken of as the next contender, John Dodson, needed major knee surgery. They wanted the announcement to coincide the tickets going on sale, meaning the day it would be announced was the day before John Lineker was fighting Alpetkin Ozkliic in Atlantic City.
Top contender Joseph Benavidez was knocked out quickly by Johnson only a few months ago and it was too quick to go back to that direction, even though the show is in Sacramento, where Benavidez lives and trains.
Other contenders, like Brad Pickett, Zack Makovsky, Kyoji Horiguchi, Ian McCall, Jussier Formiga and Lineker all had fights scheduled. Lineker had some good knockouts, but he had lost to Ali Bagautinov in his previous fight and missed weight three times in his previous six tries.
In this case, Cariaso is from Northern California and is 4-2 as a flyweight, with losses to Formiga and former contender John Moraga. Horiguchi is from Japan, and the UFC had earmarked him for the Japan show, and he was 1-0 in the division.
But if the deadline was a week later, after Lineker’s impressive win in the best fight on Wednesday night, the decision may have been a different one.
The Cerrone vs. Jim Miller Fight Night card from Atlantic City, N.J., ended up as one of the year’s best action shows. There were eight stoppages in 11 fights, most of them highlight reel worthy.
But ratings were slightly below normal.
The show did 640,000 viewers, peaking at 756,000 in the Lineker vs .Ozkilic fight. The Wednesday night FS 1 average for a Fight Night is 652,000. The main sports competition, the ESPY awards, did 2.21 million viewers. The prelims, doing 415,000 viewers, was the best for a Wednesday offering.
Here’s a look at how fortunes changed for five key players on the show:
DONALD CERRONE – With his head kick stoppage of Miller, Cerrone (24-6, 1 no contest) broke his Zuffa record with his 15th performance bonus. Holding that record is testimony of a career filled with exciting fights and spectacular finishes.
But Cerrone’s UFC career has also been one of win streaks, and a loss right when he got into the title picture.
After the WEC buyout, Cerrone scored four wins in a row before losing a decision to Nate Diaz in a fight that would have gotten him a title shot. Then, he rebounded to where he was one fight away from a title shot, but lost to Anthony Pettis. Miller was his fourth straight victim of his latest winning streak, all four being via stoppage in two rounds or less.
He looks once again to be a win away from a title shot if he gets a top contender next. Cerrone has shored up the weak takedown defense of early in his career, and if Nurmagomedov is his next opponent, he’ll need all of that against a fighter who holds the UFC record with 21 takedowns in one three-round fight.
EDSON BARBOZA – The always exciting Brazilian has some of the best offense in the division, particularly his nasty low kicks. But Barboza (14-2), will continually have to answer questions about his chin, which failed him in his two losses to Cerrone and Jamie Varner.
With so much depth in the division, Barboza came into the fight as the No. 13 ranked contender for the title. His best case scenario would be to push for a fight with Josh Thomson, who is ranked No. 3 provided Thomson beats Bobby Green on July 26 in San Jose, Calif. That would fast-track Barboza deep into the top ten.
Failing that, there are no shortage of opponents at his level, but none of which would get him within shooting distance of a title opportunity.
RICK STORY – Story (17-8), the only fighter to ever beat welterweight champion Johny Hendricks without controversy, has struggled to regain the success of four years ago when he scored wins over Hendricks and Thiago Alves in succession.
After a switch in camps to the MMA Lab in Glendale, Ariz., best known for being the camp of Benson Henderson, he overpowered an undersized Leonardo Mafra to score his first submission win in nearly five years. The win may not even get him in UFC’s top 15 contenders, but could get him a shot at the likes of Ryan LaFlare, Erick Silva or Gunnar Nelson, who are on that list.
JOHN LINEKER – Lineker (24-7) belies the axiom that flyweights don’t have the power to finish fights. His win over Ozkilic after two hard lefts was his fourth win via knockout or TKO out of four UFC wins. From a timing standpoint, he could face the winner of Saturday’s Pickett vs. McCall fight in Dublin, Ireland, provided there are no injury hold-ups. The other opponent that would make sense would be the Makovsky vs. Formiga winner of a fight on Aug. 16 in Bangor, Maine.
But between Lineker and those two winners, one will be earmarked for a title shot at the Johnson vs. Cariaso winner. With his knockout finishes and coming off an exciting fight, Lineker would seem to have as good a chance as any.
CLAUDIA GADELHA – Gadelha (12-0) will forever go into the UFC trivia handbook as the winner of the first strawweight fight in company history. The 25-year-old was scheduled for a shot at the Invicta title in that weight class in December, but she was hospitalized at the last minute with gastroenteritis.
She was a favorite in the tournament on Ultimate Fighter, currently being filmed, to crown a first champion. She pulled out due to questions about her being able to make the weight three times in six weeks.
The fight with Tina Lahdemaki was a hit. Gadelha showed crisp striking and strong takedowns. She’ll probably have one more fight this year. With a win, Gadelha could easily wind up as the first challenger for the new champion that gets crowned on the reality show.