OVERCOOKING THE GRITS: UFC, LIKE BOXING, BLOWS THE BIGGEST FIGHT IN THE SPORT
By Ben Dean
In writing a story nearly three months ago, my ideas crystallized as far as combat sports are concerned. The sport of mixed martial arts should learn from boxing's mistake with the failed Floyd Mayweather vs. Manny Pacquiao negotiations that never came to fruition. That superfight that never was is a cautionary tale for MMA about what it should do differently from boxing. But on July 6th, MMA proved it didn’t learn from boxing's failure to deliver the fight fans wanted to see the most. On that date, long-reigning champion Anderson Silva was knocked out by Chris Wiedman while clowning around in the second round. Just like that, another mega-event, Silva vs. Jon Jones, had gone up in smoke.
For years the much talked about Mayweather-Pacquiao bout loomed as the biggest potential mega-fight in recent boxing memory. But it was left to marinate for years until it was essentially killed on December 8th 2012, by a single right hand punch from Juan Manuel Marquez that left Pacquiao literally kissing the canvas.
In recent times it became clear that the single biggest fight to be made in UFC was the reigning middleweight champion Anderson Silva (185 pounds), vs reigning lightheavyweight champion Jon Jones (205 pounds). Silva, largely hailed as the pound-for-pound best (though some might argue for Georges St. Pierre) is possibly the greatest MMA fighter of all time. He was riding a serious win streak of 7 years.
Jones, winning the title at just 23 years old, appeared to be a man-child of unlimited potential. Standing 6'4" with a ridiculous reach, Jones has had his way with every opponent since winning the title. The only man on the planet most felt had a shot against him was Silva.
Many might think the 20-pound weight difference would diminish the intrigue of Silva-Jones. However, Silva has fought at 205 lbs on multiple occasions before (once even standing in as a favor to UFC head Dana White so that a card could move forward). The two best fighters in the world stood a division apart but many fans thought each one is the only one capable of beating the other. This bout had super-fight and mega-event written all over it. But the UFC and White, who had the power to make the bout happen seemed in no hurry to make the match. Sound familiar?
One must strike while the iron is hot. Witnessing the on-again-off-again negotiations between Pacquaio and Mayweather between 2009-2012 brought into focus the UFC's opportunity to do something that boxing didn’t, which is make the biggest fight in the sport with no interim matches. When a mega-fight comes along, scheduling interim bouts runs the unnecessary risk of either fighter accumulating a loss in the meantime. Either party not maintaining their win-streak could irreparably damage the momentum of and take some serious steam off of the mega-event.
While analyzing the prospects of this bout three months ago, the movie Remember The Titans came to mind. There was a scene where Coach Boone and Coach Yoast are in the stairwell discussing their football team and Yoast was demanding a job for his assistant Coach Tyrell. Boone’s response: “you’re overcooking my grits coach.”
White gave every reason why other bouts needed to take place before Silva-Jones. It was reminiscient of another big boxing match that was never to be. Top Rank's Bob Arum overcooked the grits with undefeated Juan Manuel Lopez against undefeated Yuriokis Gamboa , featuring both on HBO bouts versus other opponents. With fans salivating at the prospects of a match-up between the two, Arum seemed to be leading up to a showdown between the two young talented fighters. He suddenly backtracked, and stated that this was a fight that needed to simmer a bit and maybe take place in a year or so. You overcooked my grits Bob... Lopez was knocked out in the interim, Gamboa changed promoters and it never happened.
Even before Marquez's knockout put an emphatic end to any Pacquaio vs. Mayweather talk, there were many that felt that the bout's sell-by-date had already come and gone. The grits had already been overcooked so to speak.
More recently, perhaps even learning from its past, boxing has gotten it right with the Mayweather vs. Saul "Canelo" Alvarez fight. The relative speed and ease with which this match-up was made for September 2013 was encouraging. I don’t aim to minimize the difficulties because by all reports they were contentious negotiations during that short time span. However, they got done. The biggest fight to be made in boxing was made. Even though both boxers campaign in different weight classes, they reached a compromise. Instead of letting seven pounds stand between them, the pound for pound best and welterweight champion agreed to go up five, if the challenger to his pound for pound supremacy (and fellow champion at junior middleweight) would come down two.
The frequency with which the champions of years past not only sought out, but made matches with other champions was nothing short of astounding. If one were to look at the resumes of great champs like Ray Robinson, Henry Armstrong, Willie Pep, Sandy Saddler and consider not just who they fought, but the number of times they fought them (some fought each other 4 and 5 times), one couldn’t help but be in awe. It’d only be fitting for us to honor these legends of the past by making the biggest fights available (in all combat sports). Perhaps, most advantageous in helping us in this quest is to remember always and forever not to overcook those grits.
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