Every pay-per-view is important for the Ultimate Fighting Championship, but Saturday night's UFC 78: Validation show being the company's first event in the New York City metropolitan area in six years, made it of even more significance.
When it was over, the key people the night was supposed to validate will have to wait for another night.
There was a good deal of negativity going into the show based on what people felt was not a pay-per-view caliber main event, Michael Bisping vs. Rashad Evans. UFC officials, and president Dana White, worked hard at defending it, with the sales pitch that it was the first time two winners of The Ultimate Fighter reality show were to face each other. Both were unbeaten fighters in a sport in which it's difficult to run up any kind of a winning streak.
The flip side was Bisping's last win, over Matt Hamill, was a decision that most felt went the wrong way. Bisping was the recipient of booing all weekend largely because of what was seen as the gift decision in a match viewed by a huge audience, since it was on the most-watched television show in company history. Evans' last fight was a draw with Tito Ortiz. He's seen as a talented wrestler with good hands, but often comes across as a fighter whose tools are sometimes better than what he shows.
The main event was criticized, particularly from people who felt New York deserved the top stars in the main event. But the company had its hands tied. A lightweight title fight was on the books, but the never-ending Sean Sherk steroid test appeal made that impossible to put together.
Tito Ortiz, who was slated to face Evans, pulled out due to an injury, or due to filming of the next season of Donald Trump's "Apprentice," depending on what you want to believe.
The only viable alternative was the Matt Serra vs. Matt Hughes welterweight title fight, scheduled for Dec. 29, to be moved up. One on hand, that seemed like a natural with Serra being from Long Island. But Dana White didn't want to make the fight until all episodes of the reality show where the two are opposing coaches was finished. It was the right decision for pay-per-view, but it sacrificed having a genuine main event on this show.
The "hottest" fighter on the show going in was Houston Alexander, coming off two straight knocks in less than 2:00 combined time. As people became more familiar with him, the single father of six children, who gave up his kidney to his daughter seven years ago, he added being likeable to being the ferocious finisher that fans love to see. It's hard to explain how superstars get made. Some can win forever and never break through. Others can win some and lose some, and for whatever reason, the public sees them as stars.
It's usually a matter of timing, one of the keys being coming through at just the right time as people want to get behind them. You could sense when he came out, that this was Alexander's night. But then the fight started, and it couldn't have gone more wrong. He not only failed to unload early as in his previous wins, but when it got to the ground, opponent Thiago Silva came across as far superior and knocked him out in the first round. The air seemed to go out of the show at that point.
Most of the rest of the night also didn't come together. Evans' split decision win was a close fight. Evans scored with takedowns. Bisping improved his takedown defense enough that Evans had to work very hard in getting him down. But Evans ultimately did, but Bisping gave him enough trouble that it ended up tiring Evans. Bisping connected with far more punches standing, but Evans, even tired, had the more powerful blows.
But when it was over, it didn't seem to help anyone. Evans may be 16-0-1, but he didn't leave people excited to see him headline against another star in UFC's marquee light heavyweight class. Bisping, who had become the company's European superstar, is coming off what most feel are consecutive losses. It's important to have a winning Bisping for the company's European expansion plans. Bisping does have a natural rematch with Hamill where he'll get perhaps his final shot at keeping the superstar status the public gave him after winning the reality show.
One match after another that looked like they should be exciting wars didn't come through. In Frankie Edgar vs. Spencer Fisher, Edgar was simply too strong at wrestling and Fisher was taken out of his game. But Edgar never came close to finishing. In Karo Parisyan vs. Ryo Chonan, expected to be a show-stealing fight, Parisyan had a hand injury going in, and found his strategy of taking Chonan down to work, but again, at no point was the match in danger of finishing. Worse, because so many of the fights went long, there was no time left on the broadcast to air the best fight of the night, a prelim with Chris Lytle vs. Thiago Alves. But while the action was great for two rounds, it was a disappointment as far as the finish, due to Lytle having a dangerous cut on his eye lid and it was stopped.
UFC has had worse major shows. Last year's show in July headlined by Ken Shamrock vs. Tito Ortiz and Andrei Arlovksi vs. Tim Sylvia was at the time the most viewed company show in history, and was a disaster. And the company grew stronger from there. But overall, Saturday was a night people would just as soon forget.
Back in time: A tiny cable station, ImaginAsian TV, which airs in markets like Los Angeles, New York, Houston, Dallas and San Francisco, is now broadcasting tapes of the beginning of one of the earliest, most significant MMA promotions in history. Pancrase, the Japanese company whose debut predated UFC by two months in 1993, is airing tapes of its earliest and most popular period on Wednesdays at 8 p.m. The matches, with rules completely different to what is done today that encouraged more submissions, featured the prime years of legends like Bas Rutten and Ken Shamrock, as well as the early career of Frank Shamrock. But besides the matches, the highlight is the wrap-arounds done by Josh Barnett. Barnett, a star fighter and sometimes pro wrestler in Japan, is a student of the Japanese mix of reality and fantasy. His explanation of what was going on in Japan as MMA started gaining popularity is really a history lesson in the origins of the sport.
Fighter battles for life: There has only been one death in modern MMA competition, American Douglas Dedge, who passed away after being knocked out in an unsanctioned show in Russia nearly a decade ago. Perhaps the most serious injury since then was to Houston-based fighter Sam Vazquez. Vazquez has in recent weeks been battling for his life after suffering a massive stroke after being knocked out on an Oct. 20 Renegades Extreme Fighting show in Houston by Vince Libardi.
Big-money match? If the fight teased at the end of Friday night's Strikeforce show in San Jose, Cung Le vs. Frank Shamrock, actually takes place in 2008 in San Jose, there is a very good chance it will draw the largest non-UFC crowd of the year for an MMA show in North America. The Le who beat Tony Fryklund in June, at least from an appearance standpoint would make for an interesting style match-up. The Le who fought Sam Morgan on Friday night, would not figure to do well against the best and highest profile opponent of his career. Le tired out quickly and even though he was never in trouble, it was because of a huge talent disparity in the match. Le said his strategy in the match would be pure San Shou – that is, kickboxing standing, and going for lots of takedowns. But the key, is using the takedowns to help wear down his opponent, and try to get up as soon as possible because any time spent on the ground would not be in his favor.
If the match happens, it would likely be in the summer or fall.