Middleweight champion Anderson Silva has won all nine of his fights in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the first seven either by spectacular strikes or submission. It made him arguably the most thrilling star in mixed martial arts.
His last two bouts, however, were a bit dull – Silva displaying a lack of aggression against opponents who weren’t all that eager to mix it up. UFC president Dana White echoed most fans in expressing his frustration: Caution is not becoming in cage fighting.
So in a testament to his almost complete control over his promotion, and an example of why the UFC’s popularity continues to grow like a downhill snowball, White didn’t hesitate. He set up a likely wicked battle that will end – one way or the other – with fireworks.
Seeing no one capable of standing and striking with Silva at 185 pounds, White got him to move up 20 pounds and face former light heavyweight (205-pound) champion Forrest Griffin, who is known for his in-your-face, attack dog style. The two meet at UFC 101 Saturday in Philadelphia.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen when Forrest fights Anderson Silva but I know this, Forrest going to go after him,” said White, barely containing his giddiness at the prospect. “Silva is going to have to end the fight.”
Just like that, White gave his customers a fight they wanted to see, an example of why MMA in general, and the industry-leading UFC in particular, has proven so addictive.
The combination of White’s position of strength, the daring mindset of the fighters and the admirable, long view taken by fans of the sport allow the UFC to produce a monthly dose of Must-See (pay-per-view) TV.
“At the end of the day, I’m a fight fan,” White said. “I’m a huge fight fan.”
The significance of fights like these shouldn’t be overlooked just because they routinely come together. This should’ve been nearly impossible to book. There is risk on all sides.
Silva is taking on a bigger man who is capable of overpowering him and smashing his aura of invincibility. Griffin is willing to bypass an easier challenge as he bides his time for a second shot at the title. Instead he runs the very real risk of losing to a middleweight.
Neither man hesitated.
“I want to fight the best, be involved in the best fights,” Silva said through a translator.
“I’ll fight whoever they put in front of me,” Griffin said.
The way White rewards, and fans appreciate, challenge-seeking fighters means there may not be an alternative.
“Here’s the thing about us,” White said. “It’s not whether you win or lose; it’s how you fight the fight.”
This sounds ridiculous, something out a cheesy sportsmanship speech. Only it’s the truth. Both fighters want to win, desperately so. They will push themselves to the limit. There will be strategy. Yet both understand what the UFC is about. There’s a reason Griffin is still a huge box office draw despite a 16-5 record.
B.J. Penn, for instance, lost his last fight when he tried to climb weight classes, yet no one thinks less of him as a lightweight champ – he defends his title against Kenny Florian Saturday in the other main event.
“One of the great things about MMA is you don’t lose your mystique if you lose a fight,” White said. “Fans show up because they want to see guys go at it. That’s what they pay for. And if you give them what they paid for, they are more than happy.
“That was one of the big problems with boxing,” White continued. “You’d get all fired up for the fight that was about to happen, you and your buddies would buy the pay per view, and then the two guys would get in there and chase each other around. They wouldn’t fight. And you’d walk away going, those mother (expletive), they did it to me again.”
By controlling the majority of the best fighters in the world (one exception being the elusive heavyweight, Fedor Emelianenko), the UFC has been able reward aggressiveness with big fights (and big paychecks).
“Guys that go in there and try to avoid a fight, we don’t want guys like that fighting for us,” White said. “A guy that (puts) on a great fight, I’ll throw money at them all day. Even when they lose I’ll give them more money than it says in their contract because of the way they fight.”
One all-out battle begets another. This is the core of the UFC business model, how the promotion, in the middle of a recession, gets so many people to shell out $44.95 month after month. UFC 101 is expected to do more than a million pay-per-view buys. Griffin-Silva could’ve headlined its own show. Instead it’s adding depth to a card, helping maintain momentum from the momentous UFC 100.
If fighters had the free agent or multi-promoter power of boxers they could hold out for greater money and control their image and record along the way. It’s essentially what Emelianenko, who signed with Strikeforce this week, is trying to do.
Few, perhaps not even Emelianenko, have that power though. This is like when the old movie studios owned the actors and paired them up with scripts and co-stars as management saw fit. It may or may not be good for the fighters' immediate finances (they earn a fraction of top boxers). It is, however, an undoubted boon to fans. There is no Floyd Mayweather- Juan Manuel Marquez to sit through when all anyone wants to see is Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao. There are no 25-0 untested fighters.
White argues that this system is the only way MMA could get off the ground and the escalating payouts for star fighters (seven figures for a strong-drawing main event) prove it is working. He’s correct. And one day, if things change and “free agency” arrives, fans will look back longingly.
In the meantime, you can dream of your dream fight and know the UFC is dreaming right along with you. Just about everyone other than Emelianenko is possible. You want Silva going for light heavyweight championship, even though he says he doesn’t want to fight his friend, champion Lyota Machida?
“You work for the company, guys have to fight, even if they’re friends,” White said.
You want welterweight champ Georges St. Pierre to gain 15 pounds and take on Silva when he drops back at middleweight? St. Pierre said if that’s what fans covet, he’d just need time to gain the weight properly.
Did you get frustrated when Silva successfully defends his title, twice, only in somewhat boring fashion? Fine, bring on Forrest Griffin.
You want this rematch or this grudge match or this chess match?
“We’re going to make it happen,” White said, pulling the strings as he pulls his sport to new heights.