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WEC 37 Post-Game Report: The WEC strikes back but still has room to improve

As a devout fan of World Extreme Cagefighting, I was happy last night to see the promotion regain some of the momentum it had last following last month’s lackluster WEC 36 event.

While WEC 37 did not feature the epic “Fight of the Year” encounters supplied by June’s WEC 34, the event still served as an entertaining night of fights.

The show got off to a slow start with an opener featuring debuting bantamweights Joseph Benavidez and Danny Martinez. Martinez entered the fight with an impressive record but still appeared to be rough around the edges. Benavidez was clearly the more technical fighter, putting combinations together while Martinez went the brawling route and instead hung back looking for the home run punch.

The styles of the two fighters did not mesh well but they provided a strong exchange towards the end of the fight with Martinez looking to steal the fight with a big finish after obviously losing all three rounds of the fight on the scorecards. Benavidez weathered the storm and justified his status as one of the top 135 pound prospects in the sport.

The card also marked the debut of new WEC matchmaker Sean Shelby, a longtime member of the Zuffa family that has served in a number of roles. Shelby might be best known as the man who handled the video editing for the UFC music video set to the tune of The Who’s “Teenage Wasteland.” The video is only shown to the live audience at UFC events and features some of the most memorable fight sequences during Zuffa’s ownership of the UFC. The video is a tremendous marketing tool that adds to the atomosphere of the UFC’s live events and it’s the type of easily-replicated thing that the EliteXC or IFL never tried to copy.

Shelby replaced Scott Adams, who, with Reed Harris, was one of the original owners of the WEC. Adams had come under fire in recent months due to the fact that several title challengers were not built up properly on TV.

As was the first to report, Adams was replaced after last month’s WEC 36 after a “Fight of the Night” bout featuring Donald Cerrone and Rob McCullough was unable to make the broadcast. In the fight’s place was a green Jake Rosholt, who was featured instead of Cerrone — the new number one contender for the lightweight title — due to a contractual guarantee that all of Rosholt’s WEC fights must be televised.

It should be noted that Adams is still with the promotion, as he was clearly visible on multiple occasions during VERSUS’ telecast of the event last night.

My personal “Fight of the Night” honors goes to a bantamweight encounter between Brian Bowles and Will Ribeiro. Bowles and Ribeiro are extremely valuable to a promotion that is now eschewing the light heavyweight and middleweight divisions in favor of focusing even more on lighter weight divisions.

The WEC’s lighter weight focus has made the promotion a cult favorite amongst hardcore fans. However, it remains to be seen how much the promotion can grow its audience with highly-technical ground fighting that often lacks highlight reel knockouts that casual fans crave. While Bowles and Ribeiro are very capable on the ground, they showed a willingness to stand and brawl — a rarity for the 135 pound division.

In victory, Bowles moved himself a step closer to a title fight vs. current bantamweight champion Miguel Angel Torres. However, Ribeiro still helped his star immensely with in his first appearance on live television. I spoke with a leading MMA agent after the show who expressed his belief that Ribeiro looked more impressive in losing than Wagnney Fabiano did in winning.

Fabiano submitted fellow featherweight newcomer Akitoshi Tamura with just seconds remaining in the third round. While the war of attrition for ground position likely was considered boring to the average fan, I found the posturing to be extremely entertaining. Adding to the enjoyment of the match was the outstanding camera work by the WEC production team.

I especially enjoyed a close up of Tamura’s legs locking up Fabiano in half-guard at one point. It also appeared that the production team took a page out of the Fox Sports playbook by quick-shifting to different camera angles while the action was slow on the ground. In doing so, the production added to the drama of the struggle for position.

The show’s main event also delivered. While Torres vs. Tapia was nowhere near as good as Torres vs. Yoshiro Maeda, the fight was still exciting. I especially enjoyed the ending sequence where Torres rocked Tapia and then rocked him again and finished him off for good after he had recovered.

While I enjoyed the event, there are still areas in which the WEC can look to improve.

First, the timing of the show was inconsistent. During the live action, you got the feeling that the producers wanted to get off the air as soon as possible.

For the second show in a row, the WEC aired on the same night as “The Ultimate Fighter.” However, it was even more imperative this month to get off the air as close to 10 p.m. ET as possible with Spike TV airing the final two taped episodes of TUF.

The WEC can put itself in a position where it can deliver a more consistently paced show by no longer airing on Wednesday nights, where it is forced to go against TUF.

What’s crazy was that during WEC 37, Spike was airing taped UFC specials that began at 6. Spike and VERSUS are competitors but the UFC and WEC are both owned by Zuffa. I had issues with the UFC competing with EliteXC on CBS (which is owned by CBS Corp., which falls under the same umbrella as Viacom, the parent company of Spike TV) and hastily booking a UFC Fight Night in July to go head-to-head with Affliction’s “Banned.” But at least there isn’t a double-standard, as Zuffa is showing that it’s also willing to go head-to-head with itself! That being said, it’s still counter-productive for the growth of the sport for MMA to go head-to-head with itself like it did last night. MMA fans were only exposed to one night of strong MMA programming when it could have been spread out over the course of two.

During the NFL off-season, the WEC should schedule shows for Sunday and during football season, shows should be held on Thursdays. I believe its better to go head-to-head with the NFL and college football with a show that can breathe and has time to build stars as opposed to a condensed version that tries like bloody hell to avoid an overlap during the airing of TUF.

While the fights themselves felt rushed with no context or analysis provided before or after a fight, the event slowed to a crawl between fights with excessive commercial breaks and extended ring introductions for three of the four fights.

The commercial situation cannot be corrected but there are still adjustments that can be made to get the pacing of the show back to where it was prior to WEC 36. When the WEC is at the Hard Rock in Vegas, I’m not sure the entrances could be any less impressive. The music is somewhat muted and the entrance way looks like a fighter is walking into the venue off the street as opposed to out of a locker room.

The WEC should either add some kind of small stage setup for the fighters to enter through or just stop showing entrances on TV altogether and have the fighters in the cage and ready for introductions immediately after commercial. Simply put, WEC fighter entrances from The Joint in Vegas don’t get my adrenaline flowing.

Also, the WEC should look into doing away with pre-fight instructions and the pre-fight staredown in non-title fights. The WEC is the true essence of sport and almost all of the fighters showed a tremendous amount of class and respect towards one another. They all follow the rules so they don’t need to be reminded of them on camera and the tension between Torres and Tapia is one of the few times in the WEC in which I remember the staredown actually eliciting a reaction from me.

I also believe the WEC needs to add a bigger feel to all of its events. The Sacramento and Albuquerque shows felt like pay-per-views. Last night’s show felt like MMA’s version of “Friday Night Fights” before the main event. With EliteXC out of the picture for now, why now schedule a show on VERSUS for a Saturday night on a weekend when the UFC isn’t holding a show? Or, why not schedule next year’s final event during the same weekend of the UFC’s annual New Year’s Eve weekend event? A lot of people come in out of town for New Year’s Eve weekend and they are looking for something to do the night before. I remember going to an IFO show at the Riviera last year simply because it was the day before UFC 79. About 1,500 people felt the same way I did. A WEC event the day before the UFC’s biggest event of the year could draw a pretty hot crowd.

The WEC also needs a public face for its company. One segment I used to enjoy on UFC pay-per-views is when UFC President Dana White would be interview by Mike Goldberg and would essentially give a “state of the UFC” address. Peter Dropick is the WEC’s top executive and it wouldn’t be a bad idea to give him 2-3 minutes of camera time every show to let WEC fans know what’s planned for the coming months.

It would have been great to hear what’s in store for 2009 as far as number of fight cards, venues, where the promotion is as far as adding female MMA, etc. During the pre-TUF area when growth was slow going for the UFC, White’s interviews always left me with the feeling that the promotion was still growing and that the sport was going forward, and not backward.

There are also some minor enhancements I’d like to see made. For instance, with the elimination of the middleweight and light heavyweight divisions, we’re going to see even fewer finishes in the WEC. That’s fine by me, but why not add a cageside scorer to come on mic for 15-20 seconds at the start of each round to illustrate how they scored the round? Why not just bring back Eddie Bravo? Bravo served in the same role for the UFC and was mentioned so many times by Frank Mir last night that I felt like he was a part of the broadcast anyway.

The WEC also used to do a great job of foreshadowing future fights by cutting to fighters in the crowd and interviewing them regarding a possible future opponent fighting that night. For example, I was really disappointed not to see Jeff Curran. Curran is one of the top lighter weight fighters ever to compete in MMA and is moving to bantamweight. And if you’re a regular reader of this site, you know he’s trying to create some interest for a future showdown with Torres.

How could the WEC have missed out on the opportunity to begin planting the seeds for a Torres vs. Curran dreamfight at bantamweight? If they would have put Curran on the mic and got him to say some of the things he told me during a recent interview, you’d have a lot more people buzzing about last night’s show.

Finally, the WEC still needs to do a better job of building well-known contenders for the future and avoid situations where guys like Curran and Mike Brown are featured in title fighters without previously having competed in a televised bout on VERSUS. Bart Palaszewski had an impressive win last night and the only way you knew about it is if you went on a website for live play-by-play.

Once the WEC stops airing on the same nights as TUF, they will have time to put together a small highlight package that play-by-play announcer Todd Harris can do a narrative for. “And before we go to break, let’s catch you up on some action that went down earlier tonight. Making his WEC debut, former IFL lightweight title challenger Bart Palaszewski began his climb towards a WEC lightweight title shot with a victory over TUF 1 veteran Alex Karalexis.”

The WEC could also use the highlights package as a way to upsell its WrekCage program on VERSUS. WrekCage is the WEC’s equivalent to “UFC Unleashed” on Spike, yet seemingly no one knows about it. Show the highlights and when Harris cut to a commercial he can say, “Look to see these fights in their entirety when the new season of WrekCage debuts on…” I get the impression that a lot of the people who watch the live shows have no idea WrekCage exists because I am constantly being asked by people about how the non-televised preliminary fights can be viewed.

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