That’s the vibe I felt I was getting from some folks about UFC 96 in the week leading up to the event.
Because Quinton Jackson versus Keith Jardine wasn’t the main event some folks wanted to see right now.
Because some folks felt that a majority of the undercard was rather underwhelming.
Which got me thinking: entering Saturday night, what would the UFC have to do to appease those skeptics? Skeptics who were planning on shelling out nearly $50 to watch a show that they perceived as lacking star power?
The solutions are simple ones that are often stated in this very column and executed very well by the UFC: sell, sell and sell the fights and then hope for the best. Tell the viewers the story of a particular fight. Are we seeing an unproven up and comer versus a former title challenger? A battle of wrestlers who also have submission skills? A glorified gatekeeper versus a former champion?
Then there are the solutions that are largely ignored: dig deeper into the stories of these fighters. Provide viewers with features that go more in-depth, beyond the typical, choreographed sound bites that we’re used to hearing.
At this moment, the UFC, and in particular Mike Goldberg and Joe Rogan, do a very good job at conveying a fight’s storylines to the viewers during its television shows. But there’s still something missing in shows like UFC 96 – which is, getting to know the fighters beyond the octagon; something that, if done correctly, gives a human side to these men and makes viewers want to invest more time (and possibly money) into watching them fight.
Sure, we’ve gotten to know some of the superstars of the UFC: the Chuck Liddells, the B.J. Penns, the Georges St. Pierres, the Anderson Silvas, to name a few.
But what about the Keith Jardines? We know Jardine is not a gatekeeper, yet he’s not sitting at elite status either. But what else do we know about the man behind that scary noggin? For those of you who watched Countdown to UFC 96 on Spike TV, you got to know him a bit more than the aforementioned description.
However, not everyone who watched UFC 96 also watched Countdown to UFC 96. So why not take a page from the Countdown shows and produce short, Countdown-like packages for each planned televised fight on every pay per view? Honestly, at this point, I can almost predict what each fighter is going to say in the generic pre-fight packages that the UFC currently produces.
Sure, it might cost more to produce these enhanced packages, but investing in the production of them is a long-term investment. You pay now, but reap the rewards later by adding more of an attractive, human element to the fighters. And believe this – if the television side of mixed martial arts was all about the fights, then a show like The Ultimate Fighter wouldn’t exist. The same goes for boxing’s version of that show, The Contender. Characters drive television shows, end of story.
The reality is, the Countdown-style package request is all wishful thinking right now, because the UFC is going to do what the UFC wants to do, when they want to do it and how they want to do it. So, while they continue to fail at selling more of their individual fighters, we’ll break down one area where they excelled at during UFC 96, which is selling the individual fights.
Below is analysis of the five live fights that we saw, with the pre-fight storylines coming in and how the fight was sold during the live telecast.
GRAY MAYNARD VS. JIM MILLER -
Pre-fight Storylines: In this fight, you have two men who are both good wrestlers and submission specialists. Miller has the edge in submissions, while Maynard has the edge in wrestling; otherwise, this is as even as it gets. Plenty of folks believe that these two fighters have tremendous futures ahead of them in the UFC. Who will get closer to that elite status in the lightweight division?
Selling The Fight: The generic pre-fight package immediately sold this fight as one featuring two of the most promising lightweights in the UFC. During both men’s octagon walks, we’re sold on the fact that both men are excellent wrestlers. However, during round one of the fight, Rogan says that Maynard may want to keep the fight standing because of his great right hand. Thirty seconds later, Maynard lands a solid right and leaves Miller with a battered face by the end of the round. Rogan summed up the fight perfectly when he said, “This has mostly been a boxing match with takedown defense for Maynard.” Maynard goes on to win a unanimous decision.
MATT HAMILL VS. MARK MUNOZ -
Pre-fight Storylines: Two outstanding wrestlers – one (Munoz), a former WEC fighter being thrown into the fire in his UFC debut – and the other (Hamill), who better be ON fire in order to keep his UFC career going in the right direction. Of course, you also can’t discount the amazing story of Hamill, who fights at this level while being completely deaf.
Selling The Fight: Both Golbderg and Rogan talked about the fact that both men are decorated wrestlers, which is repeated again in the pre-fight package. Also reiterated in the package is the fact that Munoz is making his UFC debut against Hamill. And of course, Goldberg mentioned during the fight that a movie is being made about Hamill’s inspirational story. This is, of course, about as much as Goldberg and Rogan could get in before Hamill shocked everyone with his head kick/KO of Munoz in the first round. Hamill is the poster boy for P.C.F.T.C’s theory on how fighters help further sell the UFC product. You can never get enough of his story, as long as he’s competitive at this level. Matter of fact, if the UFC were smart, they should produce a documentary on Hamill themselves before this movie is ever released.
MATT BROWN VS. PETE SELL -
Pre-fight Storylines: Many expect this fight to be a war. The Matt Serra-trained Sell can punch. Brown can do the same, but he also has the more solid all-around game. Brown also trains down the road from Columbus, with Team Jorge Gurgel in Cincinnati,
Selling The Fight: The “war” aspect of this matchup was immediately sold, as Goldberg described both men as having “go for broke” fighting styles. Goldberg also reminded the viewers of Brown’s affiliation with The Buckeye State. Unfortunately, this was a short fight where the story quickly turned to the abysmal refereeing of Yves Lavigne. However, Sell is another fighter that could have benefited from a Countdown-style profile package. The package could have sold his likable (or not, depending on where you’re from) New York personality, which was a stark contrast to Brown’s more laid back, Ohio-like approach to life. And getting to know Sell in a package could have somewhat neutralized his awkward, if not embarrassing post-fight turn on the microphone. Note to all MMA trainers: do not let your fighters get on a microphone after they’ve been TKO’d.
GABRIEL GONZAGA VS. SHANE CARWIN -
Pre-fight Storylines: Carwin is a 34 year old, untested, undefeated (10-0) former college wrestler and football player who is an absolute beast of a physical specimen. Will he make Gonzaga, a former challenger to the UFC heavyweight title, a thing of the past? Or will Carwin not live up to the hype?
Selling The Fight: Rogan quickly sold this fight as “Carwin’s coming out party.” On the plus side, we also saw a pre-fight package that was lifted from the Countdown to UFC 96 show, which was a good thing. In that package, Dana White made it clear that the winner will be at “the top of the heap (in the heavyweight division).” Goldberg and Rogan also note during Carwin’s walk to the Octagon how quickly he finishes fights and the hype that comes with that. Said Rogan: “He’s got a massive amount of potential and a lot of questions are going to be answered tonight.” As for Gonzaga, both men covered his road traveled to this fight, with Goldberg adding, “(Gonzaga) is good at everything.” During the fight itself, there wasn’t a whole lot of time to say much after Carwin appeared to be in trouble early on. Rogan said the most prolific comment on this storyline after Carwin’s first-round KO: “That is a huge, huge victory for Shane Carwin.”
QUINTON JACKSON VS. KEITH JARDINE -
Pre-fight Storylines: Five Ounces of Pain founder and publisher Sam Caplan recently wrote, “Quinton Jackson must defeat Keith Jardine in order to advance to July 11’s UFC 100 where it is believed that Rashad Evans and the UFC light heavyweight title awaits.” In addition, could Jardine pull off what would be considered another upset over a high-caliber opponent? If he does, will he eventually have to fight his friend and training partner in Evans? And which “Rampage” will we see: the focused one we saw demolish Wanderlei Silva at UFC 92? Or the one that lost his light heavyweight title to Forrest Griffin at UFC 86?
Selling The Fight: Before the fight, Goldberg, Rogan and yes, Evans himself, reiterated how Jackson is one victory away at getting a shot at the title. They also played up Jardine’s strengths, which are his leg kicks; something that Jackson had trouble defending when he lost his title to Griffin. Rogan also mentioned something that Countdown to UFC 96 did not: Jackson’s highly publicized personal problems. The pre-fight package is once again lifted from the Countdown show. During the fight, all three men, especially Evans, acknowledged how Jardine’s leg kicks came into play and whether Jackson could survive them. Fortunately enough for Jackson, he appeared focused enough to work through them and secure his title shot with Evans.
A small sample size indeed, but the UFC production team, as well as Goldberg and Rogan themselves, deserve credit for being prepared and constantly reminding those watching at home what the storylines were all about.
ALSO WORTH MENTIONING…
— Was anyone else a bit surprised to see Maynard versus Miller start the televised portion of the card? It ended up being a solid, three-round fight, but going in, it certainly had the potential to be an all out, grinding war on the ground; which, for some fans, isn’t the most aesthetically pleasing of fights to watch. Beginning the show with Brown versus Sell, especially with Brown being an Ohio native, would have been a safer and more action packed way to kick things off.
— Showing Matt Hughes and Ohio State’s own Chris “Beanie” Wells in attendance, plus Jackson-Jardine and Carwin-Gonzaga getting ready for their fights, all were nice little touches to the pacing of the telecast. But the production crew really picked up the pacing by doing two things: 1) adding a “news-like” element to the show by having Frank Mir explain why his injury will delay his rematch versus Brock Lesnar and 2) Bringing in Evans (after Mir) to share his thoughts on his future potential opponents. You couldn’t get a more articulate source than Mir to explain the situation – and if Evans was in-house, why not utilize him with the storylines going on? Good stuff.
— As mentioned above, Goldberg and Rogan did a very nice job on hammering home each fight’s storylines. Both men also did a very nice job at incorporating Evans into the call of the main event. They not only allowed Evans adequate time to give his insight, but also bluntly asked him if he’d ever fight Jardine, to which he replied he wouldn’t. Evans was especially insightful when commenting on Jardine’s effective leg kicks, saying: “Rampage is on ice right now,” which was a reference to Jackson’s wobbly legs.
— Rogan Line of the Night: (On Bayshore, New York’s own, Pete Sell): “He even looks like his accent.”
— Did anyone notice the UFC’s new graphics look? It appears as if they have ditched the red-themed graphics for a slick, gold-themed look. The gold gives the overall graphics presentation a grander, richer feel. Meanwhile, eliminating the red not only gets rid of a darker, duller style, but also disassociates the connection some folks may make between red and blood. And as we all know, the UFC does not want mixed martial arts to be known as a blood sport.
— If you take for granted just how outstanding the audio is on UFC shows, then go back and watch any Affliction or HDNet live cards. There’s no one who does it better. And it’s not just the clear audio coming from fighter’s corner men. Other examples of stellar audio came in the Maynard-Miller fight. In round two, Miller had just received his final warning for low kicks. Seconds after the warning, he nearly landed another one. Angry with himself, you clearly heard Miller shout, “Ahh!” as if he were expecting to get a point deducted. In the final round, Miller screamed “Ahhhh” again as he strained to pull guard on Maynard. And finally, the live audio of Hamill’s amazing head kick was so good that they even replayed it in real time seconds later.
THE FINAL WORD -
Was UFC 96 a sign that the company is looking to turn it up a notch with their televised shows? The new graphics look certainly is a positive thing. And their being open to enhancing storylines by bringing in a Rashad Evans is certainly a good sign.
Is the enhancement of their pre-fight packages next? Will the producers continue to be open to incorporating fighters such as Evans into the broadcasts of future shows?
Only time will tell, but if they do, UFC 96 was a good way to start.