Turning The Corner

Let me start off by apologizing to BloodyElbow readers for the lack of posting.  I'm visiting my girlfiend in Norfolk this weekend and unfortunately her apartment complex is without power.  I've found a hotspot, so I'll give you my thoughts on the weekend, but that may be all I can give today. My sincerest apologies.

But man oh man, what a weekend, eh?

I was lucky enough to be on ESPN radio's The Herd with Colin Cowhered this morning.  Colin asked me if the UFC was hurt by having another champion and marketable name dethroned in front of new fans.  I told him not at all.  Not only is the new champion arguably the most naturally marketable fighter in all of mixed martial arts, it's also likely an African-American champion will help draw in the African-American market that heretofore is underrepresented in MMA.

The fact is that if you don't like mixed martial arts or the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the winter of your discontent is about to set in.  With the wall to wall coverage of the Liddell vs. Jackson fight on ESPN (and consequently coverage of the UFC and MMA), with the cover of Sports Illustrated covering (fairly) the UFC and MMA, and with the UFC riding the momentum already propelling the sport of mixed martial arts into the mainstream, it's official that MMA - for better or worse - is here to stay.  That doesn't mean that the UFC or MMA is officially as "mainstream" as it could be.  Rather, what's most important is that the sport has penetrated through the final barriers to mainstream entry enough to get a foot hold.  Detractors of the sport will continue to embarass themselves, but they too are only riding the wave of MMA popularity.  Once the novelty or intrigue of first exposure wears off, their soapboxes will have increasingly fewer spectators willing to absorb their nonsense.

As for UFC 71, in general I'd say it was a good event.  I'd have been happier with a more inspired performance from Ivan Salaverry, but there were plenty of competitive match-ups and spectacular finishes.  Really, though, it was the main event that helped the UFC and MMA into getting mainstream coverage.  Liddell's rock star status and Rampage's decisive defeat of that legend 4 years ago made for a marketable storyline for the UFC (a storyline they spent time and money marketing ad infinitum).  The mainstream press bought into heavily, so Liddell went in portrayed as the favorite hellbent on perfecting his record as much as one can this late into their career.  But as I predicted, Rampage won and should never have been the underdog.  I knew the match-up was competitive, but just as everyone had counted out Rampage in many of his PRIDE fights, so too were fans, journalists, and so-called "insiders" counting out the talented Rampage.  Everything Jackson needed to be successful was coming into play at just the right moment, and while Chuck Liddell is no easy task for anyone, Rampage had the edge, both physically and mentally going into that fight.  Period.

And boy did that show.  For starters, Chuck didn't look nearly as intense during his entrance in the octagon.  Go back and look at the devilish smirk he sported while walking to the cage before fighting Ortiz at UFC 66.  He was loose, confident, and unquestionably ready to throw.  And why not be?  Stylistically Ortiz posed no real threat to his championship status, not to mention Chuck's personal dislike of Ortiz made the looming opportunity to pummel the Huntington Beach Bad Boy all the more appealing.  But the smile awash in confidence was gone on Saturday.  Instead we saw a champion aware of the challenge before him, more so than the fans or even the press.  He appeared to be the only one in the entire MGM Grand who knew how serious the a threat Jackson actually was to his belt.

Worse (for Liddell), Rampage looked incredibly focused.  His entrance into the octagon - the inexplicable boos notwithstanding - had all the bells and whistles of his spectacular PRIDE entrances: the look, the clothing, the howling, the stoic yet angry grimace, the chain, and the imposing physical stature.  When the two warriors met in the middle for the referee's instructions, Chuck Liddell no longer looked like the bully.  Rampage peered right into Chuck's eyes as if to tell the champion he could still see himself in Liddell's mind, haunting him since their 2003 match-up.

What happened to the Iceman was only a shock in it's shortened time frame, not outcome.  Chuck Liddell is easily one of 5 best fighters to ever compete in the UFC, but Saturday night belonged to the Memphis-born-and-raised Jackson.  Saturday night was the night of redemption and rebirth for Jackson.  Rampage is a fighter will all the talent in the world, but also one with tough losses, missed opportunities, crushing defeats, questions about his focus, and a dubious future in the fight game.  All of those issues came into play on Saturday, but not how everyone expected.  They would not cause Jackson's defeat, but rather, help him to victory.  Saturday night was Jackson's opportunity to put his personal demons and the questions that have been plaguing him for 3 years to rest.  And that's exactly what he did.  He used his crushing defeat of Liddell to announce he'd overcome not only UFC jitters, but MMA jitters.  Jackson looked confident, strong, ready to fight, and most importantly, unaffected by doubt.  The fans and the press may have believed the doubt still existed, but Liddell didn't and Quinton proved it.  And as marketable as Jackson is, the boos he received when fighting Liddell will be replaced with cheers and screams of approval once the new fans know Rampage as well as we do.

The future is bright for the MMA, the UFC, and it's fighters (including Liddell).  As a sport we have penetrated what feels like the last major barriers to the mainstream.  There is still an unbelievable amount to grow, but there's also no looking back at this point.  We have endured ridicule, legislative crackdown, poor television and radio exposure, and the dismissive waive of the hand from the traditional sports journalism community.   But like it or not we are here and here to stay.

We - the hardcore fans, the radio hosts, the bloggers, the MMA community - have known all along how amazing this sport is.  It's very gratifying to see others come around.  Welcome to the party, guys.  Better late than never.

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