Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard will meet for the third time in the Octagon this Saturday night in Houston, Texas. They will be contesting the most difficult championship to win in all of sports: The UFC lightweight championship. Underscoring this is the fact that it will be the second time these two men have fought for the championship. The first time they did, neither man was able to convince the other that they and they alone were deserving of the title; the fight ended in a draw.
Why is the UFC lightweight championship the most difficult title to win? The first thing that comes to mind is the training required to compete in hand to hand combat. MMA carries the distinction of being the single most stressful human activity outside of war. The second thing to consider is opportunity.
In the major team sports that so dominate professional athletics, an average player will have around five or six seasons, or chances, to win a title. The best of the best will almost surely have twice as many opportunities as the average ones. Looking at individual sports, you will find many prestigious championships. Tennis and Golf both have four per year, giving professionals in those fields a fairly large number of chances to win one. Even if you limited the discussion to one of the major four championships (Wimbledon? The Masters?), you are still looking at five or six go-rounds for the average competitor. The Olympic Games and the World Cup, both held only once every four years, raise the difficulty bar quite a bit, as most athletes will only get one or two chances to qualify for these events. When you consider the fact that a good number of Olympic sports only see competitors from a handful of countries, it diminishes the accomplishment slightly. Only in events such as track and field do we see true worldwide participation. Winning the 100 meter dash is right up there as the most difficult sporting achievement to accomplish, yet when you compare the training and sacrifices required to sprint and to fight, it does not meet the standard set by the UFC lightweight championship.
There are thousands of fighters competing in mixed martial arts' 155 pound division. Of those thousands, just 53 are currently competing in the UFC. It is difficult enough to get into the UFC, but of those 53, about 45 have little to no chance of ever competing for the title. The remaining handful of guys who could conceivably get a chance to fight for the title are a murders row of fighting talent, many of whom have not suffered a single loss in years (or ever), and if they have, it was to one of the current kingpins. Over the past two years, Gray Maynard, Frankie Edgar, Melvin Guillard, Ben Henderson, Clay Guida, Gilbert Melendez, Jim Miller and Dennis Siver have a combined record of 35-4-2, with every loss except one (Guida falling to Kenny Florian) coming in a fight between two members of the group. Despite their dominance it seems an impossibility that all of these men will get a chance to fight for the title in their careers; only one can fight for the title at a time and the rest will be left to fight amongst themselves for the next shot. Jim Miller was considered to be next in line before suffering a recent loss to Henderson. He may yet get his chance, but he now finds himself at the back of the line, with perhaps a year or two of fights to get through before he gets another sniff.
This is the reality of the situation. Simply training for a high level mixed martial arts fight is difficult enough. In order to get a chance to fight for the 155 pound UFC championship you must train at the highest level for years on end, defeat all challengers along the way, have the good fortune to fight the right guy at the right time, while at the same time avoiding a major injury at the wrong one. And after all this you still might not get your chance, if as we see here the guy with the belt won't give it up and the guy trying to take it won't take no for an answer.
For hardcore fans, this fight should be an absolute must see event. It should have you salivating at the opportunity to watch the two men who have climbed to the highest and most treacherous of peaks, two men who have faced each other before and found nothing between them, compete for 25 minutes or less to finally decide who will stand alone. The UFC often times is guilty of overstating the significance of a fight. This is not one of them.
Alas, it seems this week as though 136 is just another UFC numbered event. I haven't seen the deluge of fan posts that usually pop up when a fight of this magnitude is around the corner. The staff is doing a great job of covering the different angles, then again, they always do. The comments sections for 136 threads seem much lower than they should be.
Is it because the event comes at a time when the sporting landscape in America is dominated by other sports? The NFL season is in full gear, the Major League Baseball postseason has just begun and the hockey and basketball seasons (The NBA labour situation notwithstanding) are just about to get underway, so it is reasonable to think that fan attention has perhaps been turned elsewhere. One look at the average UFC PPV buys (courtesy of mmapayout.com) for this time of year dispels that notion. The UFC has held five events in October since 2006:
UFC 64, Silva vs Franklin, 300,000
UFC 77 Silva vs Franklin 2, 325,000
UFC 90 Silva vs Cote, 300,000
UFC 104 Machida vs Rua, 500,000
UFC 121 Lesnar vs Velasquez, 1,050,000
Of course Lesnar's presence on a PPV always sways the numbers considerably, but none of those shows did badly in the PPV department. Another possible explanation is that the UFC has over-saturated the MMA market with events. While I think there is some merit to this line of thinking, it's probably too difficult to tell just how much the recent heavy schedule has affected the buy rate. We can't ignore the fact that the economy has played a role in the declining PPV sales. Brock Lesnar being out of action for the past year has hurt them as well. And while the UFC is still a very new to the sports landscape, it has been around for long enough now that we could be starting to see the novelty factor disappear. Which brings me to the crux of the article: For all the strides the UFC has made towards being identified strictly as a sport, it is still very much sports entertainment.
The first time Maynard and Edgar met for the title, on January 1st of this year, 275,000 people bought the event. They went on to produce the most competitive and compelling MMA fight we've seen in quite some time. Unfortunately, both Gray and Frankie have relatively understated personalities. Neither of them are particularly compelling interviews and honestly they come across as having great respect for each other. I appreciate this in my athletes. I cheer for guys like that a little more than the brash and loud mouthed fighters like Chael Sonnen or Floyd Mayweather. But it doesn't draw people to the event the way the antics of Sonnen and Mayweather do. And the UFC seems to have recognized this.
The biggest MMA stories this year have happened outside the cage. At the top of the list is the Zuffa purchase of Strikeforce and the deal to put the UFC on FOX for 2012. Accompanying these moves are big changes scheduled to be made to the production of the live events and to the Ultimate Fighter reality show. For as much as the past two years has been about the growth inside the cage, this year has been about transition. The fighting itself has never been at a higher level, yet that has proven insufficient to keep driving growth. The changes that are coming aren't going to improve the fights, they are going to add to the entertainment value.
It's smart business, because if the lack of excitement for this weekend is any indication, the UFC hasn't quite reached the point where the product itself is the main attraction. People still want hero's and villains and story lines from storybooks. Don't take my word for it, just watch and see what happens this weekend. Should Chael Sonnen get past Brian Stann, the story come Monday will be whatever ludicrous statements he makes as he begins his promotional assault on Anderson Silva. Meanwhile, one of Gray Maynard or Frankie Edgar will have just won the most difficult championship to win in all of sports. Let's not forget that.