What-ifs are a popular part of our sport. Maybe it's a holdover from the not so long ago days when we would have to wait a month (or months!) between major events. Maybe it's a symptom of an internet-age hardcore fanbase. Maybe it's just the natural tendency of any sports fans (see draft predictions, fantasy leagues, March madness). Whatever the reason, speculation in MMA most definitely runs the gamut from harmless imaginings to overblown ruminative monstrosities. Let it be known that I expect this fanpost to number among the latter.
In times of either extreme instability or stagnation within a weight class, a tournament, no matter how impractical or unlikely, is often submitted as a solution. With the increasing number of fighters defeated by Georges St. Pierre, but whom otherwise continue to win, I've heard several longtime fans suggest that a tournament involving both those former challengers and new rising contenders is the fairest way to determine the recipient of the next title shot. That sentiment was reiterated when the 170-pound champion was shelved with consecutive knee injuries, necessitating an interim belt. The Strikeforce heavyweight division, in turmoil following a drought in activity from their champion, as well as the first in #1-ranked Fedor Emelianenko's recent collection of losses, played host to an ongoing grand prix in an attempt to bring its title picture back into focus. Bellator was predicated upon the concept of perpetual tournaments across all weight classes. Even the UFC itself seeded a four-man bracket to inaugurate their flyweight division and crown its first titleholder. In short, there are numerous examples of both envisioned and executed bracket-style matchmaking to be found.
But the tournament format can be just as interesting when considered in reverse. Backfilling a bracket from a title fight can give us a unique sense of the circumstances that allowed (or forced) the matchup to happen. It can also lead us to some bizarre what-if scenarios, as well as some possible answers. This dual perspective, "How did this happen?" and "What could have happened instead?" will be the focus of this fanpost, and any future installments.
For this freshman effort, I'll actually be looking back to last Saturday's championship bout in the 205-pound division. We all know the result, a second round chokeout by retaining champ Jon Jones, but what road did Lyoto Machida travel, all to find himself with his neck in the crook of Jones' elbow? Before that analysis, allow me to explain how I invented a tournament backwards from the final match, and what I expected to find.
Since Machida was selected to challenge for the title, his otherwise most recent fight could be retroactively considered a de facto #1 contendership bout, even if it wasn't regarded as such at the time (more on this later). This matchup will serve as the final round of the "tournament," with one side of the bracket belonging to Machida himself, and the other side ostensibly dominated by his last opponent before Jones, in this case Randy Couture. Backfilling through two further rounds, using each fighter's victories and those of their previously successful opponents should, under ideal circumstances, yield an opening quarterfinal round with eight unique competitors.
In this instance, pretty much nothing goes as expected, which results in just about the most broken would-be tournament conceivable, a bracket that would be mercilessly ridiculed if uttered aloud. Here's a look:
|(Lyoto Machida 1st round bye)|
|(Machida 2nd round bye)|
|Machida def. Couture|
|(James Toney 1st round bye)|
|Couture def. Toney|
|Randy Couture def. Mark Coleman|
- Machida actually lost his fight with Rampage immediately before defeating Couture, which means that the Machida/Rampage fight has no place in the bracket. Consequently, were this a true tournament, a two-round bye would be the only explanation for Machida's spot in the finals.
- Couture actually did win two fights before being booked opposite Machida. However, his opponent in the "semifinal" round was MMA newcomer James Toney, who, in this hypothetical tournament scenario, must have been awarded a single-round bye and seeded directly into the semifinals, where he awaited the winner of:
- Couture vs. Coleman, the lone contest in what I projected would be a four-fight quarterfinal round.
The end product looks more like an easy ladder on Mortal Kombat than a classic Pride grand prix. Nonetheless, these were really and truly the circumstances surrounding and leading to Machida's latest title "run". Why does the bracket look so bad? Earlier, I mentioned that backfilling matchups in this manner ought to produce a pretty good-looking eight-man tournament. The reason this should happen is because it would mean that the latest title challenger beat guys whom beat other guys. Even though UFC matchmaking is officially linear, fighters don't typically get title shots on the strength of a single non-consecutive win.
One possible reason for a murky title picture (and crappy bracket) is a shallow weight division. Heavyweight fighters in all the major promotions (except Bellator!) have historically been given title shots after a lone victory because there often just weren't enough compelling matchups to do otherwise. The UFC once allowed a heavyweight fighter to challenge for the belt coming off a loss! Fortunately, depth is a non-issue at 205 pounds. While it has in recent years been surpassed in terms of competitive insanity, light heavyweight is still a very robust division with no shortage of contenders.
If not divisional poverty, then questionable matchmaking could be the culprit. While it's very difficult to find faults in Joe Silva's plying of his trade, there are some arguable missteps in this small collection of bouts. The booking of James Toney in any capacity is the top offender, though that may have been more the machination of Dana White. I find it hard to imagine a world in which Toney's contribution to the UFC outweighed the sum he was paid as a participant. Given that, it would have made more sense to pair Toney with lowly-ranked Coleman, and let the winner square off against Couture. Machida vs. Couture wasn't a crown jewel of matchmaking either, but it struck a certain balance in having a former champion coming off a top-ten loss stand opposite a (distant) former champion riding a flimsy win streak.
The real cause of this weak showing, at which most readers have no doubt already arrived, was injuries. Machida didn't receive a title shot because Joe Silva went insane, or earn one by beating Couture; he inherited one from a sidelined Rashad Evans, the intended title challenger. If not for Evans' misfortune, we would be analyzing a very different fantasy bracket today:
|Rashad Evans def. Thiago Silva|
|Evans def. Jackson|
|Rampage Jackson def. Keith Jardine|
|Evans def. Ortiz|
|(Ryan Bader 1st round bye)|
|Ortiz def. Bader|
|(Tito Ortiz 1st round bye)|
While not perfect, this setup is certainly not as plagued by seeding errors and mismatches as the one above. And beyond directly changing Jon Jones' dance card, training injuries were also the cause of Machida and Evans being in separate brackets at all, as they were originally meant to rematch for #1 contendership, until Machida was injured and replaced by Tito Ortiz.
What about the other guys?
Had Mark Coleman somehow defeated Couture in the quarterfinals, it would be easy to imagine the UFC booking him to welcome loudmouth James Toney to the octagon. A likely win over Toney would theoretically pit him against Machida. While this would be a criminally irresponsible mismatch, Coleman is a veteran of the sport, and an athletic commission recently cleared him to fight Shogun.
For his part, a win over either Coleman or Couture would probably not earn Toney an appointment opposite Machida. Joe Silva wouldn't dream of it, and none but the sleaziest of ACs would give it the green light.
Now for the crazy part: what if Couture had bested Machida in the finals? What if Coleman won the whole tournament? We've established that Machida, having not even two consecutive wins at the time, was awarded a title shot primarily due to training injuries sustained by official challenger Rashad Evans. Under these extenuating circumstances, one would have to imagine that a Couture or Coleman victory over Machida would heavily qualify either man as a replacement for Evans.
Had Machida been defeated by Couture or Coleman, it's also possible that a different fighter altogether would have received the call. Likely candidates could have been Dan Henderson (which would have very sadly removed him from his brawl with Shogun) or Phil Davis, who in that case would have been fast-tracked to a title fight in a manner not unlike Jones' own.