The UFC is staging two events this week - the latter will take place in Brazil and features a semi-strong card, while the former will take place on a military base in Kentucky and is designed to give back to American military members. Fight for the Troops 3 was supposed to feature a main event pitting former Strikeforce title challenger Tim Kennedy against former UFC light heavyweight champ Lyoto Machida in his middleweight debut. Due to injuries and some card shuffling, what is left in the place of the main event is a shell of what it used to be.
With Machida out, the UFC had a bit of a dilemma on their hands at the start of October - Kennedy needed a new opponent on just five weeks notice. The solution they came up with was, for lack of a better word, unexpected. They moved Rafael Natal from his undercard fight with Ed Herman at UFC 167 right into the main event of this show. So now the card features these guys in a headlining five-round fight, something fans aren't exactly drooling over.
The first question that sprung into my mind when the bout was announced was a pretty simple one - is this the worst main event in UFC history? It certainly seemed to be on the surface. A cursory search proved that since the UFC was bought by Zuffa, they at least headlined their PPVs with fights more relevant than this. But what about their shows on television? There were definitely a few duds over the years, and I'm not talking about the outcome of the fights. I'm referring to the booking in the first place. So with that in mind, I thought I'd go through a few of the weakest UFC headliners of the TV era, and see how Kennedy/Natal matched up.
First, let's take a look at Kennedy vs. Natal. Tim Kennedy (16-4) twice challenged for the Strikeforce middleweight title but came up short both times. He is currently on a two-fight winning streak, the last of which came in his UFC debut over Roger Gracie. The current BE rankings have him at number 10 at middleweight (which honestly surprised the hell out of me), while he remains unranked in the official UFC rankings. Natal (17-4-1) is 5-2-1 in the UFC, and on a three-fight winning streak. Two of those came over late replacements that were natural welterweights, with the last coming over TUF fighter Tor Troeng. Natal isn't in the top 25 of the BE rankings and obviously didn't place in the UFC rankings.
After looking at that, compare them to a few of the UFC's weakest headliners of years gone by:
TUF 7 Finale: Evan Tanner vs. Kendall Grove - Tanner, an ex-middleweight champ, was in the midst of a comeback after being out for two years. He was knocked out by Yushin Okami in the bout before this. Grove was the TUF 3 champ, but came into this bout one a two-fight losing streak, getting knocked out by both Patrick Cote and Jorge Rivera prior to this bout. Both men were completely off the rankings radar at the time.
TUF 12 Finale: Stephan Bonnar vs. Igor Pokrajac - Bonnar was 1-3 in his last four before this, but had picked up a win in his last bout. Pokrajac was 1-2 in the UFC before this and nowhere near being ranked. Bonnar wasn't up there either.
UFC on Versus 5: Dan Hardy vs. Chris Lytle - Hardy was on a three fight losing streak. Lytle had actually won four out of his last five, but had lost the bout prior to this to Brian Ebersole. It was the going-out party for Lytle though, since he was retiring after the fight. Hardy was still sitting in the 23 spot in the Bloody Elbow rankings at the time.
UFC on Fuel 9: Gegard Mousasi vs. Ilir Latifi - Mousasi was supposed to fight Alexander Gustafsson, but Gus was forced out at the last minute and replaced by the man no one had ever heard of in Latifi. Mousasi was ranked at # 11 going into the bout though.
Also, we can take a look at the headliners for the first two Fight for the Troops card:
FFTT 1: Josh Koscheck vs. Yoshiyuki Yoshida - Kos was coming off a loss to Thiago Alves, while Yoshida had one win in the UFC (over War Machine of all people). Koscheck was ranked fifth in the world at welterweight at the time, while Yoshida was 16th.
FFTT 2: Melvin Guillard vs. Evan Dunham - Guillard had won 5 of 6 coming into the bout, while Dunham was coming off his highly disputed loss to Sean Sherk and was 4-1 in the organization overall. Dunham was ranked at number 12, while Guillard was right on the fringe at number 25.
After looking at all that, this is definitely not the first time that a top-15 guy has faced off with a non-ranked fighter in the main event of a show. In fact, I only selected the four headliners that I thought were the worst of the bunch. A lot of the early UFN cards on Spike focused on early TUF fighters and the development of the lightweight division, so they could have arguably been even worse from a relevance standpoint. Natal is clearly off everyone's radar, but so were a lot of headliners over the years.
There are plenty of ways to argue the merits of shows nowadays to ones even a year or two ago (larger roster, more shows, less marketable fighters) but in the end, I don't think it's the worst headliner ever overall. I completely expected to find that it was when I started this piece, but it's not. It's definitely worse than the first two Fight for the Troops headliners though, and it's probably the leading contender for worst five-rounder the UFC has put on to date. The loss of Machida was seriously damaging and I'm not sure how they couldn't find a more relevant replacement on five weeks notice, but this is what we got. I guess we just have to deal with it.