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UFC matchmaking - Platinum as a commodity

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Mike Perry got soundly beaten by Max Griffin last weekend, and is starting to look like another hot prospect being chewed up by the UFC matchmaking machine. Connor and Phil ask a difficult question: Is having the best fighting the best always the greatest idea?

MMA: UFC Fight Night-Winnipeg-Ponzinibbio vs Perry Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports

What kind of value does “Platinum” Mike Perry really hold for the UFC? Phil and Connor discuss how the UFC’s excitement-first, competition-second model has a tendency to crush its prospects.

Phil: Mike Perry dropped his second consecutive fight on Saturday. Max Griffin drew the Florida slugger onto his shots, stung him with his jab, and floored him with a cracking left hook. Perry surged late, but absorbed a great deal of damage, and ended up with another clear decision loss.

Despite these struggles, the man has an inarguable magnetism combined with an equally undeniable talent for MMA. Some will be wondering: what’s next?

Well, I have a humble matchmaking suggestion:

Lyman Good.

He’s coming off a loss, like Perry, and occupies approximately the same tier within MMA’s loose competitive structure. He’s a brick-fisted, durable veteran with tons of experience and craft. A fight with Perry would be guaranteed fireworks!

What do you think of this idea, Connor?

Connor: I love it! My only concern is that Mike, being a stylish fellow, might refuse to wear the customary sacrificial amulet, which could render the whole thing moot in the eyes of the Old Ones.

Wait, I forget...are we or are we not trying to end Mike Perry’s career as quickly as possible?

Phil: Is that not the plan?

Connor: If it isn’t, no one told Sean Shelby and Mick Maynard.

In all seriousness, the UFC’s matchmaking duo do their job very well, as far as the traditional UFC model is concerned. On the whole, dull fights are a relative rarity inside the Octagon. Look back at the last three UFC events (if they haven’t already vanished from memory) and you will see literally dozens of exciting, competitive bouts. This is what the UFC wants. With very few exceptions, it is what they have always wanted.

Fans have long lauded the UFC for “striking while the iron is hot.” Whereas elite boxers spend years and years avoiding one another before cashing out with one or two long-awaited clashes, MMA fighters experience the UFC much the same way a steak experiences a meat-grinder. When there are big fights to be made, the UFC makes them. When there aren’t big fights to be made, they try their best to ensure that the matchups are, at least, exciting.

Mike Perry is a Joe Silva wet dream come to life. He hits hard, has a good chin, and always tries his hardest to put on a show. Every single one of Perry’s UFC bouts has been thrilling. Before Griffin, he had scored seven knockdowns, and been knocked down himself twice. He had landed 246 significant strikes, and absorbed 259 in return. Six fights in, and Mike Perry’s UFC career was far more entertaining than it was easy.

Phil: This, then, was his tune-up, his chance to get back on track. Instead, he got tuned up. In some ways, as you mentioned, this is a laudable feature of the UFC. It’s a shark tank, and there are killers everywhere. It also makes a fantastic story for Griffin, who only recently began treating MMA as a professional career, went into enemy territory and showed off a startlingly measured and skilled performance.

But, if the fight shows some of the strengths in the UFC model, it also shows some of the weaknesses. Primarily among these of late is “short-termism.” The organization seems to scrabble around looking for belts (W125, W145) or fights (GSP-Bisping, Lesnar-Hunt) designed to produce a brief sugar high. This extends to the competitive matchmaking as well.

The plan with Perry seems to be: put him in fun action matchups. He’s a fun action fighter! But at 26 years old, with less than four years in the sport, he has the potential to be more for the organization, and that doesn’t seem like it’s going to happen if they shatter his chin by putting him in there against an endless row of athletic bangers.

Connor: The frequency of his fights bears mentioning, as well. Though it already feels like we’ve known him all our lives, Mike Perry has only been fighting under the UFC banner for 18 months. With seven UFC bouts now under his belt, that means Perry has taken a fight every two-and-a-half months, on average.

This time out…I would say he looked his years, but it hasn’t even been two. Still, for all of Griffin’s intelligent strategizing, Perry looked…flat. Worn out. The shocking speed that marked his first few UFC fights was gone. Perry has always been willing to take three to give one, but in Orlando he took and took, without ever looking particularly willing to do anything about it. He looked like a man who knew there were answers to the problem before him - he had solved Danny Roberts in a similar matchup less than a year prior - but he couldn’t execute.

Phil: It’s also notable that he’s getting hurt worse and worse out there. He was stunned by The Ponz’s backfist, and almost KOd clean by Griffin. Admittedly some of the blame is likely on his training situation: with his best friend and his girlfriend in his corner, I don’t know how much he’s getting the best possible training from periodically heading to ATT Orlando. His brief slide is likely a confluence of preparation and the fights he’s been put in. As an aside: it’s oddly sad to me that Jeremy Stephens earned Perry’s eternal enmity by hitting on the Platinum Princess, because if there’s any fighter who represents a weird kind of ideal for what Perry could become, it’s Lil’ Heathen.

Connor: Oh, absolutely.

Phil: Still, a useful question is: “Who cares? Why should this tattoo-faced degenerate even get any kind of special treatment at all?” and I guess the cynical answer is just because it seems careless. It seems like a wasted commodity. I wouldn’t describe myself as a Mike Perry fan, but I am a fan of talent, and he is clearly one of the few fighters on the UFC roster with that combination of raw charisma and ability which they need. The current track that he’s on feels shortsighted.

Taking a softer approach with respect to matchmaking is something the UFC is occasionally accused of, and it’s something we rarely actually see. One of the most commonly cited “protected” fighters is Conor McGregor, and this baffles me. He had a murderous strength of schedule, including Max Holloway and Dustin Poirier. More than that, he fought Chad Mendes on short notice with a messed up knee.

It’s somewhat missed in retrospect just how insanely risky this was, not just for McGregor but for the UFC itself. Think of how much potential future revenue they put on the line (would the UFC even have sold for as much without that win and everything that came afterwards?) by letting him take the fight. I think that the incredible success of the McGregor experiment taught the UFC a lesson, and not necessarily the right one. And that lesson was “gamble.”

They have an enormous supply of raw material: over 600 fighters. Throw them together in the hardest possible matchups, risk something every time, and eventually you’ll get a star out of it. Someone will rise to the occasion. Except...that doesn’t seem to be happening. Instead everyone is just sort of mashing each other to pieces. Perry is being steadily beaten into welterweight Chris Leben. Yair Rodriguez got pulped by Frankie Edgar.

Connor: Lando Vannata. Eric Shelton. Doo Ho Choi. The list of prospects deferred by UFC matchmaking is long, long, long. Those who survive the series of trials by fire tend to be truly remarkable talents. Think Max Holloway, Georges St-Pierre, and Carlos Condit.

This gambling has always been part of the UFC’s strategy for talent development, but it’s hard to argue that it isn’t getting worse. Gavin Tucker put on an incredible show in his UFC debut, and was swiftly rewarded with a fight against Rick Glenn, a veteran with an uncrackable chin and a resume twice as long as Tucker’s - who beat the ever-loving shit out of him. Devin Clark was knocked out in his UFC debut by Alex Nicholson, a wild brawler whom at least one of the men writing this article expected to do just that. Corey Anderson was just five fights into his pro career when they fed him to Gian Villante.

Brian Houston! Remember him? He was 4-0 when the UFC gave him 10-2 Derek Brunson, and after that all-too-predictable loss, he managed to lose a split decision to the grimy Trevor Smith. He looked pretty good in that second fight, considering, and I remember hoping that he could rattle off a few wins on the regional circuit and come back with some much-needed experience. Instead, he suffered four straight losses, and seems to have retired.

And the practice is not restricted to prospects. Chris Weidman lost his title in stunningly brutal fashion, absorbing about 80 uncontested strikes on the ground before the fight was finally waved off. The matchmakers were even less merciful than the referee. Weidman didn’t get a tune-up, or anything like it. Instead, he got Yoel Romero (who knocked him out) and then Gegard Mousasi (who knocked him out). Luke Rockhold, the man who took Weidman’s title, also lost the belt by knockout. He notched one win after that, and though he looked decidedly shaky that night, he was immediately thrust back into title contention. Yoel Romero knocked him out, too.

In the UFC, nobody gets a break. Nobody gets taken care of. And, though I don’t know whether Shelby and Maynard continue the practice, Joe Silva was even known to punish fighters who refused his proposed matchups - by matching them even more brutally.

We could question this strong-arm promotional practice from a humanitarian perspective, and I think we should, but—to borrow some of your cynicism, Phil - it’s also just...bad business.

Phil: The humanitarian question is an interesting lens to look through, because there are always two sides to every fight. If we ask for softer matchups for potential stars, we’re also sort of saying that it’s OK to sacrifice weaker fighters to them. In general I think it’s perhaps too easy to criticize the UFC for its mistakes without taking into account some of the checks and balances which inform the choices they make. The UFC’s current model is harsh, but has a equitable side to it (aside from stylistic concerns: no one likes grapplers, etc), because everyone largely gets someone very close to their own skill level.

Softer matchups put weaker fighters in harm’s way. Do we really want to advocate for fights which come on the spectrum of, say, Shevchenko vs Cachoeira, or this weekend’s “champion vs champion” matchup of Cyborg vs Kunitskaya? Squash matches are undeniably useful from a promotional standpoint (see: PRIDE, or Michael Page), but do we really want to go down that path?

In addition, thinking of fights from a star-building perspective makes for tough questions about factors like fight frequency. Like you said, Mike Perry has fought a lot. Is that good or bad? From a star-building perspective, you want to keep your guy out there (remember Makwan “Mr Finland” Amirkhani? Me neither!). On the other hand, consistent fights also carry the risk the risk physical and mental damage building up over time. Alternatively, it might aid them in learning on the job. It’s a complex question.

I guess what I’d like to see more is just more (and “safer”) variety in the style matchups thrown at developing fighters, not trying to bury every grappler or bash every hitter against one other. Why is someone like Perry endlessly fighting power punchers? Could he not fight sneaky submission aces like a Moraes, or a Nakamura?

Connor: That is a salient point. Fighting is an inescapably horrible business. Still, there has to be a middle road between “if he dies, he dies” and “please no one notice that we aren’t testing this guy at all.” And I think your point about styles sits firmly on that middle road.

On the talent development side, fighters like Perry do not need to be enduring brutal wars of attrition in every fight. A savvy grappler, or a technical striker without much power could both be interesting tests for Perry, and ones which would actually allow him to show different aspects of his game.

As for the journeymen, the Opponents (capital O intended) who are fed to these developing talents…well, they could be spared by more careful stylistic matchmaking, too. If a promotion were to use its journeymen strategically, then they would be slotted into a wide variety of stylistic pairings. Say they give Perry someone like Zak Ottow. That strikes me as a perfectly acceptable matchup for both men, because Ottow has not spent the last year going to war with power punchers. If, however, they gave him Erick Silva…you see my point. Both are matchups which Perry would be expected to win, but one is decidedly more cruel. If matchups are made with just a touch more care, with an eye for long-term strategy, then everyone wins--even the guys who are brought in to lose.

Perry really is a superb talent. He is also a charismatic figure - even if that sometimes means unironically quoting lyrics from 8 Mile on Twitter. Whatever you think of him, Mike Perry definitely deserves better. Does the UFC deserve Mike Perry?