Thursday, July 20, 2006

ESPN PAYING ATTENTION TO MMA?

If you needed any further proof of the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s ascension to the top of the MMA food chain, look no further than ESPN’s “Hot List,” which the company used as a platform to officially announce that Matt Hughes will be fighting George St. Pierre for the UFC Welterweight Title on September 23rd on pay per view (UFC 63).
Make no mistake about it – this is big news. Not necessarily the announcement of the actual fight, which many insider fight fans knew was coming for months, but the fact that the announcement was made on ESPN. The fact that the UFC is receiving publicity on “The Worldwide Leader” illustrates how far this sport has come in recent years. In fact, appearing on ESPN may have overshadowed what was actually announced!
While the UFC has been discussed on ESPN’s “Hot List” before, they were never allotted such an opportunity to put over the promotion and its individual fighters. Both Hughes and St. Pierre were in studio, and they took turns promoting the showdown. The two fighters came off very well, as they were able to establish a “big fight” vibe for the upcoming matchup, which is critical when given a chance to reach such a large national audience that is still likely unfamiliar with the product as a whole. As we’ve seen in the past, not all UFC media appearances have come off well (i.e. Dana White on O’Reilly Factor).
Now, to touch on the actual fight itself. While many other UFC bouts may have brought more box office luster to the table, Hughes-GSP is the fight that I am most looking forward to in 2006. Both guys are at the top of their game right now, and there may not be a better battle inside the Octagon for MMA fans than this. Throughout 2005/06, Hughes has been unstoppable, winning in dominant fashion over the likes of Frank Trigg, Joe “Diesel” Riggs, and the legendary Royce Gracie. To understand how dominant Hughes has been as champion, take note that none of those top-level fighters have made it past the first round against the Welterweight king. The challenger, St. Pierre, has been equally as impressive over that time frame having also beaten Frank Trigg, not to mention Jason Miller, Sean Sherk, and BJ Penn. The victory over Penn is what resulted in St. Pierre getting his shot at Hughes.
Of course, long time fight fans know that Hughes and St. Pierre have already fought once, with Hughes prevailing via armbar submission at exactly the five-minute mark of the first round. The submission came out of nowhere, and has seemed to motivate St. Pierre ever since. Expect a much more competitive fight this time around.
Hughes is no stranger to publicity and box office attraction, as his last fight against Gracie drew a MMA record 600,000+ buys on pay per view. To put that number in perspective for the wrestling fans reading this, that’s more than both WWE Backlash and Judgment Day – COMBINED!
Other tidbits from the week that was:
While the UFC is reveling in it’s growing amount of television exposure, over in Japan the same cannot be said for PRIDE. Still reeling from being dropped by Fuji TV (due to alleged dealings with the “Yakuza” – that’s the Japanese mob), PRIDE and its parent company Dream Stage Entertainment have yet to really capitalize on the MMA boom in the United States. Last week’s announcement of the semifinal pairings of the Open Weight Grand Prix should have been a bigger story, but with all the UFC coverage, the news seemed to get lost in the shuffle. Another news item, PRIDE’s first ever US PPV – which will take place on 10/21, was able to grab headlines, but really only amongst the MMA faithful.
The Open Weight Grand Prix is an interesting concept, which newer fans may be unaccustomed to. Weight limits are thrown out the window in this tournament, as fighters can actually be paired against other fighters not in their respective weight class. Through the first two rounds of the tournament, weight differential hasn’t been a real factor, as the vast majority of fighters were Light Heavyweights and Heavyweights. Simply put, the standout fighters in PRIDE’s lighter divisions (such as Takanori Gomi) didn’t want to risk a potentially devastating injury in the competition.
Oh yeah, the actual pairings. In one semifinal, it will be Josh Barnett vs. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, and in semifinal #2, it’s Wanderlei Silva against Mirko Cro Cop. If I was a betting man, I’d say to expect a Nogueira vs. Cro Cop final. The other big news for this event is the return of Mauricio “Shogun” Rua to the PRIDE ring. Coming off an injury, “Shogun” is still considered one of the world’s premier fighters, regardless of organization.
Speaking of Wanderlei Silva, there still remains a large buzz about his potential showdown with UFC Light Heavyweight champion, Chuck Liddell. I still question the timing of President Dana White’s announcement, which occurred on the company’s last PPV over a week ago. Silva has the Open Weight Grand Prix to contend with, and as the only non-heavyweight left in the field, I’m not giving him much of a chance to even make it to the finals. Regardless if Silva wins or not, he is assured the date with Liddell, provided he is not injured. But, what about Liddell? “The Iceman,” must first defeat Renato “Babalu” Sobral August 26th at the next UFC pay-per-view, and be injury-free as well. Needless to say, these aren’t exactly minor details!
However, as fight fans, let’s keep in mind the big picture. This fight is a dream bout in every sense of the term, and the fact that UFC and PRIDE are working in conjunction with each other IS the story of the year. Once again, to put it in perspective for you wrestling fans, imagine Hulk Hogan vs. Ric Flair – in 1988! I have to imagine that all fans of MMA have to be awaiting Liddell vs. Silva with eager anticipation.
Finally, a name that all pro wrestling fans are familiar with, Bill Goldberg, is also coming to the world of Mixed Martial Arts. Goldberg will serve as color commentator for this Saturday’s WFA: King of the Streets PPV. As of this writing, it is still unknown what exactly Goldberg’s future with the company is. When I spoke with him two weeks ago, he made it known that he is merely subbing for Bas Rutten, who will be competing against fellow legend Kimo at the show. The main event of the 7/22 card is Quinton “Rampage” Jackson vs. Matt Lindland, both of whom are UFC vets. In addition to his tremendous interviews, Jackson is well known for being one of three fighters to own a victory over Chuck Liddell. Liddell has won return bouts with the other two fighters, Jeremy Horn and Randy Couture, but has yet to get a second shot at “Rampage.”
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