When I wrote my book, Title Shot (shameless plug), I accidentally called Ben Fowlkes, Ben Knowles, much to my eternal chagrin. Despite eighteen edits of that book, no one caught it until I was breezing through it one day and said, “Who’s Ben Knowles?” While it might seem like a small mistake, 8,000 copies of my book are in circulation, so a lot of people are probably asking the same question. I would say that inviting him to debate with me this month is one small way of redressing my transgression, but in fact he’s a savvy and articulate MMA writer, so having him on here will only boost the IQ of this forum. In other words I get the better part of the deal and still owe him for douching his name up. Let’s do this!
Issue #1 – Can the WEC successfully transition to a pay-per-view forum?
Kelly – After this last WEC, yes. It was exciting and their brand name is bigger than ever. Not only that, they should do it as soon as possible so the fighters who deserve a bigger payday get one. The gate draw at WEC 41 was $868,000 and the payouts were $212,000. That’s better than most MMA promotions, but pales when put side by side with the UFC and Strikeforce. The difference? Pay-per-view. The WEC has two of the best fighters in the world with Miguel Torres and Mike Brown along with a slew of younger, lighter guys who want to knock them off. The WEC is also the clear world leader in the 135 and 145-pound weight classes so Zuffa’s gamble to buy it two years ago is paying off in spades. Now it’s time to pay the men who make it great-the fighters. That won’t happen until they jump to pay-per-view. Is the time right to do so with most Americans tightening their belts under the weight of an economic recession? Maybe not. But their product is at an all time high and their current crop of marquee names isn’t getting any younger. What do you think, Knowles?
Ben – Great, you fix the mistake about my name now, after I already went through the trouble of registering BenKnowles.com. I was finally going to have my own hardcore pornography site, and without even embarrassing my own parents, but I guess there’s another dream deferred thanks to you, Kelly. But on to the WEC. Can they make a successful transition to pay-per-view? Depends what you consider successful. They aren’t going to do UFC numbers that way, or even Affliction numbers. That’s because a) not enough people even know what the WEC is, and b) those who do are already used to watching it for free. Everything about the WEC – the size of the arenas, the production value, the experience level of the fighters – gives off a minor league vibe. That’s cool when it’s the little brother to the UFC, bringing us a few fun fights on Sunday night. But will fans make space in their budgets for a promotion of all little guys, only a few of which they really care about? I highly doubt it. With a UFC pay-per-view once a month or so and Strikeforce on Showtime, I can’t imagine MMA fans are really sitting around hoping for a new way to spend money watching fights on TV. Like you, I’d love to see the WEC fighters get paid more, just like I’d love to see teachers get their salaries increased. That doesn’t mean I’m personally ready to write the check for either.
Issue #2 – A Karate Master is the UFC Champion and an over-the-hill boxer knocks out Tim Sylvia with one punch. Are these the first signs of an impending Armageddon?
Kelly – Yes. I am on my way to Montana to hole up with Fowlkes, sharpen sticks, and await fiery balls of death to fall from the sky. After Machida beat Rashad Evans, he exclaimed to the world that Karate was back! I don’t buy it. I think Machida is back, but until Shotokan produces another belt holder, I’m still in the doubters camp. However, you can’t help but revel in the moment. On the verge of UFC 100, a momentous occasion in our sport’s history, the style that was disproven at UFC 1 when Zane Frazier got pummeled by Kevin Rosier, is now on the top of the UFC’s most contentious division. Wow. The only thing more shocking than that would be a boxer knocking out a former UFC heavyweight champion. Okay that was a shitty segue, but even my normally reserved jaw was on the ground when I saw Ray Mercer floor big Tim Sylvia in less than a minute. Tim’s got a massive reach that stymied Andre Arlovski and frustrated Jeff Monson and earned him the UFC heavyweight belt when no one believed in him. To get KOd by an aging Mercer is downright laughable. But if he fell and no one heard it, did it really happen?
Ben – Dude, it happened and people heard it. That’s the stuff viral video is made of, even if they don’t know the long, sad history of Tim Sylvia’s Quixotic quest for fan acceptance. I’m actually not terribly surprised by it, mostly because Sylvia has done enough dumb stuff at this point (let’s not forget that he originally wanted to box Mercer) that I almost expect him to stumble upon the worst case scenario in any situation. With that guy’s luck, he’ll be the first pro to lose on “Bully Beatdown.” As for Machida/the fate of karate, it’s going to take a lot more than one very talented fighter atop one UFC division for me to dig my old karate shoes out of that weird-smelling trunk in the basement. He’s got a style that people aren’t used to yet and he implements it well thanks in part to his superb athleticism. He’s not some 98-pound weakling who was transformed into a killer by the power of karate. Let’s let him defend the title a few times before we proclaim Machida-Do as the next revolution in MMA.
And Crigger, if you ain’t never been to Montana, don’t ever come to Montana. Because you wouldn’t understand Montana.
Issue #3 – Is it completely ridiculous for the UFC to put Kimbo Slice on TUF 10?
Ben – Of course it is, and not just because Dana White spent the better part of a year calling him a no-talent bum, either. Mostly it’s because, judging from the early promos for this season, they’re basically building the show around a 3-1 fighter who has beaten no one of substance. It would be one thing if he was treated as just another UFC hopeful, but he’s not. He’s their big draw this time around and they want everyone to know it. In that way the UFC is sort of like the CIA of old, back in the glory days when they used to assassinate democratically elected leaders and install brutal dictators. He may be a son of a bitch, the thinking went, but he’s our son of bitch. It’s the same thing with Kimbo. He was a phony sideshow attraction when he was with EliteXC. He’s still the same fighter he was back then, only now the UFC can profit off him, so it’s cool. Then again, this is the tenth season of a reality show. What did we expect?
Kelly – Zuffa has never had to build a season around one guy, so I’m interested in seeing how they do it. I don’t think Kimbo should be treated differently than any other fighter wanting to get in the UFC. If he wants to fight, then he, along with the four former football players in this season’s TUF, need to pay their dues. You have to remember that Dana White is a guy raised by a single mother in south Boston. He’s grounded in the philosophy that you get respect when you earn respect, although he’s been known to bring in guys for ratings reasons only, (namely Brock Lesnar). I was disappointed in the last three seasons of TUF before the US vs UK throwdown, so I’m all for a little entertainment in the house (minus the wanton destruction of a place nicer than I’ll ever live in). Does he have what it takes to train full time? Will he be too tired from having to work out twice a day? Maybe he’ll get bored and stage streetfights for money in the back yard with his old Miami buddies. Whatever he does, it will be interesting to watch, if for no other reason than he might make a bet to shave his beard if he loses to someone.
Issue #4 – What’s the deal with Japanese MMA? Is it all about Super Hulk tournaments and other similarly silly competitions from here on out, or is there hope for a revival?
Ben – The only hope left for Japanese MMA lies with the lighter weight fighters. Dream has one of the world’s top welterweights in “Mach” Sakurai and one of the most exciting lightweights in Shinya Aoki, but they have to find a way to build up contenders for them to face or else the Japanese public will continue to lose interest in MMA. If that happens the money gets weak, and if that happens the Japanese promoters will probably respond by staging more freak show fights. That seems to be their fix for everything. It’s not all that surprising since the Japanese have always felt more comfortable with a mismatched circus bout than we have, but that’s not a sustainable strategy in the long term. Watching Jose Canseco flail around against Hong Man Choi or Bob Sapp tap out to a one-handed leg lock, I can’t escape the feeling that the line between pro wrestling and legitimate MMA is getting blurry across the Pacific. As the UFC, WEC, and Strikeforce strengthen their popularity and their payouts in the U.S., the ambitious young talent in Japan will leave home in greater numbers to pursue both.
Kelly – First you bag on Kimbo, then you slam Hong Man Choi. I get the impression you don’t like the entertainment aspect of sport fighting. You Montanans are so practical. I don’t think it’s the farcical side of Japanese MMA that’s the problem, but their inability to attract higher caliber young guns from the U.S. You would think the American market is rife with guys who can’t get into the UFC or WEC and want to travel to Japan to test their skills, but it’s not. For a while there, WVR and Sengoku were getting guys like Jorge Masvidal, Ryan Schultz, JZ, Chase Beebe, and other exciting young non-Asians to come over and fight. Lately, not so much. I don’t think it’s because those guys prefer spending the best years of their careers in Bellator or sub-Zuffa promotions in the U.S., but because the Japanese promotions can’t offer enough to lure them over. In the heyday of Pride, over half of its stars were foreign-Brazilian, European or American. When Pride died, they spread to the four winds and drained the talent pool, leaving Dream very little to build off of as you pointed out with Sakurai and Aoki. It’s quizzical indeed to look at the land of the rising sun, where the martial arts were developed for centuries and the warrior spirit is reveled as next to Godliness and not see more world-class homegrown competition. Maybe the bursting of the Pride bubble exposed the Japanese MMA landscape for what it was-entertainment only.