It shouldn’t be a surprise given the crossover of their fan-bases, but the UFC has never been shy about emulating pro-wrestling. One of the most time-honored traditions in the wrestling world is that of sacrificing a grizzled veteran in the twilight of their career to the promoter’s chosen successor. On Saturday night we’ll see the latest in MMA’s long line of approximations of that noble practice: Nate Diaz vs Leon Edwards.
The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same
It wasn’t the first time they did it, but UFC 40 was certainly the most notable and arguably the most successful attempt the UFC ever made at (to steal the pro-wrestling parlance) giving someone ‘the rub’. It was a pivotal night for the floundering promotion; the first meaningfully profitable event of the Zuffa era and the primordial soup from which a series of critically and commercially lauded cards would emerge, culminating in the final bouts of the Chuck Liddell/Randy Couture trilogy and the start of the post-Ultimate Fighter Finale-era.
The pro-wrestling connection was especially poignant, given that one half of UFC 40’s centerpiece was Ken Shamrock; himself a lifelong pro-wrestler returning to the promotion (by way of a brief sojourn in Japan’s PRIDE Fighting Championship) after a stint in the World Wrestling Federation.
The recipe for success was simple. Ken and his opponent, then light-heavyweight kingpin Tito Ortiz, had pre-existing animosity dating back to the champion’s series of bouts against Shamrock-affiliated fighters. Ortiz was the closest thing the company had to a star at the time. Young, brash, dominant in the cage and gifted with ‘the look’; he was everything the MMA fan of the era expected of an alpha-male cage fighter. The only thing he lacked was recognition.
The bout itself was a thoroughly uncompetitive drubbing. Outside of an opening flury that appeared to briefly stagger the champion, Ortiz dished out punishment like it was going out of style. The fight was mercifully halted after fifteen minutes and while Shamrock had proved that he was tougher than a two-dollar steak, Tito looked like a million bucks.
The UFC were playing their cards close to their chest at the time, but it was exactly the outcome they were hoping for. To say that their gamble had paid off would be an understatement; with Chuck Liddell all but decapitating his opponent in the co-main event to set up a long awaited superfight with Ortiz, they’d seemingly hit the jackpot. Sure, it’d come at the expense of Shamrock ever being considered a credible threat in the modern day UFC, but on the flipside Ortiz was exposed to a huge new audience that either loved, or loved to hate him.
It’s a formula the UFC have recycled ad nauseum. Shamrock was brought back to face another rising star in Rich Franklin and would meet Ortiz twice more in the Octagon. Tank Abbott was thrown to the wolves against Frank Mir, Royce Gracie was pummelled by Matt Hughes, and more recently the likes of BJ Penn and Anderson Silva have competed long past their best.
I’m Not Surprised….
Welterweight Leon Edwards is a top-shelf talent in terms of how he performs in the cage, but it’s probably not unfair to say that he has something missing when it comes to the other half of the fight business. He’s faced accusations of fighting conservatively – largely a matter of opinion – and even the normally galvanised UK fanbase hasn’t got behind him with the same vigour they have for the likes of Darren Till, or the Hardys and Bispings of years past. Edwards last appearance in front of a home crowd saw him boo’d mercilessly in favor of an international opponent.
It’s not entirely of his own doing; the phrase “if it wasn’t for bad luck, he’d have no luck” is particularly apt here, as Edwards’ last 15 months have been fraught with injuries, illnesses and cancellations. With the division moving on around him and being desperately in need of something to get the fans back on side, the UFC have pulled something time-tested out of their promotional playbook.
To borrow a phrase, “I’m not surprised…”
It’s worth pointing out that Nate Diaz hasn’t exactly been plucked out of obscurity to be served up on a silver platter. For starters he’s only 36 and fights sporadically at best, so the wear and tear that plagues many veterans will likely be less of an issue. Also, unlike the Shamrocks and Penns of the world, Diaz’ recent bouts have been mostly competitive; the game hasn’t passed him by to the degree that it’s depressing to watch him fight.
Still, it’s tough to see this as anything but a gimmie for Edwards. He may not be as physically broken down as some of the UFC’s past sacrificial lambs, but having spent the five years since a pair of bouts with Conor McGregor made him a millionaire in relative exile, it’s tough to gauge what kind of form, if any, he’s in.
Even if Stockton’s own is in vintage form, his Jamaican-born British opponent is a somewhat unflattering matchup. Diaz succeeds against fighters he can outfox on the mat or outbox on the feet, and Edwards fits neither bill. He’ll be too strong and proficient on the ground (where Diaz has only one submission win in the past nine years) and too complete while standing. When you factor in Diaz’ notoriously tissue-thin skin and Edwards’ proclivity for controlling opponents against the cage where he can bring his elbows to bear, the deck feels all the more stacked in the latter’s favour…
…but that’s not really the point.
The point is that Diaz is a household name among casual UFC fans – and has been for close to a decade and a half – following his victorious stint on The Ultimate Fighter. The point is that his history of wildly entertaining scraps and verbal barbs give him a perceived authenticity that allows fans to look past his record. The point is for Leon Edwards to violently mug Nate Diaz for some of that following and authenticity on Saturday night.
It’s hardly the most egregious practice in the sport (and it’s certainly not exclusive to the UFC), but when (for all intents and purposes) the second-billed bout on a $70 PPV features a -600 favorite, it drags MMA that little bit closer to the boxing model we’ve always been so quick to distance ourselves from.
While we’d all love to see nothing but competitive fights, the problem with the fight business is that it is – first and foremost – a business. So if wheeling out a sacrificial lamb works – and apparently it does – then expect to see a lot more of it in the content age, where quantity is king.
Nate’s older brother, Nick Diaz, hasn’t fought in six and a half years and hasn’t won in almost a decade. Will he follow his brother back into a high-profile, one-sided fight in 2021?
Don’t be surprised.