Melvin Guillard Unsure What to Expect at UFC 150, But Happy to Fight a Friend

Melvin Guillard is glad that he finally gets to fight one of his friends. It’s more fun, he claims. It’s “a lot less stressful” fighting someone you know and like and respect. Fighting is such an intimate act, why woul…

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Melvin Guillard is glad that he finally gets to fight one of his friends. It’s more fun, he claims. It’s “a lot less stressful” fighting someone you know and like and respect. Fighting is such an intimate act, why wouldn’t he rather do it with a friend instead of some stranger off the street?

“When, you know the guy you can just go out expecting it to be a fun fight,” Guillard told MMA Fighting this week. “There’s no animosity and no stress. We’re just going to get paid and have a lot of fun doing it, then be friends after.”

He’s not kidding about being friends after the fight, either. Guillard and Donald Cerrone are already planning to have a joint after-party following their lightweight bout at UFC 150 in Denver this weekend. According to Guillard, they’ve been planning the party “since we signed the contract to fight each other.”

It’s a little presumptuous, especially since Guillard has spent the last several weeks preparing to do things to Cerrone that might easily land him in the hospital on Saturday night, but maybe that’s the duality of mind you have to have to do what Guillard and Cerrone do for a living. They are friends and former teammates, and now they’re going to try and hurt each other for our entertainment. Is that so wrong?

In another line of work, maybe. But this is MMA. Pain is their business. Back when they were both training at Greg Jackson’s gym in Albuquerque, they used to beat one another up for free in sparring. But, Guillard is quick to point out, you can’t compare sparring to fighting, since it’s little more than a tool to prepare for a fight rather than a fight in itself.

“Neither one of us has ever hit each other with a hundred percent of our power,” he said. “When you’re sparring, you try not to hurt each other.”

On paper, Guillard-Cerrone seems like a certain type of fight. It seems like the kind where both men will meet in the center of the cage and get busy trying to find out how well the other guy’s blood clots. It does not seem like the kind of fight that will be decided by takedowns or the ever vague “Octagon control.”

But there’s a danger in thinking you know what to expect. Especially when you can easily trick yourself into thinking you know exactly who your opponent is and what he’ll do, there’s a chance that you might assume too much and plan your way right out of a victory. That’s what Guillard is trying to avoid, he said. That’s why he’s not promising a slugfest, even if everyone is expecting one.

“It’s like getting married to a woman and you go to the altar and get cold feet,” he said. “You change your mind. You don’t want to marry that [expletive]. I feel fighting’s kind of similar. You can say one thing and think it’s going to go one way, but you don’t really know until you get in that cage and the door closes.”

Of course, if you get cold feet at the altar there are repercussions. The woman you just changed your mind about might have something to say to you afterward, and so might the family and friends who showed up to see it. It’s not so different here, where UFC officials and MMA fans alike have no doubt already sized up this pairing and decided that they’re in for some fireworks. It makes sense. Guillard and Cerrone both like to hurt people on the feet. Neither seems to mind being hit in the face all that much. Together, they should make beautiful, violent music, right?

“You don’t know,” Guillard said. “We both want to go in there and brawl and beat each other up, but you don’t really know if that’s going to happen that night.”

Then again, you don’t know if you’re still going to be in a celebratory mood in time for the after-party, but that didn’t stop him from planning ahead. And by the way, if you’re wondering who got to choose the venue for the post-fight fun, just know that the party is located in “a cowboy bar,” according to Guillard. And yes, he knows that it might not seem like the place where he would choose to spend a Saturday night.

“But me and my wife blend into anything,” he said. “I can wear some honky tonk boots one day and have my pants sagging in the hood the next. I adapt to the environment.”

For as long as Guillard and Cerrone are both upright and in a locked cage together, the environment is expected to be a hostile one. At least he knows he’ll have a friend with him through it all. At least there’s that.

UFC 150: By the Odds

The Octagon returns to Denver with UFC 150 this weekend, and yet again we’ll see a rematch for the lightweight title. Will this one at least bring us some closure, or will the logjam at the top of the division find a way to …

Photo by Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The Octagon returns to Denver with UFC 150 this weekend, and yet again we’ll see a rematch for the lightweight title. Will this one at least bring us some closure, or will the logjam at the top of the division find a way to continue? Most importantly, can you make any money off this deal? For answers, read on.

Ben Henderson (-200) vs. Frankie Edgar (+160)

The first time these two fought, Edgar came in as a slight favorite while Henderson was at even money. Five rounds later, they stood in the middle of the Saitama Super Arena waiting for the judges to tell them who the champ was. That was a close fight. Excruciatingly close, even. So close that it could have gone either way, which is why it’s hard to understand why Henderson is a 2-1 favorite this time around. He squeaked by Edgar in that one, and there’s every reason to think they’ll go five rounds again this time, so how do we know that this won’t be another close fight decided by one or two punches or takedowns here and there? We don’t, which makes the 2-1 line on Henderson tough to justify.
My pick: Edgar. If history is any indicator, he’ll be better in the rematch than he was in the first fight. He’ll also keep it close enough that it’s worth a small risk at these odds.

Donald Cerrone (-300) vs. Melvin Guillard (+240)

Just two former training partners with no beef, no bad blood, and nothing but respect for one another getting ready to throw down for the sake of fun and money. What’s not to like about that? This is one of those match-ups where both the UFC and fans seem to be expecting a certain type of fight. That is to say, they’re expecting these two to meet in the center of the cage, touch gloves in a friendly manner, and then swing away until somebody falls down. Sometimes we set ourselves up for disappointment when we do that, but this fight seems very capable of delivering exactly what we’re expecting. If that happens, Guillard should have the speed advantage. Then again, Guillard’s known to occasionally give one away via over-exuberance. Cerrone? He’s a solid, hard-nosed striking technician who will walk you down until you make him stop. Cerrone doesn’t make many mistakes, and doesn’t pay any more attention to his own pain than he does to yours. All this makes me think he’ll take the win over Guillard, but I’m not so confident that 3-1 odds look like a good idea to me.
My pick: Cerrone. I wouldn’t bet on it at these odds, and I might even consider small action on Guillard if I were just slightly more of a crazed gambler. Alas, I am not.

Jake Shields (-200) vs. Ed Herman (+160)

By now, I think we all know what Shields is looking to do. He wants to get his opponents to the mat, climb all over them and keep them from getting up, plus maybe look for a submission if he sees one just lying around. It’s not terribly exciting, but there are plenty of competent fighters who have proved unable to do much about it. Herman has very quietly managed to rack up a nice little three-fight win streak in the UFC, and he’s done it by showing up and finding a way to finish fights. There’s something to be said for that, but can he possibly do it against Shields? I doubt it. At the same time, something about betting on Shields’s ability to hold a guy down seems morally wrong. Like, even if you made money that way, it would feel like dirty money. Sorry, I just can’t do it.
My pick: Herman. This is strictly an ethical decision, and perhaps not an intelligent one, but I refer you to the Gospel of The Wire: “Conscience do cost.”

Yushin Okami (-600) vs. Buddy Roberts (+400)

Roberts was originally scheduled to face Chris Camozzi on this card. Instead, thanks to injuries and reshuffling, he gets Okami. Talk about a rough change of plans. On paper, Okami is coming off two straight losses and may be looking like a fighter on the down slope of his career. Then you look closer and see that one of those losses was to Anderson Silva and the other came after ten minutes of total domination against Tim Boetsch. Okami is still the same old suffocating ground technician he ever was, which probably means Roberts is in for a tough night.
My pick: Okami. Is there any reason to think Roberts could pull off the upset? If there is, I can’t see it.

Justin Lawrence (-120) vs. Max Holloway (-110)

A fight between two relatively inexperienced fighters who we still don’t know enough about results in a pretty tight line. Oddsmakers seem unsure what to do here, so they’ll settle for making sure that you don’t profit too heavily either way it goes. Based on what we’ve seen, Lawrence seems to be the scarier fighter with the ability to finish. With little other information at our disposal, that’ll have to be enough.
My pick: Lawrence. But tread lightly if you tread at all.

Crazy Internet Prop Bet That Could Make You Rich: Henderson-Edgar ends as a draw (+5500)
Two best reasons to believe that this is a real possibility? 1) The first one was so very close, and 2) It would really screw up the UFC’s plans.

The ‘For Entertainment Purposes Only’ Parlay:
Cerrone + Okami + Jared Hamman (-115) + Nik Lentz (-375)

Falling Action: Best and Worst of UFC on FOX 4

After four events on the FOX network, the UFC finally delivered the full night of non-stop action that we’ve all been waiting for. All it took was a couple former champions and a few desperate struggles for relevance, plus a…

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

After four events on the FOX network, the UFC finally delivered the full night of non-stop action that we’ve all been waiting for. All it took was a couple former champions and a few desperate struggles for relevance, plus a feel-good comeback to warm the dark corners of your cynical heart.

With UFC on FOX 4 in the books, the time has come to examine the biggest winners, losers, and everything in between after a memorable night in Los Angeles.

Biggest Winner: Lyoto Machida
Once again, “The Dragon” reminds us why we loved those old karate movies, and it wasn’t just the awesome soundtracks. When practiced by someone who uses distance and timing as effectively as Machida does, karate is every bit the lethal art that those strip mall senseis used to tell us it was. What makes him so dangerously frustrating to opponents is not just his movement or his counter-striking, but his terrible patience. He was clearly outpointing Ryan Bader as he picked him apart with impunity from the outside, yet he was in no hurry to do much else. He waited until Bader had no choice but to come to him, then he made him pay with a perfectly timed counter right hand. That performance, plus what Dana White describes as an aggressive lobbying campaign behind closed doors, was enough to earn him the next crack at the UFC light heavyweight title. The fact that he just fought for the title in December apparently doesn’t deter White, but will fans be as eager to see him get another go, especially if Jon Jones successfully defends his belt against Dan Henderson? It’s true that Machida outperformed other challengers by actually winning a round against Jones, but it’s also true that he got beat up and choked out in the very next round. Is there any reason to think a second meeting would turn out any better for him? I doubt it, but maybe it’s not even worth arguing about until after Jones and Hendo settle their business.

Biggest Loser: Ryan Bader
You want to see fighters willing to go out on their shield? Well, there it is. It might not have been the best tactical decision to charge in face-first against a superior counter-striker, but it looked as though Bader had had enough of being gradually outpointed from a distance and was determined to make something happen. He succeeded, in a way. It’s hard to blame Bader for going all kamikaze there in the second. The way things were looking, he could have fought ten rounds against Machida and barely laid a glove on him. It’s easy to second-guess him for not attempting a takedown instead of a bum rush, but that’s the trouble with facing a guy who can beat you from a distance and avoid all attempts to engage on anyone’s terms but his own. Eventually he forces you to do something dumb in the hopes of doing anything at all. The loss halts Bader’s brief winning streak and knocks him back into the faceless pack at light heavyweight. A wrestler with a big right hand is still going to be a problem for plenty of guys in the division. It’s just not going to make you a UFC champion in this era of MMA.

Least Satisfying:
Phil Davis
Eight months ago he was the undefeated wunderkind, fighting in the main event on FOX, one win away from a title shot. Now, after losing a decision to Rashad Evans, he’s relegated to the FUEL TV portion of the card, where he pokes a Brazilian newcomer in the eye and has to settle for a no contest after 90 seconds of cage time. We saw so little of Davis in this prelim bout that there was nothing of any substance to analyze (though Evans certainly gave it a go from his comfy spot as a commentator). He’ll have to wait a couple more months for another shot at Wagner Prado, which means more time to slip from the public consciousness. This is where bad luck and bad timing meets MMA growing pains. The decision loss to Evans? That might have been a necessary learning experience for Davis. Somehow, it knocked him down from network TV main eventer to cable TV prelim fighter, and his use of the open, pawing left hand against Prado left him with an unsatisfying no contest and a longer wait before he finds out what his future holds. It is a bummer of a decline that is only partially of his own making, but it’s got to be depressing nonetheless.

Best Career Comeback:
Mike Swick
After more than 900 days out of action he returns to brawl it out with DaMarques Johnson, and the result is a brutal second-round KO that immediately puts Swick back on the map. He has reason to be encouraged by more than just the finish, too. He hung tough through some hard times in the first round, and still managed to shake off whatever ring rust he might have had to bring it strong in the second. It was a great win for one of MMA’s true good guys. Call it a testament to Swick’s resiliency and strength of spirit, but also call it a triumph of hard training. Swick said before this bout that he thought the hard sparring at AKA would mitigate the effects of the long layoff. At first it sounded like the kind of thing you tell yourself in an attempt to soothe some frayed nerves, but he certainly didn’t look like a fighter who was out of practice. Now let’s just hope he can stay healthy without training his way into the ER.

Most Impressive in Defeat:
Brandon Vera
Watching him battle back from one onslaught after another against “Shogun” Rua, I found myself wondering, where has this guy been? This guy who willed himself back into the fight at several points, who seemed to be clinging to consciousness with sheer stubbornness at times, why haven’t we seen him before now? Physically, this Vera didn’t look so different. It’s just that, where the old Vera might have folded up and accepted defeat once the tide turned against him, this one never seemed to lose faith in his ability to win the fight. That’s new for him. You look at Vera’s career, and you don’t see too many come-from-behind victories. Maybe you still don’t, since he did lose this one in the end, but he proved something about his character as a fighter that we had reason to doubt before now. Is it possible that, after all his struggles and failed resurrections, he really is a changed man now? I’m not sure, but I know I’ll be eager to find out the next time he steps in the cage.

Most Grueling Win:
Mauricio Rua
“Shogun” is now nine fights into his career with the UFC, and one thing has become clear: if he doesn’t knock his opponent out in the first round, get ready for a long, brutal night. No other light heavyweight has put his body through the ringer the way Rua has lately. He won a slobberknocker against Vera, and before that went to war with Hendo in what was basically the best fight in the history of unarmed hostilities. Even his decision loss to Machida and his TKO loss to Jones were demonstrations of his willingness to take all sorts of punishment for the sake of a paycheck. That approach makes for some exciting nights, and it’s earned him a reputation as a fighter who guarantees some memorable suffering, even if it’s his own. At the same time, it’s hard not to wonder what he’s doing to his career with these battles. Rua will be 31 in the fall, at right about the same time that he reaches a full decade in the MMA business. A lot of fighters whose styles involve such eager sacrifice of one’s body start to show the effects at right about this point. Rua has never fought like a man who’s thinking about how he’s going to feel in the morning. It might be too late to start now.

Most Entertaining: Joe Lauzon and Jamie Varner
When you look at a card that includes “Shogun” Rua, most of us probably wouldn’t peg Lauzon and Varner as favorites for the Fight of the Night bonus. While Lauzon has a ton of bonuses to his name, including four FotN’s, this is the first time he’s been on the winning end of it. That he and Varner, who not so long ago appeared to be a lost cause, would combine for such a wonderfully competitive fight, well, that’s the best kind of surprise for fight fans. These two proved why they deserved a place on a network TV card. The fight went everywhere, included a little bit of everything, and could have served as a useful primer for anyone who had never seen MMA before and wanted to know why it was so popular with the young people these days. ‘Oh, so they beat each other up on the feet, then wrestle around a little bit, then get back up, then go back down and try to choke each other?’ Yeah, pretty much. And it’s awesome. Now get ready to spend every Saturday night from now until judgment day watching it.

With Emphasis on ‘Impressive’ Wins, Fans Get Action at UFC on FOX 4

For the first time since the deal with FOX began, the UFC got exactly what it needed from all its main card fighters: action. It couldn’t have come at a better time.Like a slumping baseball team trying to make it through the…

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

For the first time since the deal with FOX began, the UFC got exactly what it needed from all its main card fighters: action. It couldn’t have come at a better time.

Like a slumping baseball team trying to make it through the summer, the UFC limped into Los Angeles on the heels of the company’s worst pay-per-view event in recent memory. Soon it found itself struggling to hype up a network fight card opposite the TV goliath that is the Olympics, and without the aid of a title fight or a crossover star. The solution? Just declare the main event to be a number one contender bout. Instant high stakes. Except when that idea prompted a swift and vocal public backlash, the UFC needed a plan B.

This is how we arrived at a fight night where the top four competitors on the card were told that they not only needed to win, but win impressively. They fought like they got the message loud and clear. So did the other four guys on the FOX broadcast, who had nothing more to gain than the usual promise of paychecks and bonuses. The end result was the best single night of MMA action that the UFC has put forth on FOX, and right when it needed it most.

As UFC president Dana White pointed out in post-fight remarks, some nights are always going to be better than others when you’re in the business of live, unscripted combat. Obviously the UFC believes it can coax out a few more good nights with the promise of money, career opportunities, or both. On Saturday night, that plan worked perfectly. I just can’t help but wonder if that’s always going to be such a good thing.

For instance, take Ryan Bader. Even White expressed surprised that the former All-American wrestler didn’t shoot for a single takedown against karate master Lyoto Machida. After getting soundly outstruck in the first frame, his solution in the second was to charge forward in kamikaze fashion — directly into one of Machida’s right hands.

“I think Bader wanted to try and knock him out,” White told reporters following the post-fight press conference.

Can you blame him? He’d been told just a few days earlier that he could earn an instant title shot if he notched the “most impressive” win. As he told me when I spoke to him on the week of the fight, “I think ultimately the fans want to see knockouts. You think you’ve got to go out and knock someone out for it to be an impressive win.”

So Bader went looking for the knockout against Machida, and he found it. Unfortunately for him, he was the one waking up on his back when it was all over.

It’s a strange thing to put into an athlete’s mind, to tell him that victory alone isn’t enough. It’s not something that happens in most other sports. If you win the World Series with low-scoring pitching duels, your fans aren’t going to complain that it wasn’t enough fun to watch, just like the commissioner isn’t going to encourage you to try and hit more home runs next year. But professional fighting is all about putting butts in seats, and it always has been. Telling fighters to do their part to sell tickets seems both realistic and reasonable, but it also seems like a tactic that can’t help but encourage some modes of fighting while discouraging others.

Is that necessarily a bad thing? I’m not so sure. Fans put that pressure on fighters as it is. Anyone who’s ever heard the boos start up as soon as fighters get stalled in a clinch knows that the paying public is not shy about voicing its displeasure. Fans want action, promoters want to please fans, and fighters want to please both promoters and fans. It’s a simple little ecosystem that develops all on its own. At the same time, a fighter like Bader had to know that wrestling his way to a decision win wouldn’t get him a title shot, regardless of whether it was his best chance for victory.

I don’t want to overstate the case here, since for all I know Bader might have fought the exact same fight without the title shot sweepstakes hanging over his head. And Brandon Vera, who redeemed himself and reignited his career even in defeat against Mauricio Rua? He almost certainly would have fought just as hard with or without the potential to earn a crack at the belt. Plus, there’s Mike Swick and DaMarques Johnson, as well as Joe Lauzon and Jamie Varner, all of whom put on gutsy performances without any extra motivation to entertain.

But it’s still worth asking ourselves what we do to the sport when we put too much pressure on fighters to be entertainers. If the end result is a night like the one the UFC had on Saturday, it’s hard to complain. Remember the UFC on FOX 2 back in January, when the UFC took heat for loading the card with wrestlers who turned in one lackluster decision after another? Back then we said that the UFC needed more exciting fights to lure new fans, so how can we possibly complain when an event delivers exactly what we asked for?

We can’t, or at least we probably shouldn’t. But we should also at least be aware that what makes this sport so fun and unpredictable is the same thing that makes it at times infuriating and confounding, and that’s the strange alchemy that happens when two fighters of varying backgrounds and skill sets get together to try and figure out who has the winning recipe. Some nights the process will be more fun to watch than others, but we should be careful about pushing for any sort of homogenization purely for the sake of entertainment. We might get what we ask for, but we might not be so happy with what we do to our sport over the long haul.

UFC on FOX 4: By the Odds

The UFC brings its action back to network TV this Saturday night, as UFC on FOX 4 promises a light heavyweight title sweepstakes among four 205-pounders who have all been finished by the reigning champ. How do oddsmakers see it sh…

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The UFC brings its action back to network TV this Saturday night, as UFC on FOX 4 promises a light heavyweight title sweepstakes among four 205-pounders who have all been finished by the reigning champ. How do oddsmakers see it shaking out, where’s the hot action on the undercard, and what’s the best/craziest main event prop bet currently available on the internet? Answers to those questions and more await you.

Mauricio “Shogun” Rua (-365) vs. Brandon Vera (+275)

Once again Vera would have us believe that he is a changed man. The underachieving years, the disappointing results after such early promise? That’s all over and done with, he says. Now he’s finally ready to put it all together. No offense, but we’ve heard this before. Seems like we hear it before just about every Vera fight. Then, as he did against Eliot Marshall, he steps in the cage and looks more or less the same as he has for the past few years, which is to say, he looks like nothing special. Is there any reason to believe that he can finally make good on his pre-fight promises against Rua? Not particularly. On paper, Rua wins this fight every time, as long as he’s not coming off one of the surgeries that seem to magically turn him from a world-class fighter into a guy who could barely get through a pickup basketball game without vomiting on his shoes. A healthy Rua most likely demolishes every version of Vera who’s ever entered the cage. Then again, if Vera is ever going to get desperate enough to be truly dangerous, it’s pretty much now or never.
My pick: Rua. The underdog line here is nowhere near tempting enough, considering how unimpressive Vera has been in his last few fights.

Lyoto Machida (-335) vs. Ryan Bader (+255)

If it’s underdogs you’re after, this is the fight to take a closer look at. On one hand, you’ve got the elusive karate master who’s been victorious in just one of his last four bouts, and that against a 47-year-old fighter who was on his way out the door. On the other, you’ve got a wrestler with one-punch power whose only defeats came via 1) total domination at the hands of the division’s best fighter, and 2) a somewhat flukish-looking loss in the bout that followed #1. We’ve seen Machida get his world turned upside-down by a single blow, and we’ve seen Bader administer just such a blow to past opponents. So why do oddsmakers seem to think it so far-fetched that we might see both happen here? I suspect that Machida’s stock is bolstered by how well he did early on against Jon Jones (whereas Bader was soundly thrashed by him), but I also suspect that it won’t mean much in this very different style match-up.
My pick: Bader. These odds are too good to pass up. As long as Bader doesn’t fall too in love with the idea of an “impressive” knockout, he has plenty with which to threaten the former champ.

Joe Lauzon (-130) vs. Jamie Varner (+100)

Before Varner’s surprising TKO win over Edson Barboza at UFC 146, I would have told you there was no reason to think he’d beat a guy like Lauzon. I might have even told you that there was no way he belonged in the UFC. Funny how much can change with one fight. Varner’s big win after years of struggle makes it difficult and maybe even impossible to know what to expect out of him here. Was that one great night for Varner coupled with a bad night for Barboza? Was it a sign that he’s really changed for the better, and in some lasting way? I have no idea, but I am eager to find out. On the flip side, we know more or less what to expect out of Lauzon. He’s not spectacular, but he doesn’t do anything stupid and he can make you pay dearly for it if you do. Against some opponents that’s enough. Six months ago I would have told you it would be enough against Varner, too. Now I’m not so sure.
My pick: Varner. Facing this many unknowns, I’m just going to throw my hands up and take the slight underdog, if only because it seems like a slightly better idea than the alternative.

Mike Swick (-230) vs. DaMarques Johnson (+180)

When I asked Swick about his time away from the cage, he informed me that when he returns to action on Saturday night it will have been 910 days since the last time he fought. As a general rule, anybody who can tell you the number of days since the last time they did something is a person who has been thinking about it a lot, maybe even too much. We don’t know what all that time off will do to his skills, and neither does Swick. It’s not like he’s just been sitting on the couch. It’s not like he hasn’t still been training and sparring with one of the best fight camps in the world. Still, there are some aspects of fight night that you can’t possibly simulate in the gym. We’ve seen evidence of this too many times to discount it entirely. That’s why I’m a little surprised to see Swick as this heavy a favorite over Johnson, who’s fought six times while Swick has been away. I agree that, overall, Swick is the better fighter. But will he be better on this one night?
My pick: Swick, but not at these odds. There are too many variables for not enough profit here. I’m putting my money toward lottery tickets instead.

Crazy Internet Prop Bet That Could Make You Rich:
Rua by submission (+900)
Okay, so the only fighter he ever submitted was Kevin Randleman, and that was in 2006. But hey, at least Dana White still remembers that one.

The ‘For Entertainment Purposes Only’ Parlay: Rua + Phil Davis (-600) + Cole Miller (-130) + Ulysses Gomez (-185)

When Victory Is No Longer Enough, Outside Pressures Become Harder to Ignore

Imagine, for a moment, that you are Lyoto Machida or Ryan Bader. Either of them. It makes little difference which one. On Monday you sit through a media conference call where your boss announces that the two other guys on the call…

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Imagine, for a moment, that you are Lyoto Machida or Ryan Bader. Either of them. It makes little difference which one. On Monday you sit through a media conference call where your boss announces that the two other guys on the call — Mauricio Rua and Brandon Vera— will be fighting for a title shot. You and your opponent? You’ll just be fighting for money, fame, respect — the usual.

Then the next day the boss calls you up to tell you he changed his mind. Now he’s decided to open up the title shot sweepstakes to all four of you. Whoever looks “most impressive” in victory on Saturday night will get the next crack at the UFC light heavyweight title. Could be any one of you.

My question is: if you’re Machida or Bader, and you went from out of the running to “in the mix” after a little public outcry and a change of plans, what are you supposed to do with this information? Now that you know your fortunes can be changed with a win deemed more impressive than whatever happens in the other fight, which you have no control over, how can it not mess with your head — not to mention your game plan — at least a little bit?

“It’s there in the back of my head,” Bader admitted when I put this question to him on Wednesday afternoon. But then, he added, maybe it shouldn’t be. After all, he was already planning on winning the fight and looking good doing it.

“It was kind of like, okay, I just have to beat Lyoto regardless, and then I’ll at least be closer to a title shot,” Bader said. “But then [White] came back and said that, so my hopes are up again. It got me a little bit more excited.”

Machida admitted to having a similar reaction after hearing the change of plans.

“I really respected Dana’s opinion on that, and I believe the UFC always positions itself the right way in those matters,” he said through a translator. “But I did think it was a little unfair of them to say that only the winner of the main event would get the title shot.”

Now that the title shot is up for grabs among the four fighters at the top of Saturday night’s UFC on FOX 4 card, the dynamic has undeniably changed. Obviously, all four of them had planned on winning and winning big even before the stakes shifted, but now there’s a built-in way for them to win and still lose. If victory itself isn’t enough, what vague value judgments will their performances be subjected to?

Typically, there are a lot of different ways to look impressive in a fight. A quick finish is one way. A long, dominant performance is another. The bouts that win the ‘Fight of the Night’ bonuses are usually back-and-forth battles where each man has his moments. But as several fighters and trainers have pointed out in the past, getting ‘Fight of the Night’ means you probably got beat up at least some of the time. What’s so impressive about that?

“I think ultimately the fans want to see knockouts,” said Bader. “You think you’ve got to go out and knock someone out for it to be an impressive win. But it’s kind of hard to even know what an impressive win means.”

It’s also sometimes hard to make it happen all on your own. Is a win in an exciting, competitive fight more impressive? And if so, how do you guarantee that you’ll have a willing dance partner?

That’s a question both Bader and Machida will have to face. While Bader has his share of one-punch knockouts, the smart play for him might involve using his wrestling to nullify Machida’s striking game. Then again, takedowns and top control aren’t known for being all that impressive to most MMA fans.

It’s the same for Machida, who’s known for his “elusive” stand-up. Striking technicians and karate purists might appreciate a few rounds of hit-and-run mixed with sprawl-and-brawl, but would it be impressive enough to result in a title shot?

In Bader, Machida said he sees a fighter who “plays a lot with strategy” and “fights the way he can.” But for this fight, Bader made very sure that he wouldn’t be thrown off by Machida’s unorthodox style. His team brought in a karate world champion from Las Vegas to give him a Machida-esque look in training, he said.

“A lot of guys haven’t seen that in practice, so it’s a surprise when they get in the Octagon with him,” Bader said. “We put on the headgear and sparred some when he first came down, and you couldn’t tell that it wasn’t Machida. Same stance, same style.”

But then, in training he wasn’t focused on winning according to someone else’s definition of what’s impressive. He was focused on being the better of the two fighters in the cage rather than the most impressive of the four guys at the top of the card. And make no mistake, there is a difference.

Both Bader and Machida will tell you that this new wrinkle doesn’t change anything. Intellectually, they know that winning is always the first priority, regardless of what the boss says will happen later. Worrying too much about how you win is a good way to get yourself beat. But then, who wants to be the guy who gets passed over for playing it too safe? Who wouldn’t be thinking about ways to earn that title shot, whether they admit it before the fight or not?

Bader isn’t pretending that this doesn’t add a little bit of extra pressure. The whole impressive win contest that the light heavyweights have going on this time around “kind of makes you want to open up a little more and be reckless and careless and swing for the fences a little bit,” he said.

“But at the same time, that might get you in trouble,” he added. “Or it might win you a title shot.”