Was Quinton Jackson properly marketed before UFC 71?
A good friend of mine, Brad, sent me an e-mail about UFC 71 Tuesday morning. In the e-mail, he asked, "So what's up with Liddell getting rocked? [Is he] past his prime or [was the punch] just a lucky shot by Rampage?"
Brad is a smart guy and a UFC fan. Unfortunately, his question best summarizes what a number of people have asked me since Quinton Jackson defeated Chuck Liddell to claim the UFC light heavyweight belt. Brad's question hits at what I believe was a flaw in the way this title match was set up. Jackson himself repeated this a number of times prior to the fight and even at the post-UFC 71 press conference, after having won the belt.
The problem with the way the fight was set up was that many UFC fans were not very familiar with Jackson prior to his fight on Saturday. All UFC fans, however, know who Liddell is. And, Liddell had been getting the lion's share of coverage heading into Saturday's bout. The Iceman was featured on the cover of ESPN The Magazine and he made a cameo appearance on HBO's Entourage. Liddell had won seven fights in a row in UFC, all by KO or TKO. He had been champion for the last two years, during UFC's surge in popularity. Rightly, he was beloved as a champion.
However, in my opinion, Jackson was every bit Liddell's equal going into their UFC 71 fight. In his pre-UFC career (mostly in PRIDE and also one fight in WFA), Jackson fought some of the best light heavyweights in the world. He had beaten Ricardo Arona, Matt Lindland, and Kevin Randleman (a former UFC heavyweight champ). His losses came against some of the best fighters of the past decade in his weight class -- Wanderlei Silva, Kazushi Sakuraba, and Mauricio Rua. And of course, let's not forget Jackson's 2003 victory over none other than Liddell in the PRIDE Middleweight Grand Prix.
The problem for Jackson and UFC was that most of Jackson's big fights took place outside the U.S. and many took place before MMA's recent surge in popularity in this country. Therefore, Jackson would have benefited from a longer introduction to American MMA fans in general and UFC fans in particular. If Jackson had been allowed to fight two or maybe three fights before challenging for the title, fans would have been able to see what a complete and charismatic fighter he truly is. Instead, he got one fight (a UFC 67 victory over Marvin Eastman) before the showdown against Liddell. (And, Jackson was booed for his showmanship at UFC 71 -- a quality that endeared him to Japanese MMA fans. If fans could have seen more of the witty, funny, playful Jackson that I saw in the post-UFC 71 press conference, they would have likely embraced him.)
Instead of seeing Jackson as Liddell's true equal, many fans saw him as they saw most of Liddell's other recent opponents -- as fodder for their hero. And now that their hero has fallen to someone they hardly know, how many of these fans are devastated or confused? Liddell clearly didn't lose to a chump. In fact, he lost to one of the top light heavyweights in the world. But, because many UFC fans didn't know who the victor was, they wondered if Liddell had gotten too old or whether Jackson had gotten lucky.
My answer to Brad is the same one I propose here. Liddell is not too old and Jackson was not lucky. On Saturday, the better fighter won. Period. Over time, UFC fans will realize this was the case.
But, wouldn't it have been nicer if these fans could have learned more about Jackson before Saturday's fight?
I hope UFC carefully considers what it does with the new wave of fighters it is bringing into the promotion. When UFC announced the signings of Mirko Filipovic, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, and Dan Henderson, the fans in attendance at each announcement hardly seemed to recognize these world-renowned fighters. I hope UFC considers bringing these fighters along slowly and giving them the sort of marketing they give their TUF fighters. I would be willing to argue that more UFC fans know who Forrest Griffin is than Dan Henderson. And yet Henderson is the one with two PRIDE belts.
Henderson is being given an immediate title shot against Rampage and since he is the PRIDE champion this makes sense. But, what happens if Henderson defeats Jackson? Will a loss in his first title defense make Jackson's victory over Liddell seem like an even bigger "fluke" to fans who don't know who Henderson is? Or, what if Henderson loses to Jackson? Will those same fans understand the magnitude of such a victory?
These aren't easy questions to answer and UFC has many tough decisions to make as it moves forward as the leading promoter of MMA in the world. Clearly, fans pay big bucks to see the best matchups. However, UFC 71 showed that there is a learning curve associated with introducing a fighter to the public. Unless fans appreciate both fighters in a fight, they will not realize the magnitude of the matchup they are witnessing, even if their beloved champion goes down in 1:53.