UFC 263: Title fights don’t have to be all about merit
Israel Adesanya backs up against Marvin Vettori in Glendale, Arizona. | Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images
What’s wrong with a classic Pride-style title fight interlude? Marvin Vettori may not be the most thrilling challenger the UFC has to offer Israel Adesanya, but that’s fine.
Israel Adesanya is the middleweight champion, and by most estimations, should remain one after this weekend. Marvin Vettori is a solid challenger, but his UFC record is 6-2-1 (draw). His recent wins are over Kevin Holland (whose stock has dropped), Jack Hermansson (whose stock has always ebbed rather than flowed), and Karl Roberson (also a stock dropper). It’s not exactly the resume of a challenger with a real prospect to become champ.
Nonetheless, it’s a marketable fight. Or at the very least one with a storyline the UFC can sell. Their first fight was a split decision. Some people even think Vettori won. Now Adesanya is out for justice! It’s a glorified revenge plot starring who else but Charles Bronson Marvin Vettori.
Just to be clear, I don’t think anyone actually believes Vettori won the first fight (except for judge Chris Lee of course). But it was definitely a challenge for Adesanya. Vettori did an excellent job, walking forward with leg kicks and straight left entries. He pressured through the clinch, takedowns, and using a lot of striking switch-ups, funneling his offense low (leg kicks) to high (right hooks and straight lefts). The end result was a lot of sound and fury, sure, but it seemed to make Adesanya struggle with managing his distance—missing the usual accuracy of his counterattacks thanks to Vettori’s janky, north-south movement.
All told, three could still be some stylistic challenges for Adesanya in the rematch, even if it’s not all that difficult to discard Vettori’s threat level based on resume.
There’s no question that Vettori is a strong fighter, but does anyone consider Vettori anything but a paper threat? After all, ultimately, Adesanya found his range in their first fight, and won the quality over quantity battle. Both men have made improvements, but Adesanya has been improving on a sharper scale against superior competition.
Nonetheless, I’m on board with this fight. Where is it written that a champion’s activity must be a strict hitlist of number one ranked challengers, one after the other? I wasn’t a big fan of seeing Fedor Emelianenko burnish his reputation with the sideshow interludes of Zuluzinho, and Choi Hong-man, or Wanderlei Silva against whatever hapless Japanese pro wrestler-of-the-week Pride felt like feeding MMA’s favorite Axe Murderer. But these fights, to the extent that they had value, were key components of building the myth of larger than life prizefighters—more gods than men.
And that’s not a bad thing. It’s kind of cool, even. It gives MMA a comic-book level lens to view its absurd world. Besides, these theatrical interludes can also serve to slow things down a bit for future number one challengers who might be ready on a superficial level – having beat a former champ, or having never lost – could use more time before being shoved straight into the title shot assembly line.
Take Kamaru Usman, for instance. It could have been easy to send in Gilbert Burns or Colby Covington back into the frying pan. Their first bouts were far more competitive than Usman’s first bout with Jorge Masvidal, and they had better resumes. Instead they sent in Masvidal for the rematch. On paper, it wasn’t the best fight to make, but the outcome turned into the best possible scenario for Usman’s reputation.
Prizefighting has never been, and never will be, a meritocracy. Champions may represent the best of the best, but their competition won’t always represent the best of the rest. That’s fine. This doesn’t feel like the most interesting fight (and that’s not to justify UFC matchmaking here, which has been perfectly content to sacrifice quality for content even as Dana White criticizes other sports for the same thing), but there’s clearly lots of room for fights like this.
If Adesanya wins spectacularly, we get another great highlight reel for the championship history books. If he loses, or wins boringly, perhaps we start to question certain aspects of Adesanya’s game, or we finally admit that Vettori is a worthy challenger. Even the best music albums have odd, fun, or relevant interludes. That doesn’t mean the music stops.