December 14, 2016

UFC 206: With Swanson vs. Choi, There Are No Winners (Part 1 - The Veteran)

By Schwan Humes

At UFC 206 we were given the immense honor and pleasure of seeing Doo Ho Choi and Cub Swanson engage in a brutal, heart racing, back and forth battle of will, intensity, and determination. Often in fights like this, Mike Goldberg will say, "There are no losers." I beg to differ; in fights like this, there are no winners. There is a price, which is what we as fans always forget; these guys aren't television characters, robots, or animated characters. Every fight they engage in exacts a cost, regardless of the duration, level of skill, or intensity; every fight has a price that must be paid. In this article I want to discuss the cost of doing business in the fight game, especially regarding fights like this.

Cub Swanson is a longtime staple of the featherweight division, having competed exclusively in the division for the entirety of his career. Swanson has long been one of the better participants, but had never found a way to reach the pinnacle of success. As he often suffered key losses in the biggest spots and then had to begin the rebuilding process, getting his career back on track with multiple wins in hopes of becoming a true title challenger. True to form, Cub had been on the bad end of two decisive, if not crushing, losses to both Frankie Edgar and newly minted (Interim) Featherweight Champion Max Holloway. So the past year had been spent rebuilding, refining his game in hopes of extending his effectiveness and allowing him to make one final push towards the championship in these the late stages of his MMA career. So Cub began the climb again, beating Tatsuya Kawajiri and the painfully inconsistent Hacran Dias -- two good wins for sure, but neither brought the cachet in name value or excitement/quality as it pertained to the fight itself. So Swanson has been in the odd position of having consistently lost to the very best in the division, while beating each and every one of the rest. For him to get momentum, to get in position to where a title opportunity could even be contemplated, he had to do something big; he had to beat someone big and he had to do it in dynamic fashion.

His prayers were answered in the form of Doo Ho Choi, a young, physical, durable, athletic, power puncher who had cut a swath through the opponents he faced in and out of the UFC; when Choi called Swanson out, Cub was handed a gift. A fight with a guy who had a developing fan base, a fight with a guy he hadn't fought previously, and a fight with a guy that many would have him losing to. There was a risk because this type of fighter is the kind of guy who can end the career of a fighter at Cub's stage (at least in terms of being any sort of real contender), but the reward was too appealing to pass and so the fight was signed. And we were treated to one of the most exciting, high-paced and punishing fights in MMA history.

Swanson came out on top, which improves his Q rating due to the social media talk concerning his fight and the replay value of the fight itself; but even with the benefits of being engaged in a fight like this, there is still a cost. Swanson has fought a long, hard career, facing the best MMA has to offer: Jose Aldo, Jens Pulver, Chad Mendes, Dustin Poirier, Edgar, Kawajiri, and Holloway among others. Fighting that caliber of opponent, and fighting that often (3l professional fights) catches up to you, win or lose. Against these types of opponents you’re not going to walk away unscathed, and more times than not Cub took as much or more than he dished out. This fact was very much highlighted in his fights against Holloway and Edgar, who not only outclassed him, but handed out brutal and thorough beatings to Swanson.

Now make no mistake, this fight was a must for Swanson. A guy with no name recognition with casual fans and no real fanbase or ability to draw PPV buys or ratings, when you are a seasoned veteran in this circumstance -- dangerous or not, you have to take a fight like this. It presents the best and worst ends of things as it pertains to a career as a professional MMA fighter. You win, especially in such a fashion, and you’re back at the head of the pack, and you become a guy who may be 2 or 3 fights away from a title shot. You lose, and your opportunities moving forward essentially disappear. So this fight was risky for Cub, but a calculated risk that in hindsight seems like a stroke of genius, as Swanson’s name and profile has never been so high.

But my question is this: Swanson is no spring chicken; as stated earlier he has faced the best of the best, as well as the best of the rest, and he has done so in a very frequent, consistent manner. And a fight like this can change the direction of the career of a young fresh fighter with limited mileage on his body and at the height of his physical abilities. What effect does it have on a guy like Cub, who has never been in a bad fight, which is code for “engaging and exciting if not terribly safe/efficient fights.” So now we have Swanson with his swagger back and with the majority of eyes on him waiting to see what's next. I can't help but wonder if and when this opportunity comes, how much he will have left, being that he has lost to all three guys at the top of the division (Aldo, Edgar, Holloway). He is going to have to win a minimum of two other fights, most likely against guys who are completely capable of shutting his lights off.

So when this opportunity arises, will he be able to be the Cub Swanson we have gotten to know and love over the years? Already his workrate, ability to recover, and dynamic athleticism has taken a step back. as well as his chin, which already had shown signs of deterioration (however slight that may be). How much is left after this type of fight -- one that had this sort of pace, level of contact, and activity -- I don’t know for sure, but from what I have seen, not a whole hell of a lot. And when faced with a more seasoned, craftier and developed fighter, the openings to land and the opportunities to recover will be much smaller; much like they often are versus the elite guys he has competed against over the duration of his career. The difference now is he has had another lifetime of mileage put onto his fighter odometer, meaning he is that much closer to ending his time as an elite or near elite fighter. Not to mention the long-term effect this fight, and others like it, could have on his health and quality of life moving forward.

Then again, when you’re Swanson’s age, with his amount of fights, and saddled with his reputation as a guy who is unable to win in the biggest spots, versus the biggest opponents, fights like these are a calculated risk, a necessary evil for a veteran trying to make one last run at big paydays and a title.

In Part two, we explore the pluses and minuses for the prospect: what this fight does for him and means for him moving forward.

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