December 19, 2016

UFC on FOX 22: UFC Needs To Stop Rushing Prospects

By Adam Martin

The UFC has the best matchmakers in the world of MMA, of that there is no doubt. Outgoing matchmaker Joe Silva, current matchmaker Sean Shelby, and new matchmaker Mick Maynard are the best at what they do. These men bring the best fighters in the sport together and book them in the most exciting matchups possible, and without the matchmakers the UFC would not be where it is today.

But if there is one criticism of the matchmakers -- and it's something that has been happening much more since the WME-IMG takeover of the UFC -- it's that they are rushing prospects into fights they are not ready for.

UFC on Fox 22 is a perfect example of this. In the main event, Paige VanZant took on Michelle Waterson, a former champion in Invicta FC. VanZant, who was 4-1 entering the fight, was coming off of a KO win over Bec Rawlings. While that victory looks great on paper, if you watch that fight closely you can see she actually wasn't doing so great in it, and was fortunate to pull off a win. The fight prior to that, in VanZant's main event fight against Rose Namajunas, she showed she has a lot of heart but was beaten down badly for nearly a full 25 minutes in one of the most lopsided fights in the UFC history. Her wins in the UFC before that were over Kailin Curran and Alex Chambers, two of the weakest strawweights in the UFC, and Felice Herrig, which is the best win of her career, though not a top-10 fighter.

VanZant is only 22 but she's already main evented two UFC cards, and guess what? She's lost each time, both times by submission, first to Namajunas and now to Waterson. It's clear that she has issues in the grappling department, and matching her up with two of the best grapplers in the strawweight division doesn't seem like such a smart idea looking back. Sure, you can say she's young and that she still has time to improve and make adjustments, and that's true. But the other thing is that she has a lot of opportunities outside of MMA to make money, and after losing badly twice in the past calendar year, she may be looking at other opportunities for a career, one where she doesn't need to suffer long-term damage, damage that may affect her image, her main selling point in the mainstream world. In hindsight, it's clear the UFC matchmakers pushed VanZant up the ladder way too fast, when they should have nurtured her and brought her along slowly as she gained more experience in MMA. Again, she's only 22! The UFC tried to rush her to the top and got burned, because she's now lost two of her last three fights and her confidence may be shattered at this point. That's not the way to develop a young fighter.

Much of the same can be said about Sage Northcutt, who is even younger than VanZant at just 20. Northcutt was discovered on "Dana White Looking For a Fight" and was immediately signed to the UFC as a 19 year old. Now to be fair to the UFC, Northcutt was running through his opponents on the regional circuit and he comes from a lifelong martial arts background. Signing him wasn't a bad move at all, considering other promotions like Bellator most likely would have had the UFC not. And the UFC was actually doing a very good job of bringing him along slowly at the beginning, having him fight Francisco Trevino and Cody Pfister in his first two UFC fights, two lower-level lightweights who Northcutt was able to beat.

Northcutt ran through Trevino in a standup fight, which was extremely impressive, but in the Pfister fight, he was actually struggling with Pfister's wrestling, which was definitely a red flag. That concern about Northcutt's lack of defensive grappling was exposed in his next fight, when he was taken down and tapped out by Bryan Barberena, who is an average welterweight. The fact Northcutt tapped out to an arm-triangle choke from half guard, even if he was as sick as he claims, was really quite awful to see, and it was clear he had a lot of holes in his grappling game. Those holes were nearly exposed in his next fight, when he barely squeaked by Enrique Marin at UFC 200 in a grappling-heavy fight, but the UFC still decided to book him against Mickey Gall, a submission expert who predictably was able to get Northcutt to the ground and choke him out. Northcutt is a solid striker, but he lacks a complete MMA game, and there's no way he should have been matched up with opponents with such strong grappling skills. At 20, the matchmakers for some reason tried to rush Northcutt up the lightweight ladder, when they should have had him fighting the absolute worst fighters in the division instead, because in a stacked division, there was no rush at all to move him along so fast.

Another guy to look at is Mike Perry. Perry was wrecking shop in the UFC in his first two fights, knocking out Hyun Gyu Lim and Danny Roberts in brutal fashion, and at 25 was really looking like a serious prospect. The problem was, the Roberts fight was in October, and even though Perry won, he took a ton of damage in that fight because he has a lack of head movement and relies on his chin. Instead of having him sit on the sidelines for a few months and recover from that hellacious fight, the UFC threw him right back into another training camp and he fought eight weeks later against Alan Jouban, who is one of the most technical strikers in the welterweight division, not to mention way more experienced. Perry has fight changing power, and while he did land a few good shots on Jouban in the fight, it seemed clear Perry wasn't himself, and he was pretty much dominated in the fight. And it's no coincidence it happened in a fight he was rushed into, both because he just fought and because going from Roberts to Jouban is a huge step up in competition.

The UFC matchmakers and WME-IMG looked at VanZant, Northcutt, and Perry as fighters with star potential and tried to rush them into fights where they could pick up big wins against solid competition, and all three of them crumbled. All three are young fighters with limited experience who the UFC tried to rush up the ladder, and they got burned. Instead, they should have come along slowly, because as young fighters there was no need to rush them.

MMA is all about developing stars and it's obvious the UFC is desperately looking for new stars who could be the face of the company going forward. But stars aren't born overnight. If you look at most of the champions in UFC history, they weren't rushed into the spotlight; instead they made their way up the ladder slowly. A loss here and there early in a fighter's career doesn't have to be devastating, as we've seen with Conor McGregor, but it's unnecessary to intentionally book young fighters into tough stylistic matchups just to see how they'd fare and whether they were ready for them. There's just no need to rush these young fighters. Let them take their time, and don't ruin their confidence so early in their young careers, because while someone like McGregor might be able to recover from it, not everyone can.

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