By Jeremy Wall
WSOF 20 took place April 10th at the Foxwoods Resort & Casino in Mashantucket, Connecticut. The show produced a number of stories, including the next disaster in a cursed four-man tournament to crown WSOF’s first Light-Heavyweight champion; the debut of a superhyped real-life superhero who ended up looking less than heroic in dropping a decision to an unknown; the return of Nick Newell, the one-armed fighter last seen challenging Justin Gaethje for the Lightweight title on NBC; the return of Steve Mocco, the former NCAA champion and Olympian, last seen losing a decision to Smealinho Rama, who is now the WSOF Heavyweight champion; and, the implosion of Melvin Guillard’s career in the WSOF when Guillard was pulled from his fight by the promotion due to failing to submit his medical records, which may be Guillard’s last straw with WSOF.
The show was headlined by David Branch (16-3) submitting Jesse McElligott (5-2) with a Von Flue choke at 1:28 of the second round. Branch is the promotion’s current Middleweight champion and has entered the Light-Heavyweight title tournament to become WSOF’s first two-division champion. McElligott went into the fight on one day notice after Ronny Markes, Branch's original opponent, bowed out the day before the show due to dehydration. McElligot was originally booked to fight Steve Skrzat on a prelim. No new opponent was found for Skrzat and WSOF paid him his full fight purse.
“Ronny’s condition is an unfortunate situation, but we are glad that his health has improved since the episode he experienced earlier today,” said WSOF President Ray Sefo. “WSOF is committed to the safety of its athletes and, therefore, there is no way that we could allow Ronny to go on and compete despite the turnaround in his condition.”
The promotion was coming off an excellent show taking place on March 28th in Phoenix headlined by Justin Gaethje retaining the Lightweight title over Luis Palomino in what most people who saw it are calling the frontrunner for fight of the year. The other semi-final bout in the Light-Heavyweight title tournament also took place in Phoenix, as Teddy Holder replaced Matt Hamill on short notice and knocked out the debuting Thiago Silva in two minutes to reach the finals. Branch will now face Holder in the tournament finals for the Light-Heavyweight title at some undetermined future event.
Branch is the obvious favourite over Holder (9-1) to win the Light-Heavyweight title. The plan seems to be to continue with Branch as a two-division champion, although nothing has been made clear about what happens if Branch wins the tournament.
"I walk around at about 240 pounds, at least that's where I was after the Yushin Okami fight," Branch told Bloody Elbow before WSOF 20. "Currently, I'm on a three-fight deal with WSOF. I'm pretty happy here and they've been consistently doing right by me. At this point, it's about loyalty. I got my first taste of being world champion here, so I want to stick around for a little bit."
The biggest story of the show, though, was the WSOF debut of Ben Fodor (6-1), better known as the real-life crime fighting superhero Phoenix Jones. Fodor, 26, received quite a bit of national publicity going into his fight against Manny Walo (8-2) at 175 pounds, publicity that included being featured on ESPN SportsCenter, an interview with ESPN's web site, and a profile by Ben Fowlkes in USA Today that allegedly caused enough traffic to visit the WSOF web site that the site crashed. Most of the publicity photos for Fodor featured him wearing a black and yellow superhero costume, making him look like someone out of Kick Ass.
"Ben Fodor doesn't dwell much on his six professional mixed martial arts fights or the dozen or so he had as an amateur, but his mind often returns to the night he watched a woman die on the streets of Seattle," wrote Fowlkes. "This was three years ago, and he wasn't acting as Ben Fodor at the time, but rather as his superhero alter ego 'Phoenix Jones,' the masked crimefighter who's been patrolling Seattle since 2010, courting controversy and danger."
Ben trains with his older brother Caros, who is a veteran of UFC and Strikeforce. Ben signed a multifight offer with WSOF a few weeks ago. Going into his WSOF debut, he had seven pro fights under his belt and at least a dozen amateur bouts, but had never faced high-level competition in MMA before. It was an obvious gimmick signing of a guy who appeared to be at least somewhat of a natural athlete with a respectable record on indie shows that might do well against quality competition.
"It took me 24 hours, man," WSOF Matchmaker and Senior Executive Vice President Ali Abdelaziz told Bleacher Report on how he signed Fodor to fight in WSOF. "I thought of it and I called [Fodor]. I know the UFC wanted to get him on The Ultimate Fighter, Bellator made him an offer—he was getting four or five different options. And I made him an offer. I'm going to help build him up."
In MMA, though, hype is only half the game as a fighter has to be able to perform in the ring, too. Fodor was unable to overcome Walo, who defeated Fodor by unanimous decision in what was a major upset considering the hype Fodor had going into the fight. Scores were straight 29-28 for Walo. Walo clearly won the first two rounds, being able to repeatedly take Fodor down. Fodor came back and won round three, but it wasn’t enough as he needed to finish Walo to win.
“This guy is dressing up and using his MMA skills to fight guys in the street and use pepper spray or whatever," Walo told MMA Junkie before the fight. "He’s directly putting himself in danger to get attention for himself. That’s not someone who is truly genuine.”
The question is if the additional publicity for Fodor will cause a spike in viewership for WSOF. The problem is that even if it does, since Fodor lost a fairly unexciting bout, whatever additional viewership WSOF gleaned from Fodor's publicity probably won't carry over to another Fodor fight with the promotion. And this show didn’t offer anything different compared to past WSOF shows that would entice possible new viewers who tuned in to see Fodor fight to tune in to WSOF again.
"But retiring Phoenix Jones isn't something the younger Fodor seems interested in doing," Fowlkes continued in USA Today. "He signed with WSOF in part because it was the only contract offer he got that didn't place any limits on his freedom to patrol the streets in his spare time, Fodor says. And while other fighters might be after fame and glory and titles, he insists he's 'not built the same way they are.'"
What WSOF can do with Fodor now is hard to say. Probably not much. If he’s under a mutlifight deal then he will fight again, but the publicity won’t be back for his second bout with the promotion. Considering Fodor’s lack of experience against even mid-level competition and the likeliness that he would lose his first major fight, WSOF might have been better off placing Fodor against a fighter who they are trying to build into a star. But at welterweight, I’m not even sure who that would be as WSOF’s top welterweight stars are champion Rouismar Palhares, Jakes Shields, and Jon Fitch, all UFC washouts.
Fodor, however, has talked about dropping down to lightweight for his next bout. WSOF might have been better waiting for Fodor to be ready to compete at lightweight, and then putting him against Justin Gaethje with the idea of the additional publicity brought by Fodor would then help build Gaethje’s name. Gaethje is the promotion’s biggest homegrown star. But there are a couple of problems with this idea. First, the publicity might not be there if WSOF waited too long between signing Fodor and booking him to fight. Second, the promotion would be heavily criticized for putting Fodor in a Lightweight title against someone he would have little chance of beating in a fight Fodor had done nothing to deserve.
But if we’re being honest about this, Fodor was a gimmick signing to attract publicity. If you’re going to use gimmicks to build your viewership, you have to do it the right way, or there’s no point and you may as well stick to booking skilled unknowns against one another. To bring Fodor in and build him up against increasingly difficult competition before putting him in the big fight means you risk him losing and all the publicity drying up. And even if Fodor did win a fight or two to setup a title fight against Gaethje, there is no guarantee that even with the wins the publicity would still be around by the time the title fight took place. Even with the obvious drawbacks, I do think the better option was to place Fodor in a marquee fight immediately (probably against Gaethje) rather than hope for the marquee fight down the road.
This reminded me of the days when Zuffa would sign someone like Tank Abbott or Sean Gannon to fight in the UFC as a gimmick and would end up totally botching the gimmick, making the signing pointless in the first place. With Tank, they immediately put him against Frank Mir, when they should have put Tank in against someone who would stand and bang with him. Tank was already out of his league with submission fighters in 1995, let alone 2003 and it was obviously stupid even at the time. Gannon was a cop who made a name for himself on the internet (mainly mma.tv) fighting Kimbo Slice in an underground street fight video that made both men internet famous. UFC ended up signing the wrong guy of the two, as Gannon actually had MMA experience, even though Kimbo was the star that made that video a viral hit. Gannon had one fight in the UFC, losing to Branden Lee Hinkle, and was gone. Kimbo became a major television star for EliteXC and later briefly for the UFC and is going to try and rekindle that magic again for Bellator in a couple months. Zuffa learned from these mistakes. We’ll see if WSOF does.
In the co-main, Nick Newell (12-1), famous as the one-armed fighter who challenged Justin Gaethje for the WSOF Lightweight title on NBC last year, defeated Joe Condon (12-8) via unanimous decision. Scores were straight 29-28s. Newell was able to score takedowns and stay active on the ground looking for submissions throughout the fight. Newell is also a pro wrestling fan who got into MMA by watching The Ultimate Fighter when it debuted after WWE Raw in 2005 because his college roommate was a wrestling fan. His roommate was Curt Hawkins, real name Brian Meyers.
“I feel like I over-trained a little bit for that fight,” Newell told MMA Weekly about the fight against Gaethje. “I feel like I had a bad night. I just wasn’t myself out there. At the beginning of the fight I did really well. I rocked him, I had him hurt and I should have kept striking, but instead I went for a shot. He sprawled and I ended up eating a couple good shots and wasn’t the same after that.”
Where Newell goes from here, though, is also difficult to say. He’s already challenged and lost to Gaethje for the Lightweight title. WSOF used the idea of a skilled one-armed fighter challenging for a major title to build a show on NBC, trying to get as much publicity out of Newell as possible to draw as many viewers as possible. The show ended up drawing 781,000 viewers, which is by far the highest rating for a WSOF show, but doesn’t mean much, as it was a bit of a disappointing number for a major network, even if it was a Saturday late afternoon show. WSOF originally announced that two events would take place on NBC, but the second show has never materialized.
Newell would have to win a couple more times before facing Gaethje again, and even if Newell does score those wins, it is not like anyone is dying to see a rematch. Perhaps Newell can change divisions. Branch would be much too massive for him at middleweight. Maybe Newell can cut to featherweight and challenge champion Lance Palmer for that title, although Newell has never had a major fight outside of the lightweight division. And even then, the idea of seeing the one-armed super skilled fighter challenging for a major title has already been done.
Also on the card, Steve Mocco (5-1) stopped Juliano Coutinho (6-2) with nasty punches on the ground at 4:02. Mocco, 33, is a former two-time NCAA Division I champion with the University of Iowa in 2003 and Oklahoma State University in 2005. Mocco also competed in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He now trains with American Top Team. He was coming off the only loss of his MMA career, to Smealinho Rama (6-1) in February 2014 where Rama defeated Mocco by unanimous decision. Rama later went on to become the first WSOF Heavyweight champion.
Mocco is another guy that WSOF doesn’t have a lot of matchmaking options for. After Rama beat him by decision, Rama went on and stopped Derrick Mehman (18-5) in 51 seconds to become the first WSOF Heavyweight champion. He’s scheduled to fight Blagoi Ivanov (11-1) at WSOF 21 in June. For Mocco, Rama is the only heavyweight with a recent win in WSOF at his skill level, and Rama already beat him. WSOF can probably either build Mocco with a few wins over lesser heavyweights (Mehman, Dave Huckaba, Tim Hague, others) who have won recent fights in the WSOF, or bring a more difficult challenge for Mocco in from outside the promotion.
In the opener, Ozzy Dugulubgov (7-2) beat Lucas Montoya (8-4) when Montoya suffered a forearm injury at 3:39. Montoya was coming in as a late replacement for Melvin Guillard. Dugulubgov took Montoya down and was stalled trying to pound him. The ref went to reset them, but Montoya was hurt and the fight was called.
Guillard, 32, previously missed weight challenging Gaethje for the Lightweight title at WSOF 15. The bout was changed to a non-title fight and Gaethje won by split-decision. The way WSOF was talking about Guillard after this Friday's show, it sounds like he may be finished with the promotion.
"We are disappointed that we are in a position where we have to pull Melvin from the event, but given the fact he did not turn in his required medical exam results by the deadline of 10 a.m. this morning, we were left with no other choice," Sefo said in regards to Guillard being pulled from WSOF 20. "Melvin and his camp were reminded more than once about the hard deadline, yet they failed to deliver what was necessary in order for him to compete."
“Honestly, it doesn’t really affect me that much,” Dugulubgov told MMAjunkie. “I was almost kind of prepared for it due to his past history. I knew he’s had troubles with discipline, so I was kind of preparing for this kind of moment and whatever happened, happened."
"[Guillard] missed weight for his first fight," Sefo also said in a recent WSOF conference call. "He missed weight for a world title fight. He put us at risk in terms of...because, what happens if he'd won that fight? And then our PR team has reached out to him and his management team to do PR. He just completely ignored that, and then he goes off and does his own interview with somebody else and trash talks the company. It's just, you know, I'm not going to tolerate that kind of behavior."
"He was given a deadline, which was going to be last Friday for his medicals, and that didn't happen," Sefo said regarding Guillard’s fight on WSOF 20. "Then Ali [Abdel-Aziz] sent out an email saying that if he didn't have his medicals by 10 o'clock Monday morning, then he was going to be pulled from the card. At 10 or 11 -- 11:30 or 12 -- we still hadn't heard anything from his management team, nor had we heard anything from him, so we sent out an email stating all of the things I just said. And that left me no choice but to pull him from the card."
The show aired on NBC Sportsnet. Commentary was provided by Todd Harris and Renzo Gracie, the latter replacing regular Bas Rutten who was taping Inside MMA in Los Angeles. The show wasn't available on television in Canada, even though WSOF has a promotional arm called WSOF Canada that promotes shows in Alberta (does that mean if they hold another WSOF Canada show, it won't be available on Canadian TV?). The only way to watch the show outside the United States was to stream it online from the NBC Sportsnet web site, which required creating a login. WSOF has aired in the past on TSN on tape delay, but with TSN signing UFC at the beginning of the year that network looks finished with WSOF. I sent a Tweet to WSOF the other day asking what was the best way to watch the show in Canada (where I live). They never responded.
With Rogers Sportsnet essentially dropping UFC, causing UFC to move to TSN, there doesn’t seem to be much appetite among Canadian networks for MMA content. Rogers de fact controls the Canadian sports industry (they own Sportsnet, which has the exclusive with the NHL, which in Canada is like having an exclusive television contract for Christianity in the American south, and they also own a huge stake in the Leafs and the Raptors, as well as the Jays, and God knows what else) and if Rogers drops you from your network, that speaks volumes about where you stand in Canada. And WSOF doesn’t stand anywhere near the UFC.
WSOF has aired on NBC Sportsnet since their first event and over eighteen shows (one additional show aired on the NBC network) they have averaged 244,000 viewers. The all-time high on NBC Sportsnet came for WSOF 10 on June 21, 2014, with 365,000 average viewers for a main event of David Branch defending the Middleweight title against Jesse Taylor, which did well even though the show went against boxing on Showtime and that Glory pay per view that no one bought. Lowest was 94,000 for WSOF 7 on December 7th, 2013, for a main event of Georgi Karakhanyan defending the Featherweight title against Lance Palmer, going up against college football, boxing on both HBO and Showtime, and an Invicta pay per view.
The next show is WSOF 21 and it takes place on June 5th at the Edmonton Expo Centre, headlined by Rama (who is from Alberta) defending the Heavyweight title against Blagoi Ivanov (11-1), whose sole MMA loss was to Alexander Volkov via submission in Bellator last May. All I can say I hope WSOF has a better television situation worked for Canada by the time that show rolls around, because airing a show that’s held in Canada with a Canadian heavyweight champion would likely be something that could draw on Canadian television. It will also be interesting to see what additional viewership carries over from the Fodor fight, if any.