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WSOF 25: a bad idea on paper & even worse in execution

WSOF 25

You may have missed it (and judging from the ratings, a lot of people did) but last Friday, World Series of Fighting ran a one-night tournament for a shot at Justin Gaethje's lightweight belt. This piece isn’t about the quality of the fights that, for the most part, were very good. This is about the absurdity of running a one night tournament in 2015 and the absolutely terrible job the promotion did in putting it on. Everything from the presentation to the commentary to the decisions made in regards to the tournament were lacking and made the promotion come off as anything but major league.

For starters, the show was built around eight guys in a tournament who were all fighting their opening round fights at WSOF.com where almost no one watches. For the viewers watching only on television, they had no idea who was fighting: a recipe for ratings disaster. They also ran into an issue where the bigger names in the tournament wouldn’t make it onto the televised show which happened with former UFC TUF prospect Mike Ricci, the most familiar name to casual fans, who won his first round fight but was unable to continue in the tourney.

Bellator MMA just tried a version of a tourney in September with similar results. The show did very poorly in the ratings and they were forced to scramble after King Mo was injured in his opening round win and was unable to continue. In that case, as with this tournament, they had a reserve bout. Francis Carmont, the winner of the reserve bout, took Mo’s place in the tourney. In the WSOF case, Ramil Mustapayev, a Russian prospect on a four-fight win streak, won his fight and looked very impressive. Despite two people being injured in their opening round fights (Islam Mamedov was the other), Mustapayev didn’t advance. This despite the fact that commentator Chael Sonnen spent the whole fight talking about how everyone in the back was worried about having to face this guy later on.

As an aside, in the reserve fight, Sonnen was going over the rules of the fight and said that it would be two rounds and that there were no elbows allowed. He didn’t say anything about foot stomps. When the second round ended, I assumed they would go to the judges but there was a third round, and the refs were warning people all night about foot stomps. Sonnen openly criticized them about that at one point. No explanation was given as to what would happen if the two rounds ended up tied though it never came into play.

So, Mamedov and Ricci didn’t advance despite winning because they were too injured to continue. The rules of the tournament stated that if the winner couldn’t advance, the loser would take his place. Mamedov had beaten Jorge Patino, so Patino was allowed back in the tourney. Ricci’s opponent, Joe Condon, couldn’t continue either as he was knocked out. No explanation was given as to why reserve bout winner Mustapayev wasn’t put into the tourney instead of Foster, who also lost his first round fight. He was submitted by Joao Zeferino and then went on to face him again in the finals of the tourney. Foster submitted Zeferino to win the tourney and earn the future title shot.

For viewers who spent three hours watching the prelims online, their most loyal and hardcore fans, as late as 10 minutes before the start of the broadcast on NBC Sports Network, there were graphics on the screen advertising semifinal matches of Ricci vs. Patino and Zeferino vs Luis Palomino. Seemingly the fighters themselves had been preparing for these fights as well. They even had a reporter talking to Ricci after his fight in the back, and he said he was medically cleared and good to go for the next round. Yet, at some point, this all changed and when the broadcast version of the show started, Patino was in there against Zeferino, rather than Ricci. Later in the broadcast, Ray Sefo, the face of the company, was beaming about this development, saying anything can happen in a tournament.

This brings me to something that may have bothered me more than anything on this show and speaks volumes about the overall professionalism of everyone in this company. After the opening round of the tournament was completed, they ran a couple of non-tournament matches to fill out the time before the main card started and these were also broadcast on NBCSN. The final fight was a bantamweight bout between Joe Barajas (11-1 going into this fight) and Erik Villalobos (4-4). The booking of a fight with two guys with such differing records is questionable and was even more apparent when the fight started and Barajas completely dominated his overmatched opponent.

Except that’s not what the commentators were telling us.

Bear in mind that the walkouts were aired, complete with graphics for each guy. The ring announcer introduced both fighters and identified them correctly. There was a graphic on the screen identifying each fighter by glove color. Both fighters had previously fought in the World Series of Fighting so there seemingly was tape on both of them for the commentators to study prior to the broadcast.

There were four commentators for this fight for some reason; Todd Harris, Mike Corey, Sonnen and WSOF Middleweight and Light Heavyweight Champion David Branch. All four fighters commentated at various points of the first round and all identified Villalobos as dominating the fight. They talked about how surprising it was that he was dominating a guy with only one loss. Even between rounds, as the cornermen were talking to the fighters, they were saying that Barajas was going to have to regroup despite his corner (correctly) telling him he was doing great and to keep it up.

About a minute into the second round, Sonnen interrupted either Harris or Corey mid-sentence and said something to the effect of “Guys, I have to stop you here. We’ve got these guys mixed up and Barajas is actually the one who’s winning”. He went on to admit that he’d never seen either guy and didn’t know alot about them, despite earlier in the fight going on and on about both of them (clearly reading notes that someone else had written).

But that’s not all. At the start of the third, after Barajas was dominating to the point that it was obvious the ref could stop the fight at any time, Harris said, “So do you think that Barajas should continue this pace or try to save energy for later on in the tournament”.

There was a long pause. Sonnen then said, “What the hell are you talking about?” and started laughing. He then explained to the viewers (who I’m sure were quite aware) that Branch was mistaken and this was not a tournament match. They were not even in the same weight class as the fighters in the tournament. He went on to call a waitress and ask if he could some of whatever Branch was drinking.

I’m usually not this harsh on MMA broadcasts. As a fan of the sport, I especially like to watch these minor promotions to try and keep an eye out for future stars. As such, I’ve watched several minor promotions with nowhere near the exposure that an organization like WSOF has and certainly not the broadcast platform. Everyone involved with the production of this show should be embarrassed. Everyone, I should say, but the fighters themselves who gave it their all and put on for the most part a very entertaining show, especially the main card. I only wish the executives and commentators put as much effort into their jobs as the fighters did.