photo courtesy of Richard Immel
Last night marked the first edition of the UFC’s foray into the wrestling world with Wrestling Underground on Fight Pass. Six matches were contested between Senior-level wrestlers, five of which were in freestyle, and one was in Greco-Roman. We’ll get into some of the particulars later, but overall the night has to be scored as a win for the wrestling community and Wrestling Underground (WUG). Four of the six matches ended up being relatively competitive and the action was presented in a different format (the cage) then we in the wrestling world are used to seeing. Below you’ll find five takeaways from the evening’s festivities.
1) The WUG Product
Wrestling Underground was live-streamed through UFC Fight Pass on the UFC app. I went into the event expecting a UFC-style presentation of the action and was not disappointed. The stream was crisp and without any interruptions, a nuisance that has affected plenty of wrestling coverage in the past. There were multiple camera angles and, for the most part, each was used appropriately. The overall content looked very professional, as opposed to the “Rumble on the Rooftop,” which was much more basic. Early in the evening, there were a couple of instances where Chael’s mic was cutting out, but they seemed to nip that in the bud quickly.
A part of the puzzle that many fans, myself included, appreciated was the evening’s pacing. The total run-time for the six matches was an hour and 15 minutes from the opening introduction package until Chael’s post-main event sign-off. That seemed about right for the event. He would fill in between matches for a couple of minutes, while the last competitors left the cage and the new ones entered. I didn’t time that filler period, but it felt right and wasn’t dragged out unnecessarily. Personally, I enjoy watching fighter walkouts in UFC events; however, with such a small venue (presumably) and no fans, there was probably no grand entrance.
Chael handled all of the in-match play-by-play announcing, along with hyping or recapping the action. Anyone familiar with Sonnen knows he’s never been shy or at a loss for words. In the future, I’d love to see a more seasoned, play-by-play analyst with him, which could let him focus solely on color commentary. His technical insight is very strong and would be accentuated by a partner that would succinctly paint the picture and set the scene for viewers. Having to fill both roles, may have made him talk too much and drag out points he was trying to hammer home. Now, I acknowledge that quarantine-type rules may have prevented this two-person booth from happening as Sonnen was not at the venue, himself. For all sports, I’m able to zone out on commentary unless it’s awful. To me, a certain percentage of broadcasters subtract from my enjoyment of a competition, while a smaller percentage brings value. Chael was in that large middle-group that didn’t take away from the action, but didn’t blow me away. Again, with the right sidekick, he may be able to get into that elite company.
I didn’t see much reaction through social media, but I loved the intro piece that showed highlights of dozens of former wrestlers that have gone on to have success in the UFC’s octagon. It’s quite staggering to think about. (Actually, as a lifelong wrestling fan, it’s not surprising at all, but maybe to others).
2) What it Means Going Forward
From Chael’s commentary, WUG isn’t just a one-time deal. That bodes well for the wrestling community. Judging by reactions from fans and current athletes, plenty of people enjoyed the event and have already started playing matchmaker for the second WUG broadcast. To be fair, the reaction post-Rumble on the Rooftop and FloWrestling’s match were similar from the wrestlers. Really, they just want to compete. And picking up a paycheck isn’t bad either. Gaining new revenue streams is something that the wrestling community has needed for years (decades?). Currently, we generate funding all from the same sources. Getting someone new, like the UFC, with their resources, is enormous. The UFC could also help grow the sport, by showcasing it to those that are interested in a semi-similar skillset, like MMA. For now, when we stream events on wrestling-specifics websites, no “new eyes” are likely to stumble upon the action.
Hopefully, the wrestling community came out in full-force and tuned in last night and showed the UFC that wrestling is a market that they need to explore further.
I’ve always been a firm believer in the quote that a “rising tide raises all ships”. Competition between FloWrestling, UFC Fight Pass, and FITE TV (possibly) is only a positive for the wrestling community. Ideally, each will compete to outdo each other in terms of the quality of athletes and matches booked, payouts, and events frequency. More potential exposure could lead to more sponsorships individually and for the companies putting on the shows.
3) The Cage as an Equalizer
So one huge addition that we’ve never seen before in folkstyle/freestyle/Greco is the cage. Immediately it was a factor in the opening bout between Tyler Berger and Joey McKenna. McKenna sprawled to thwart a potential Berger takedown attempt and had his foot clip the cage. It knocked him off balance and made the takedown attempt much easier for the former Cornhusker. While the first match was the most obvious example of this new wrinkle for wrestlers to account for, it played a role in other bouts. Sam Brooks shot Shakur Rasheed into the cage and was able to readjust and finish easier than usual. Unless you secured a takedown in the center of the mat, getting exposure proved to be quite tricky. We saw David McFadden roll to a match-changing leg lace in the closing seconds of the first period, but plenty of other situations had a lace or gut attempt nullified because they ran out of real estate in the cage.
The addition of the cage also wiped out any push-out situations that we see in international wrestling. That allowed the match to flow more smoothly and didn’t have those questionable situations where both wrestlers appear to step out simultaneously. The lack of out-of-bounds calls has to be a positive for those used to following high school wrestling, and to a lesser extent, college.
As we move on and more events are held in a cage, it will be interesting to see if participants incorporate cage wrestling into their training. Now since this isn’t the format that official USA Wrestling/UWW events use, the results should be taken with a grain of salt, in most instances. Even so, some of these matches were booked at catch weights, between competitors that usually wouldn’t meet each other.
4) Legend Matchups?
While Chael was wrapping up one of the matches and taking viewers into the process of his matchmaking, he dropped a couple of bombshells. His partner, Kevin Keeney, had attempted to set up a Kendall Cross/Terry Brands match. What! I have no idea what to expect from something like that, but yeah, I’m watching it. Other names he dropped were a potential matchup between 2012 Olympian Jared Frayer and 2016 Olympian Frank Molinaro. Both happened to be on the same Virginia Tech coaching staff, as well. Again, I’m for it. I’m sure most fans are like me and have “fantasy-booked” fun matches in our heads like Burroughs/Dake, Taylor/Snyder, and Mensah-Stock/Gray, but this opens up a whole new world of possibilities. In one of our first “Quarant-Interviews” of the offseason, Chris Bono mentioned he has “one more match in him”. As did Jon Reader. What about a Bono/Cary Kolat rematch? Who wouldn’t want to see that? Maybe an all-Michigan match with Reader and Gabe Dean..or how about Jake Herbert? The possibilities are endless!
Now Chael did mention having Royce Alger out there. Despite my curiosity, that’s probably too far over the line! But for young assistants, not competing internationally, or others that are pursuing an MMA career, it’s an intriguing option.
5) Greco Stole the Show
In the lead up to Flo’s event in July, there was plenty of controversy surrounding the lack of women and Greco wrestlers. Early on in the process, Chael said that he explored getting women onto the card, but ultimately couldn’t make it work. Hopefully, they’ll be able to in the future. There was a Greco bout on last night’s card featuring a pair of wrestlers with World/Olympic teams on their resumes with Ben Provisor and RaVaughn Perkins. The two wowed viewers with a couple of big throws in the first period, with Perkins netting a five-pointer and Provisor earning four. With 19 total points on the board between them, the two showed that Greco can be exciting and deserves more opportunities like this to shine. With this match in the books and Chael’s history with the discipline, it’s safe to say that we’ll see Greco again at Wrestling Underground.
159 – Tyler Berger over Joey McKenna 8-2
180 – Ben Provisor over RaVaughn Perkins 10-9
190 – Sammy Brooks over Shakur Rasheed 8-6
213 – Kollin Moore over Deron Winn 7-0
185 – David McFadden over Tommy Gantt 8-4
265 – Nick Gwiazdowski over Kyven Gadson 10-0