WSOF plays by its own rules. This was never more apparent than Saturday night, when two of their championship fights served as undercard bouts to their non-title main event. Former UFC top-10 fighters Jon Fitch and Yushin Okami in a three-round bout. What?
The 3-year-old company run by President Ray Sefo has a signed deal with NBC Sports Network and has been drawing around 200,000 viewers on average. It’s still growing and trying to reach more viewers so it did what seemed best for business: placing the two biggest name fighters as the headliners and maybe someone will care.
Here’s the problem: Fitch and Okami are far from the most popular fighters on any roster whether it’s the UFC, Bellator or even a regional circuit. The casuals probably know little about them and the hardcores will never call either an action-packed fighter.
Two decorated and successful fighters, Fitch and Okami are — respectfully — two of the least entertaining MMA fighters to ever step in a cage. And using them to headline an event speaks volumes to how far WSOF still has to go before the fanbase can consider them to be a real player in the landscape.
Fitch and Okami are two of the most accomplished fighters in the business and have similar lineages. Fitch went 14-3-1 in his eight-year UFC career that included a title shot against Georges St-Pierre. He was the former captain of American Kickboxing Academy, one of the most prestigious gyms that includes the MMA’s elite like Cain Velasquez and Daniel Cormier.
Okami went 13-5 in his seven-year UFC career that included a title shot against the great Anderson Silva. His losses for the most part came against former champions or title challengers and he has notable victories against former champion, Evan Tanner and Nate Marquardt.
But here’s where it gets (less) interesting: They had a combined 27 wins but both only finished seven of those fights. Fitch hasn’t finished a fight in over seven years and Okami’s most recent finishes came against outmatched fighters.
Both Fitch and Okami developed a very non-fan-friendly fighting style that involved a heavy emphasis on wrestling — on “grinding” out their opponent by pushing them up against the cage, securing dominant positions and instead of going for finishes would prefer to maintain it and ride it to a ho hum judges’ decision.
It is likely this ultra-conservative approach is what led to both being cut by the UFC, especially considering they’d only suffered a single loss to a top-10 UFC fighter (Fitch to Demian Maia and Okami to Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza). The UFC’s been known to keep fan-friendly fighters who were on three-fight skids against lower competition. This was likely the high point of their careers with the fans as there was a social media outcry in response to their cuts.
Fitch and Okami are also fighters past their prime. They’re on a downswing, if anything. Okami debuted at welterweight but it didn’t mean much as he was dominated by Fitch for the most part.
By giving them the spotlight, WSOF neglected to put more emphasis on their other fighters including their new heavyweight champion, Blagoy Ivanov who eviscerated Derrick Mehmen and has looked impressive outside a lone loss to Alexander Volkov (a fight on a month’s notice). They also neglected to highlight their inaugural flyweight championship bout between undefeated Russian prospect, Magomed Bibulatov and the feisty Donavon Frelow.
MMA is a sport but it’s also entertainment and a business. In order to keep the sport going, organizations need to sell their tickets and gain the viewership. But that only works when you have fighters who deliver rousing performances, as opposed to the predictable slow-motion approach Fitch and Okami often favor.
The ratings for WSOF 24 haven’t been revealed yet, so we can’t say whether or not the promotion’s main event worked in their favor or not.
Bellator hit a homerun when headlining events with former UFC light heavyweight champ Tito Ortiz, but Ortiz is another matter altogether. He’s a much bigger draw and a fighter who could sell a fight with his divisive attitude. Fitch and Okami aren’t those types of fighters.
WSOF dropped the ball booking this fight as the main event over two title fights, and over arguably the best fighter on this card: Blagoy Ivanov. For WSOF’s and MMA fans’ sakes, Fitch and Okami should never headline an event again.