With the untimely and unfortunate loss of Alexander Gustafsson from the main event this weekend, the bantamweight contest between Brad Pickett and Mike Easton has become the most meaningful contest on this card. It’s not just a “by default” thing either.
Though both are coming off losses, they’re still the only pair of top-10 competitors squaring off Saturday in Sweden, and the only tandem within arm’s reach of being considered contenders as well.
Last time out, Pickett lost to Eddie Wineland, who is now slated to face Renan Barao for the interim bantamweight title this summer in Winnipeg. He’s perennially on the fringe of challenging for the title, and even if he’s come up short in his quest to reach the top of the mountain to date, he’s been closer than anyone else on the card thus far.
Easton won his first three in the UFC before dropping a unanimous decision to Raphael Assuncao last December. He’s a training partner of injured bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz, and a fighter many critics believe has all the skills to challenge for gold before his time in the UFC comes to a close.
So why are they buried in the middle of this weekend’s line-up and receiving little to no attention in the preamble to pairing off in the cage?
Once the 135-pound duo finish trading leather in the Octagon on Saturday, heavyweights Matt Mitrione and Phil De Fries will step into the cage. The former has dropped consecutive contests after starting his career at 5-0 coming off Season 10 of The Ultimate Fighter. The latter has been finished in the first round in two of his last three, with a submission win over the since-dispatched Oli Thompson in between.
While a heavyweight clash quite often delivers a crowd-pleasing finish, these two are not anywhere close to being in the title picture, and yet they’re still slated to compete later in the night than the only tandem on the card where the winner will be considered “in the mix.”
Unfortunately for Pickett and Easton, they’re at a double disadvantage when it comes to the way the UFC likes to slot their fight cards.
For starters, fans are simply more attracted and captivated by heavyweight competitors, which prompts the UFC to often give them a greater share of the spotlight in instances like this. Mitrione’s time as a contestant on The Ultimate Fighter serves as the trump card in determining which of these two fights gets top billing. Even though it was more than three years ago, being beamed into households around the world on Spike TV still carries weight when it comes to planning out the line-up for fight night.
It has been that way for a while, and the pattern will likely continue in the future, even though it probably shouldn’t.
Here’s the thing: we all judge how fight cards are laid out.
We put stock in who is fighting on the main card -- or the pay-per-view portion of an event -- and question why others are relegated to the prelims. We naturally look at the progression of the fights and see those at the end of the night as the best of the bunch, but the UFC doesn’t always set the line-up that way.
They put a bigger focus on names, as evident by Mitrione and De Fries getting slotted after Pickett and Easton, and former TUF winner Ross Pearson and Ryan Couture, son of UFC legend Randy Couture, positioned as the co-main event on Saturday’s card, despite this being Couture’s promotional debut. Results and where certain fighters stand in their respective divisions are secondary and tertiary concerns.
Does that seem backwards to anyone else?
Sure, Mitrione is the bigger name, and probably attracts more eyes this time around, but what about next time? Neither he nor De Fries is going to move into the thick of the chase in the heavyweight division with a win this weekend, but that’s exactly where the victor in the bantamweight fight that precedes it in the cage will be. As such, you would think that the UFC would be more invested in establishing them a little more, but that doesn’t seem to be the case; not now, and not frequently enough.
Rather than thinking ahead to what comes next, the UFC seems fixated on making the most of the current event on the schedule, and worrying about the future in the future. Personally, I think it’s short-sighted.
You’re going to need the winner of the Pickett-Easton fight to take on a top 10-ranked opponent following this weekend’s fight, but by positioning them before Mitrione and De Fries -- and on a card that’s getting minimal attention overall outside of the main event and subsequent main event change -- doesn’t get them any real recognition. They’ll still be relatively unknown to the casual fans coming out of Sweden.
Chances are Mitrione will likely still be a more recognizable name than either bantamweight, but neither the former NFL defensive lineman nor De Fries are going to be asked to take on a top-ranked opponent in a bout to determine the next divisional contender after this weekend.
So it becomes a question of what’s more important to have: a known heavyweight who is still far removed from championship contention (and still known) or a potential bantamweight title challenger getting a little more shine so that fans have a bit of familiarity with them when they’re prominently featured in a main card fight next time around?
I’d put the focus on the fighters with more upside that are more likely to be in the mix later in the year.
The UFC thinks otherwise.