Cost-Benefit Analysis: Five-Round Non-Title Fights, Prestigious or Commonplace?

'Shogun' Rua and Dan Henderson earned 'Fight of the Year' honours in their five-round non-title fight.

‘Shogun’ Rua and Dan Henderson earned ‘Fight of the Year’ honours in their five-round non-title fight.

In 2013, mixed martial arts hosted several five-round fights that sent fans into rapturous applause by their conclusions. Battles including Mark Hunt vs. Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva, Georges St-Pierre vs. Johny Hendricks, Michael Chandler vs. Eddie Alvarez II and Jon Jones vs. Alexander Gustafsson appeared to test the upper limits of physical human ability, delivering true main-event caliber performances. With no surprise, these four fights were on virtually every MMA outlet’s shortlist for “Fight of the Year” honors. Their common theme? Twenty-five minutes of in-ring action.

Five-round fights, originally exclusive to championship bouts, were first introduced to main-event, non-title fights in the UFC at UFC 138: Leben vs. Munoz. Since then, a number of spectacular performances have won our praise. Avid practitioners of grappling and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu relished Jake Shields and Demian Maia’s five-round grind in October. Meanwhile, Mauricio “Shogun” Rua and Dan Henderson’s back-and-forth main event tore the house down in 2011.

However, as the UFC event schedule grows with over 40 events planned for 2014, smaller fight cards are hosting fewer established talents. Without this familiarity, there is a lesser desire to see two fighters test themselves under the grueling conditions of 25 minutes. Criticism of these new main events brings the necessity of five-round fights into question. A debate has been sparked.

Do the diverse benefits of five-round, non-title main events simply overpower any opposing argument? Or, is there a sanctity to the 25-minute fight, an elite platform that should only be graced by champions and top contenders competing for the ultimate prize?

By examining the five-round fight, we hope to understand the sport and its flagship organization a little more. It’s also a great excuse to recount some of the greatest fights in MMA history.

The Five-Round Fight…as a Marketing Tool

From the perspective of a MMA promotion, the main event of any fight card is typically the bout that sells the show. Events are often named after the featured bout as evidence of this notion.

As a pedestal for the card’s highest-profile fighters, the final bout has an obligation to be featured by the hosting organization. Five rounds of action, versus the standard three-round format, indulges this idea by distinguishing the top fight from the rest of the event.

When Carlos Condit and Martin Kampmann fought for the second time this past August, their scheduled five-round headlining fight aptly mirrored the progress both competitors had made since the last time they met in 2009 in a three-round bout. The change added another chapter to the event’s promotional narrative, giving fans an extra reason to invest their attention in the event.

By extending the time these athletes are potentially in the cage, the promotion simply increases the supply of its action to meet the demand of the fans who purchase viewing access, largely on the basis of the main event. These are the economic forces at work in combat sports, similar to the NBA Championship’s best-of-seven format or Major League Baseball’s World Series.

The Five-Round Fight…as a Ranking Aid
For the ranking system in an organization’s weight class, the asset of the five-round fight helps establish intrigue and clarity in divisions filled with quality fighters.

Main events that aren’t for a title still have some indirect bearing on the title picture. As the UFC looks to establish—without debate—who is deserving of a title challenge, five-round fights go some way toward preventing criticism of a fighter’s ability while answering questions of his or her stamina going into the “championship rounds.”

Urijah Faber is one such example. Having fought for 25 minutes on five different occasions without demonstrating excessive tiredness, nobody criticizes or questions the California native’s conditioning. Along with an impressive record, the UFC’s safe knowledge of Faber’s gas tank has helped secure him numerous title shots over the years.

The Five-Round Fight…as a Fighter’s Reward

The five-round fight carries personal significance for the fighters as well. The fundamental rule in MMA, that wins propel a fighter up the card, runs concurrently with the same principle in society. Success breeds opportunity.

In your typical job, that opportunity might be a larger workforce to manage, a bigger office or a greater number of responsibilities. In the bubble of MMA, this opportunity manifests itself in title challenges and five-round fights. Twenty-five minutes of competition maximizes the fighter’s ability to showcase their skills for the fans who are familiar with the competitor and their success from watching his or her previous fights.

Fighters may require more arduous training to develop the conditioning necessary for five-round competition, but the trade-off is a moment in the spotlight. The number of rounds, along with title fights and salary, symbolize this elite status.

The Five-Round Fight…as a Safeguard of the Sport

Beyond the interests of the promotion, weight class and fighters, the five-round fight has a bearing on the sport of mixed martial arts.

Still in its relative infancy compared to other internationally broadcast sports, MMA endures certain “teething problems” as it continues to establish its own identity in regulatory commissions. One of these issues, well-documented in MMA over the past year, is the proficiency of judges and the criteria that they use to reach their decisions.

Addressing this pessimism towards the state of judging in MMA and the weakness of the 10-point must system, five-round fights can help establish a clear winner where three-round fights might not. If a promotion is trying to cement a champion, title contender or ranked fighter’s status, five-round affairs can protect them from ludicrous decisions when the organization needs it most. Matt Serra’s loss to Matt Hughes in their three-round grudge match at UFC 98 would be arguably less controversial if the former welterweight champions had fought for 25 minutes.

The five-rounder is not completely foolproof—the outcome of St-Pierre vs. Hendricks still leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of many MMA fans—but what it does is to allow a fighter more time to impose their will on a fight, which gives them a better chance of escaping the deluded rationality of some judging officials.

Answering the Critics

There is one argument against the UFC’s five-round policy and its gains. With cards now headlined by less familiar or experienced talent like Tarec Saffiedine and Hyun Gyu Lim, the five-round headliner’s promotional value arguably becomes diluted. This is no slight against Saffiedine or Kim, but comparing these talents to main-eventers of recent years—Ilir Latifi excluded—reveals disparity. When Shields, another Strikeforce title holder and undefeated in 14 fights, debuted against Kampmann, who had eight UFC wins, the bout was not a main event and yet it had far more intrigue.

In answer, I rate the promotional power of the UFC marketing machine too highly for five-round, non-title fights to ever be perceived as a negative. The company’s ability to portray two fighters as intimidating forces poised to collide is great enough to retain the prestige associated with five-round fights. As the undisputed top promotion in MMA, the UFC features a roster of elite martial artists that still shines in ability even when they might lack name value.

While five-round headliners might make title fights less unique in their 25-minute duration, the trade-off is the added credibility. If a competitor has already gone the distance, this knowledge helps promote the fight.

The Verdict

Five-round main events in the UFC (and other organizations with the same policy) are a positive influence as a promotional tool, a competitive element and a means of safeguarding from erratic judging. They might not be necessary, but they offer several diverse advantages over three-round contests that blend in more easily with the rest of the card. It is also worth noting that all MMA competitors have the ability to end their fights through a stoppage before bouts reach their time limit.

Rounds four and five, however, are no longer formal “championship” rounds. The UFC has rendered the phrase inaccurate. Suggesting a non-title fight has “championship rounds” can only add confusion to the viewer’s experience. With many people still being introduced to MMA, confusion surrounding its most basic rules could prove very inconvenient to the sport’s growth.

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