The Mad Science of Matchmaking

Every fi ght organization has a brain trust when it comes to putting on a show. In mixed martial arts, promoters often appear as the face of the organization – the creator or destroyer of all things good in the sport. But matchmakers are the ones cooking up the cards that electrify or disappoint crowds. From a blank page to a sweat-stained ring mat, the minds of the matchmakers conjure the chaos of the cage.

The job of a matchmaker entails putting names on a page, passing the paper along, and waiting to see if those names make an impression in the three-dimensional world. Fighters may have the daunting task of standing across from danger incarnate, but without good matchmakers, the mix would be more baking soda and vinegar than C-4.

“It’s like chess. You gotta think of the next fi ght; it’s gotta be the next fi ght. When I’m making a fi ght, I’ve got to be three fi ghts ahead. That’s the way I’ll put it all together,” explains Dave O’Donnell, Cage Rage’s mastermind.

EliteXC’s Jared Shaw has a similar mindset, but realizes no matter how much planning, how much stock is invested, “At the end of the day, everyone’s going to fi ght a fi ght in a cage.”

Scott Adams of the WEC recognizes the complexities of matchmaking, yet he maintains a bare-bones attitude: “We’re trying to put on the fi ghts that fans want to see.”

What determines what matchups fans want to see? It is a delicate balance. Zealous MMA crowds want local favorites, international credibility, and personalities that entertain. On top of that desired mix, there is still a matter of putting on the best fi ghts – the art of matchmaking.

“I close my eyes and like to imagine a fi ght…sometimes it’s right on the money,” reveals Shaw.

“Not always do the two number one guys make the most exciting fi ghts,” Adams added. Signing a fi ght is as much about entertainment as it is about determining the best in the world. Excitement is where losers can become winners. A boring victory does not equal stardom, but an enthralling loss might.

In defeat, fi ghters can see their fan base grow exponentially: Ross Pointon’s gritty cut stoppage against Marius Zaromskis, Mike Aina’s dropped decision against Nick Diaz, and Clay Guida’s tapout versus Roger Huerta are just a few. Shaw scoffs at the notion that surprising performances from underdogs undermine a star, alá Mike Aina and Nick Diaz. It is not the snuffi ng out of a star (Diaz); it is the emergence of another (Aina).

“You’ve got to think about press, media, selling tickets, new people getting involved,” continues O’Donnell. The Brit has the uphill battle of pushing MMA into the UK mainstream. While MMA’s mainstream status in the US is solidifi ed (EliteXC will be featured on CBS, and Versus’ broadcasts of the WEC are available weekly in 75 million homes), the Americans are not exempt from considering those factors.

“Everyone can be marketed properly, they just have to do it themselves in the cage,” Shaw asserts. “There are no easy matchups when we make matchups.”

As a fi ght unfolds, matchmakers watch their long hours condensed into a few minutes of swirling, magnetic action, or a plodding version of what they envisioned that seems lengthier than their workdays. “I feel like I am cheating fans,” said Shaw of a fi ght that misses its mark. O’Donnell relates there are so many variables in making a fi ght, but those pale in comparison to the anomalies of a fi ght.

The occasional disappointing fi ght is inevitable. “In boxing, you pick one fi ght, in MMA, you pick nine,” he said.

These matchmakers enjoy a strong voice in their respective promotions. Scouting talent, domestic and worldwide, is a supplement to their work. It pays off when a card features variety; local talent riles audiences, while national talent – from American Kickbox Academy to American Top Team – comprises MMA’s elite. These dynamics sell a card. Adams believes that when the arenas are packed, “It doesn’t matter where they came from, we just want the best.”

Choosing a fi ght is not all in the hands of the matchmakers. Adams claims fi ghters have more of a voice than many realize. Of course, the fi ght has to make sense – calling out a champion after a loss will not work. When fi ghters issue challenges, it simplifi es the process. After all, as Shaw points out, no one can force someone to fi ght.

Criticism that certain fi ghters receive special treatment is dismissed unanimously. All fi ghters have a chance to shine, but champions inherently are the faces of a promotion. However, a champion is only as good his competition, so favoritism helps no one. “True championship fi ghts, where somebody has something to lose, that’s when you’ll see the most exciting fi ghts,” Adams muses.

The caliber of weight class kings and their contenders are the most integral aspects of matchmaking. A fi ght card and a promotion mean less without respectable champions.

Cross-organization title unifi cation talk persists in the world of MMA. Shaw believes EliteXC will continue to call out Dana White to pit Pro Elite champions against the UFC. Adams foresees the Zuffa-owned WEC will keep its titles within their cage, despite future potential of co-promotion with the UFC. As unanimously recognized champions are far off, organizations must perpetuate their own stars.

Showcasing champions, providing spotlights for challengers, and fi nding the next stars are the business of matchmaking. Adams describes it as a 24-hour, seven-daysa- week job. “It’s a lot of hard work. I’m underpaid,” said O’Donnell with a laugh.

But the rewards are immense. When spectators spill their drinks or damage their throats cheering on adrenaline-charged fi ghts, the matchmakers are right there with them. And they have the unique ability to say those spectaculars moments were their idea.

“[Anderson Silva’s] warpath was so enjoyable to promote,” remembers O’Donnell. Shaw fi nds it troublesome choosing a favorite fi ght, but Murilo “Ninja” Rua and Robbie Lawler stands out. And, “How could you not enjoy [Frank] Shamrock demolishing [Phil] Baroni?” Adams avoids specifi cs completely. “[Title bouts] that have not gone to a judges’ decision, they have been my favorite and most exciting [fi ghts]. It proves why he is defending that title. There’s no controversy, no judges’ decision, those are my favorite fi ghts.”

It is diffi cult to disagree with him. Funny how mad scientists often make sense.

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