You guys have heard of Wally Pipp, right?
If you haven’t, then shame on you for not knowing your sports history. Here’s the story in a nutshell: Pipp was the starting first baseman for the New York Yankees in 1925, when he allegedly asked to sit out a game because of a headache. His replacement? Lou Gehrig, whose start that day in place of Pipp began Gehrig’s long-standing record streak of 2,130 consecutive games played.
What does this have to do with the UFC? Well, two of the organization’s hand-picked “golden children” may have just been “Wally Pipp’ed” themselves at the UFC’s most recent card. Luckily for UFC President Dana White and company, the fighters who are staking their claim instead have every bit the curb appeal of Paige VanZant and Sage Northcutt.
The UFC more or less anointed VanZant and Northcutt as its de facto “it couple,” as evidenced by the fact that they competed in the main event and co-headliner, respectively, at the UFC’s latest Fox card earlier this month. The plan was obviously to showcase VanZant and Northcutt in front of a national television audience and further boost the UFC’s bid for mainstream acceptance.
It seemingly worked to perfection, too. The card peaked at 4.8 million viewers, which gave the UFC its highest ratings on Fox since 2013. It wasn’t all peaches and cream for the UFC, though. Both VanZant and Northcutt were defeated and finished by Michelle Waterson and Mickey Gall, respectively, which seemingly brought the VanZant/Northcutt hype train to an overwhelming and screeching halt.
Like so many young professional athletes who are rushed into action before they’re ready, VanZant and Northcutt, both of whom suffered their second defeat in roughly a year, provide what was perhaps a sign that they’re not quite ready for primetime, despite having looks that would make them appear right at home on shows like The Voice or Dancing with the Stars, which, coincidentally, VanZant competed on this year.
Hopefully White didn’t go on one of his trademark profanity-laced tirades after both VanZant and Northcutt came up short. It’s important to keep in mind that VanZant and Northcutt are only 22 and 20 years old, respectively. There’s no reason to believe they still can’t reach their potential and become the stars the UFC obviously envisions them to be.
More to the point, Waterson and Gall — you know, the fighters who actually won those fights against VanZant and Northcutt — are more than capable of picking up the slack in the star-power department.
Let’s start with Waterson. On the surface, she’s every bit as photogenic and easy on the eyes as VanZant. Waterson goes by the nickname “The Karate Hottie,” so don’t tell me she doesn’t try to leverage her looks, as she has every right to do. But underneath her attractive exterior also lies a skilled mixed martial artist. Waterson holds a black belt in karate and is a former Invicta FC atomweight champion. She has defeated some of the more recognizable names in women’s MMA, including Lacey Schuckman, Jessica Penne and Yasuko Tamada.
Waterson’s signing was much ballyhooed by the UFC, and although injuries kept her out of the Octagon for more than a year after her debut victory against Angela Magana in 2015, Waterson’s emphatic, first-round submission victory over VanZant should firmly entrench her in the forefront of UFC fans’ minds going forward.
Gall already made a name for himself in some ways prior to his victory over Northcutt. Gall was discovered on White’s reality show Lookin’ for a Fight, when he asked to fight former pro wrestler CM Punk for Punk’s first-ever MMA outing. Gall won a qualifying fight for the UFC in order to face Punk, and he choked out Punk in just over two minutes at UFC 203. The fight was only Gall’s third pro MMA bout, and he called out the other young phenom, Northcutt, afterwards and proceeded to choke him out at UFC on Fox 22. Gall’s appeal not only lies in his skills — he has a dangerous mix of speed, grappling skills and pure punching power — but in his background and path to the UFC. In some ways, Gall is the living embodiment of a Bruce Springsteen song.
Like “The Boss,” Gall hails from New Jersey and grew up in a blue-collar family. He was working his way up in MMA before his chance encounter with White, and he took full advantage of it. What’s not to appreciate about that? Gall is only 24 years old, so he still has plenty of time to grow as a fighter and as a personality.
The UFC engaged in smart business by showcasing VanZant and Northcutt on its most recent Fox card. The ratings are proof of that. However, to use an analogy fitting of the holiday season, the UFC shouldn’t drown its sorrows in spiked eggnog following the losses suffered by “Paige and Sage.” Instead, it should be grateful that a new duo capable of becoming stars in their own right came down the UFC’s chimney: “Michelle and Mickey.”