Big Fish, Little Octagon


You might not have heard of Katsunori Kikuno before Saturday (many of you probably still haven’t), and why would you? Prior to his fight with Quinn Mulhern on the UFC’s inaugural Singaporean card, Kikuno had never competed outside of Japan in his eight years of fighting.

When pitted against notable opposition (Eddie Alvarez, JZ Cavalcante) Kikuno has come up short. However, following three rounds of dominant top position and little-to-no-offence from Mulhern, Kikuno now has a win in the UFC – a win so emphatic it convinced his opponent to retire. So what does this win mean for Kikuno?

Not much.

There’s a reason Quinn Mulhern was sent to Singapore. By his own admission he’s just not an elite level fighter.

“Bottom line is that I could put in years of continued work but I won’t be competitive at this level.”

Posting on his own Facebook page, Mulhern acknowledged that this loss was a result of his own shortcomings as a mixed martial artist, plain and simple.

“This camp was as perfect as they come. Everything fell into place, mentally, physically…my weight cut was a success. I got to a place of mental focus where I have never been before. But when I got in the cage I just didn’t have it. It wasn’t nerves, I didn’t freeze…I just didn’t have the physical gifts or skill the win (sic)”

Mulhern was part of the Strikeforce migration; one of the fighters acquired as assets when Zuffa purchased the company and subsequently folded the talent into the UFC. Entering the UFC with an 18-2 record and coming off of a respectable split decision win over Yuri Villefort, Mulhern may have promised more than he was able to deliver. In his UFC debut against Rick Story, Mulhern looked badly overmatched and was stopped by way of punches inside the first round. A drop in weight to 155lbs followed, with Quinn making his lightweight debut against Kikuno. Though bowing out with a record of 18-4 and holding belts in the King of the Cage organisation is nothing to be sniffed at, Mulhern simply wasn’t a UFC calibre fighter, at least not at this stage in his career, and this is likely what earned him a space on the Singapore card. Not only are the UFC unlikely to offer up their higher profile fighters for a free card, they need winnable fights for the hometown audience. Quinn Mulhern is exactly what the UFC are looking for when expanding into different territories as this is the level of competition required to build a following in new markets. This win was perhaps as useful to the UFC as it was to Katsunori Kikuno.

So what is a win in the UFC worth? Does a win on the undercard of a Fight Night in Singapore mean as much as a win on the undercard of a pay-per-view event in Las Vegas? There are arguably better fighters in the UFC that have yet to get their first win in the octagon. There are arguably better fighters that have been cut from the UFC after 1 or 2 losses against a higher level of opposition. In reality, a win such as Kikuno’s likely comes with an asterisk next to it – it’s enough to earn another go round in the UFC, but on a card of similar stature. This is not to say Kikuno isn’t ready for the bigger stage, simply that this victory doesn’t inform us either way. All we know for certain is that he can hang on the undercard of a Fight Pass event.

From a global fighting perspective it may mean very little, but, in order to put together these regional level cards and generate home town or surrounding areas interest – which is the point of UFC’s expansion – they have to create local stars and put bums on seats. Is Royston Wee likely to feature on many cards outside of Asia? No. Is he likely to feature when the UFC return to Singapore. Yes. There’s a place for regional level fighters: regional level cards and that’s essentially what this was.

How does this bode for the UFC in the UK? With a proposed increase in UK events over the coming years, the talent pool currently signed to the UFC is likely to be stretched. With hometown fighters required for these cards, those considered (until now) not UFC standard may yet find themselves on the biggest stage in MMA by way of necessity. The current UFC roster simply doesn’t feature the depth in UK talent to fulfil a greater number of shows here.

The Singapore card sets a precedent for as yet undeveloped MMA territories and is likely to be the first of many situations where fighters will be signed to the UFC to compete almost exclusively in their own country. Many of these fighters can’t travel because they are simply not good enough to compete on an international stage. As the UFC are new to the business of fighter development, they may have to wait a while for any real stars to come along in places like Singapore.

By JJ Saddington – @JJSADDINGTON

Owner/Editor of Writer, Podcaster, Producer of 'Notorious: Conor McGregor' film, 'Conor McGregor: Notorious' TV series, 'Ten Thousand Hours', 'The Fighting Irish' and more documentary films.