The Great Style vs. Substance Debate

Dan Hardy at the UFC 111 pre-fight press conference

Dan Hardy

Hardy and Miller offer a look at both sides of the debate

Lost in the hype and build-up to their individual fights tonight, Dan Hardy and Jim Miller stand as perfect counterpoints in the ongoing “Style vs. Substance” debate.

Hardy enters tomorrow’s main event as the former title challenger in dire need of a victory; a three-fight losing streak leaving him in a must-win situation against veteran Chris Lytle in Sunday’s main event.

Before the welterweights take to the cage to close out the show, Miller will face Ben Henderson in a lightweight affair many rightfully view as the true main event of the evening. Unlike their 170 pound counterparts, the lightweight combatants will carry serious title implications into the cage with them in Milwaukee.

Riding an impressive seven-fight winning streak, a victory for Miller pretty well assures him a chance to fight for the lightweight title the next time he steps into the cage. While the same almost-guarantee doesn’t exist for Henderson, a win over the surging Miller would certainly bolster his place in the pecking order.

The positioning of their fights seems to be backwards when examined through the lenses of relevance and merit, but that shouldn’t be a surprise; the career arcs and card placement of Hardy and Miller illustrate the continuous tug-o-war that takes place between style and substance.

Hardy is a marketing exec’s dream come true; Miller, not so much.

The Nottingham native is well-spoken and intelligent, with an acerbic wit and the mischievous grin of someone who knows how close he can toe the line without crossing it. He sports a Mohawk redder than Santa’s suit, a piranha-toothed bandana around his face as he walks to the cage, and a fanged mouthguard when it’s time to fight. He plays to the crowd, encourages Bruce Buffer when he’s announcing his name and boasts a legion of loyalists on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as either side of the gender divide as well.

Though equally well-spoken and intelligent, Miller isn’t as frequent with his interviews and commentaries on the trending topics in MMA as Hardy, one of the bigger microphone magnets in the sport. The 27-year-old from New Jersey native plays the background and wears his blue collar with pride. There’s no Jersey Shore douchery or Soprano’s gangster swagger; that’s not the way of life in Whippany. There’s hard work, constant improvement and a willingness to fight anyone at any time. He doesn’t talk trash and he doesn’t call guys out; all Miller does is handle his business.

While Hardy has a distinct advantage on Madison Avenue, Miller has more than doubled the Brit’s win total inside the cage, and is still searching for his first chance to claim championship gold.

Miller boasts a 9-1 record in the UFC; he’s 20-2 overall. His only loss came to current #1 contender Gray Maynard more than two years ago. Since losing to “The Bully,” Miller has bulldogged his way through the division, stringing together seven consecutive victories including three wins by stoppage and a trio of unanimous decisions.

He’s earned his stripes against the tough outs of the toughest division in the UFC; lesser known guys who are equally as dangerous as their high profile colleagues. While Henderson earned his place opposite Miller tomorrow night on the strength of a win over Mark Bocek, all Miller got in return for toppling the red-haired Toronto native was three more serious challenges and Sunday’s meeting with the former WEC champion.

What’s even more impressive is that Miller has looked his best as he continued to climb the lightweight ladder, stopping each of his last two opponents, leaving him just one win away from finally earning a title shot. And he hasn’t uttered a single complaint along the way, either.

In contrast to Miller who will need an eighth straight win to earn his elusive chance to compete for the championship, Hardy made his way opposite Georges St-Pierre on Primetime and in the cage on the strength of just four wins. Though he too faced incrementally better competition with each victory, it’s not like Hardy set the world on fire as he made his way up the welterweight ranks.

He took a split decision from Akihiro Gono in his debut before earning his most impressive win to date in the UFC over Rory Markham four months later. After earning a split decision over Marcus Davis, Hardy found himself opposite another marketability beneficiary Mike Swick in a welterweight title eliminator.

Where Miller has continued to elevate his game, Hardy has peaked and can currently be found tumbling down the other side of the mountain.

After out-pointing Swick, he was dominated by St-Pierre; nothing to hang your head about, considering the Canadian has done the same to everyone since as well. But Hardy talked trash and got beat to the punch by Carlos Condit in his own backyard back in October, then could muster any offense against Anthony Johnson five months later.

Now he’s staring down the barrel of a four-fight losing streak if he can’t beat Lytle on Sunday night, and starring as the poster boy for the style vs. substance debate alongside Miller.

Finding the right balance between the two is a dangerous and difficult task, and speaks to the dual identity of MMA as sport and entertainment.

Though he currently owns the third longest active winning streak in the UFC behind Anderson Silva and GSP, Miller is less known than many of the underachieving house guests from various seasons of The Ultimate Fighter still fighting to remain on the UFC roster.

Conversely, Hardy hasn’t won a fight in nearly two years, but he’s got a big enough name and a fast enough mouth to generate interest in Sunday night’s fight.

Miller embodies the sport, living the mantra of every “the rest of this BS doesn’t matter” fighter who focused on the sporting aspect of what they do: if I keep winning, they’ll eventually have to give me a shot.

Hardy embraces the entertainment side, combining solid results with spectacular salesmanship, allowing him to speed past contenders with strong records and weaker marketability to reach title contention in under two years.

The best case scenario is a balance between the two — a contender who delivers quality and quantity when the cage door closes, and a spike in sales receipts until that time comes.

In a perfect world, substance would be all that mattered; wins and losses serving as the only determining factor in a fighter’s climb up the rankings. But the world — and the sport — is far from perfect. Style matters, maybe even more than substance.

While you have to win to get advance, deciding between two fighters with comparable records isn’t all that hard; the fighter who can draw more eyes and sell more tickets wins every time, just as he should.

This is the business of fighting, and though I wish it weren’t the case, a five, six or seven fight winning streak with few people watching will never mean as much as a four fight run with all eyes on you.

But here’s the rub (there’s always a rub):

All kinds of style with a moderate dose of substance may get you to the top faster, but a healthy serving of substance with a smatter of style will keep you there longer.

Is it better to be a passing fad or an enduring favorite?

Depends who you ask.