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As the Ultimate Fighting Championship greatly expanded the number of shows it runs over the past few years, there were many positives and negatives that arose from its increased schedule.
One of the positives was intended to be an increased ability to develop young stars early in their careers. UFC’s larger roster allowed it to sign prospects with marketable qualities, but weren’t as developed as a main roster fighter was expected to be a decade ago. The idea is they could then be groomed for bigger things over time with the help of the world’s leading mixed martial arts promotion.
Two seeming exemplars for this trend were on display Saturday in Glendale, Arizona. Arjan Singh Bhullar, a promising heavyweight of Indian heritage, was featured on the prelims. On the main card, another undefeated prospective star in the dynamic Israel Adesanya was given the biggest opportunity of his young career. On paper, it looked like a good idea to help build up these talented competitors. Unfortunately, it didn’t end up working out that way.
The setback suffered by Bhullar was more devastating. A sizeable favorite against Adam Wieczorek, he attained the ignominious distinction of becoming only the second fighter in UFC history to tap to an omoplata. It was a testament to the wrestler’s submission inexperience more than anything else, but one that came on a big stage. Israel Adesanya at least came away with a win and it was clearer than the split decision might indicate, but it was by no means a dazzling performance. Given the buzz he had heading in, Adesanya probably came out of the fight a little bit behind where he was as a potential star attraction when he entered.
Promising fighters are going to have their setbacks, of course. That can’t be avoided in any sport, much less one with as much inherent unpredictability as MMA. However, the examples of Bhullar and Adesanya speak to a broader issue with trying to create stars by featuring them in the UFC relatively early in their stage of development. Early setbacks are only natural, but can still create longstanding perceptions in fans’ heads. Thus, it’s better to have them occur on smaller stages.
Conor McGregor might not have become the superstar that he is if he had been submitted by Artemij Sitenkov and Joseph Duffy in early UFC fights rather than on smaller shows in Ireland. Most UFC fans didn’t witness Anderson Silva’s submission losses to Ryo Chonan and Daiju Takase, making it easier for him to create an aura of invincibility when he got rolling. Clearly, there are fighters that have captured the public imagination despite early UFC losses (think Brock Lesnar vs. Frank Mir or Georges St. Pierre vs. Matt Hughes), but it’s much more common for fans to lose interest in fighters they don’t perceive as special. It’s thus to the benefit of potential stars that the larger fan base doesn’t see them until they’re ready.
The UFC’s signing of young talent has been championed in part by the argument that it allows the promotion to gain control of marketable potential stars who won’t then be scooped up by the competition. However, this argument holds a lot more water for organizations other than the UFC. Bellator MMA, Professional Fighters League, One Championship and Rizin Fighting Federation can gain control of talent they wouldn’t be able to lock up otherwise by striking early. UFC, on the other hand, is where most fighters want to end up with eventually anyway. It’s perceived to be the major league and pays the most money to top talent. UFC can thus let other organizations develop fighters and sign them when they’re ready for the spotlight. They will by and large come calling even if UFC does nothing.
An example of this path was also on full display Saturday. Justin Gaethje spent years in World Series of Fighting developing his thrilling style. When he signed with UFC last year, he was ready to compete at the highest level. Three consecutive fight of the year contenders later, Gaethje has made himself even in defeat a fighter fans are going to want to see for years to come. If things had broken a little differently for him against Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier in fights he very well could have won, he’d be in an even better position still.
It’s exciting in MMA when a fighter bursts out of nowhere to compete at the highest level. Unfortunately, it’s exceedingly rare that a fighter will be ready for that type of competition without years of experience. The choice is then to either watch someone develop over time, suffering setbacks and improving, or to have that person develop outside the brightest spotlight only to show up when they’re close to a total package. The former route makes the fighter more relatable and there is something to be said for relatability. However, the latter route has the potential to make the fighter larger than life. Larger than life is an attribute UFC could use more of in its athletes.
There’s not a lot UFC can do to avoid showing to the world promising fighters who aren’t quite ready, given the number of shows they’re putting on. However, reducing that schedule would offer up yet another benefit if it meant that it took a little bit longer for those fighters to reach the biggest stage. There’s plenty of time still for Arjan Singh Bhullar and Israel Adesanya to make fans forget about their outings Saturday night, but it’s always better to burst onto the scene with performances to remember.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.