Illustration: Ben Duffy/Sherdog.com
Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.
A dolly crashes threw a bus window. Fighters are hospitalized, title contenders swapped. The culprit, one Conor McGregor, is jailed. We can all thankfully move on from UFC 223, but there is one thing worth revisiting, one thing that didn’t receive its proper shock because no one had much energy left when it happened the day before the event in Brooklyn, New York. It involved Brock Lesnar and the forthcoming superfight between Daniel Cormier and Stipe Miocic.
“What are the chances of him facing the winner of DC-Stipe?” a reporter asked UFC President Dana White at the promotion’s 25th anniversary press conference. “Yeah that’s a possibility,” White said.
Such possibilities, one might argue, are not worth getting up in arms about, especially in this day and age in MMA. However, it’s only a matter of time before White and the talent agency behind him pull the trigger on one of them. Then what?
What if Lesnar does get that heavyweight title fight? What if Nate Diaz, coming off a two- or three-year layoff, fights for the welterweight championship? What if he wins it -- we’ve seen bigger upsets -- and hoists the belt with one hand and gives the finger with the other? Such possibilities turned reality give rise to the real question, one Henry Winkler might have thought of as he strapped on water skis: Where do we go from here?
In the case of “Happy Days,” the sitcom would go on for another six seasons, with ratings falling each successive year. Such stunts do not end in immediate catastrophe but mark the beginning of a slow death.
Perhaps no one in history has bought low and sold high quite as well as previous Ultimate Fighting Championship owners Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, as they turned a $2-million-dollar investment into $4.2 billion when they sold the UFC in 2016. It was a record-breaking year that had everything to do with the company’s two biggest draws -- McGregor and Ronda Rousey -- competing a combined four times. Neither one has been back since.
Rousey has taken to her new home in World Wrestling Entertainment, and McGregor remains on the sidelines while his legal issues play out. The departure of the top draws saw UFC pay-per-view sales drop in 2017. Viewership on Fox is also on the decline, with UFC on Fox 27 in January drawing the lowest ratings in the series’ history.
For these reasons and 4.2 billion others, it comes as no surprise that the new owners -- who represent the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Matt Damon, Justin Timberlake and Rihanna, just to name a few clients -- look to their other stars to regain some of that 2016 magic. The only trouble is that there has to be some semblance of a sport left for it to work in the long run.
Putting popularity above skills has arguably facilitated the growth of MMA, all the way back to the days when Rickson Gracie faced Nobuhiko Takada, a Japanese pro wrestling star whose penchant for fixing matches extended to MMA. “Money fights,” as they are known today, undermine the fans, the fighters and the UFC product itself. Taken to desperate extremes, they leave us with nowhere else to go.
Fans today are not so desperate for MMA content so much as they are wading through an endless stream of it; and that’s assuming we’re only talking about what the UFC is offering. The oversaturation problem becomes an even greater issue when few matches have real implications. While other professional sports leagues are guilty of extending the season for no other reason than to make more money, it still ultimately leads to the championship. We can’t be so sure with the UFC; while it can’t choose its champions, it can and does choose its contenders, and the process isn’t always fair.
To a certain extent, even the purest among us can accept this. A little disorder is also what makes MMA exciting in a way no other sport can replicate. In fact, surprise title shots have offered some of the most memorable moments. No one thought back in 2004 that lightweight B.J. Penn would choke out welterweight champion Matt Hughes; few expected Randy Couture to come out of retirement and beat the breaks off of heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia; and probably no one other than Matt Serra and his corner thought he would knock out George St. Pierre to win the welterweight title. Given their track record, we cannot now suddenly begrudge the UFC for sometimes dipping into these waters, because it has always done it.
However, there has usually been some justification to these matchups -- apart from the necessity of replacing an injured fighter -- and some effort to appease those who will call shenanigans. Before Penn upset Hughes, he already built his reputation as “The Prodigy” at 155 pounds; given the heavyweight picture back when Couture returned, no one much complained about the former two-time heavyweight champion and fan favorite stepping in to face Sylvia; and Serra won, for it what it’s worth, Season 4 of “The Ultimate Fighter” fair and square.
Recent examples have been a harder to stomach, two of them involving then-middleweight champion Michael Bisping. For however much his first title challenger, Dan Henderson, seemed bogus -- the veteran had only won two of his previous five fights going in -- he was ostensibly more qualified than the next: St. Pierre, who held a division record of 0-0 and who was coming off of a four-year layoff no less. This is about as far it can go without forcing loyal fans to start asking themselves some existential questions and begin rethinking their commitment to the UFC -- a commitment that’s more time-consuming and more expensive than it has ever been. If money fights become the new business model, what’s the use in watching any of the others?
Perhaps the best way to draw casual fans while not insulting loyal hardcores is best exemplified by “CM Punk’s” debut at UFC 203. As it was, Punk’s beating took place on the middle of the pay-per-view card. It was a noteworthy story but not the main one. That spot still belonged to Stipe Miocic, who closed out the show by knocking out perennial top heavyweight contender Alistair Overeem and hoisting the title belt to his roaring fellow Clevelanders. There was no doubt then that they had a bona fide champion.
Such is the kind of history that endures, the kind that makes and keeps loyal fans. Anything else is best place down a peg.
For however much money fights turnoff loyal fans, fighters carry the true burden of them. Professional fighters, to whatever degree they may be masters of chaos inside the cage, require some order from the promotion to keep getting in there. Each time the UFC circumvents its own rankings system, it creates another disgruntled “contractor.”
“It’s a joke,” Luke Rockhold said in an interview on “The MMA Hour” when asked about St. Pierre’s title shot against Bisping. “The company is kind of losing it these days. I don’t know what happened to the old company where the best fought the best, what built this company. Now it’s just a spectator sport, putting freak shows together.”
Rockhold’s knockout loss to Bisping was nothing short of a shocking upset, one the short-lived champion was vying to avenge or at least find some clarity on how he can work his way back.
“There’s nothing I want more than to fight,” he said, “but when you fight, there’s gotta be a goal. I fight to be the best, to win titles, that championship dollar. That’s what it’s all about. There’s no path to that, there’s no light at the end of the tunnel, so what’s the [expletive] point?”
After defeating David Branch, Rockhold would eventually go on to challenge for the interim middleweight title. He wouldn’t be the last disgruntled former champion, however. More recently, Tony Ferguson was stripped of his interim lightweight belt after succumbing to a freak injury, dashing his long-awaited bout with Khabib Nurmagomedov for the fourth time. This was despite Ferguson being regarded as simply “lightweight champion” at the press conference for UFC 223 two months prior. In a later interview with “The MMA Hour,” Ferguson confessed that he was still unsure what belt was on the line.
“Yeah, it bothers me,” he said. “It bothers the s--- out of me. I’m the [expletive] champ and we don’t know if we are fighting for the real belt or not? Dana White is telling one thing on one side of the curtain, and on the other side, he’s saying, ‘No, McGregor is the champion.”
White revealed the plan to strip McGregor of his lightweight title the moment the Ferguson-Nurmagomedov fight began. This stipulation was made, he explained, to avoid a situation where there would be no lightweight champion, just in case the title fight never materialized; of course, that’s what happened. Trying to explain White’s reasoning is downright confusing, and the lengths to which the UFC went to keep McGregor as champion was embarrassing, as well. Exercising fair policy when it comes to a title shot is one thing; giving fighters different rules to compete under is another.
Given that it had been about four and a half years since he last fought, the return of Brock Lesnar at UFC 200 came as a genuine surprise. The surprise, however, came at a cost and with an exception to the rules, as the UFC exercised its right to allow Lesnar to forgo the four-months of anti-doping testing to which other fighters, including opponent Mark Hunt, were subjected. Lesnar would only have to do one month of testing, and he failed. The results of the test only came back after the fight, which he won. While the match would eventually be ruled a no-contest, Hunt went on a tirade on “The MMA Hour,” not over the result but over the company’s willingness to risk his safety.
“It’s not looking good for the sport,” he said. “It looks like a bunch of [expletive] crooks. Crooks and cheaters in this sport, that’s all it is.”
After learning about Lesnar’s failed drug test, the MMA veteran went to work, calling on other fighters to join him in his movement to create a fighter’s association. He’s not the first to promote the idea.
“I’m looking at the long term of it,” he said. “These companies don’t give a rat’s ass about [expletive] us. They just throw you under the bus like they’ve been doing me, and sooner or later, I’m gonna run into someone who’s really gonna put me in trouble; and then what’s gonna happen about it? Nothing. If it’s not me, it’s gonna be one of you. It’s time to stand up, stick together and move forward with this. These companies don’t make nothing without us.”
No less than a month later, the formation of the Professional Fighters Association was announced. There have been more organizing efforts since, including Project Spearhead, launched by former UFC women’s bantamweight Leslie Smith. Money fights, like life, are often unfair. However, backing fighters into corners is unwise. They have shown a tendency to fight back, form unions and call companies on questionable practices. The UFC undoubtedly wants its fighters to be held in the same regard as other professional athletes, but it still has a long way to go.
How can fighters aspire to be the best if winning comes with no guarantees? How can they be expected risk everything when toeing the line works against them? At a bare minimum, pro athletes need a fair and even playing field in to carry their sport -- let alone any particular brand -- into the future.
After four and a half rounds of pummeling from Chael Sonnen, a weary Anderson Silva was back on the bottom. He trapped Sonnen’s wrist and slid his left leg over his shoulder. He locked his feet together, stretched for his right foot, grabbed it and adjusted. The triangle was in place and Sonnen knew he was in trouble. The wrestler got to his feet, knelt, fell back and threw his right leg over Silva’s body. It was the correct defense, but he had forgotten about his left arm jetting out. Silva grimaced, used his last bit of energy to keep the hold together and reefed down on the exposed arm. Sonnen’s free hand flailed on Silva’s thigh. “He’s tapping!” screamed Joe Rogan.
Any fan of sports is by some measure also a fan of drama, and nowhere else are the two so beautifully intertwined than in a padded chain-linked fence. There is a reason, though, that some marquee matches are immortalized and others can’t be forgotten quickly enough. While a dramatic finish has something to do with it, the other ingredient is merit. While Sonnen is best known for being MMA’s first great trash-talker, he only broke out as such after actually earning his No. 1 contender spot to face Silva.
No one remembers Sonnen’s third title shot against Jon Jones because it never should have happened in the first place; few are compelled to go back and watch a 2-1 Lesnar’s clubbing of Couture; and no one in their right mind re-watches McGregor-Floyd Mayweather.
Not only are money fights often unmemorable, but they crowd out the spotlight from those that sorely deserve it, even a 5-foot-3 champion. Despite being heralded by the UFC, fans, fighters and analysts as perhaps the greatest and most complete fighter we’ve ever seen, Demetrious Johnson has faced open criticism from White for his aversion to “superfights,” namely the proposed clash with bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw. Johnson opted instead to face the next contender in his division: Ray Borg.
“You want Ray Borg, we’ll give you Ray Borg,” White said in an interview with MMAJunkie.com. “I’m sure the fans will be clamoring for it. Ticket sales will be through the roof and pay-per-views will be off the charts.”
What followed in his match with Borg was unanimously considered the “Submission of the Year” -- a suplex into a midair armbar, or as “Mighty Mouse” coined it, “the mighty wiz bar.” It capped his 11th straight title defense, the most in UFC history. While it’s true that no string of title defenses or spectacular finishes will give Johnson the “it factor,” some focused promotional attention -- or at the very least aversion by the company president to mock the man -- might have bared more witnesses to the champion’s historic feet.
On the other side the spectrum, Ronda Rousey’s return at the end of 2016 was billed as the second coming, with the words “She’s Back” bolded on the posters. The phrase was a promotional narrative that had very little to do with the woman she was facing: bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes. Rogan has been openly critical about the company's promotion of the fight, even citing conversations he overheard among what he called “executive-type people.”
“I was like ‘Wow,’” Rogan said on his podcast, “you guys have this idea about how it’s going to go down. They had this idea that she was just going to go in there and storm the castle.” They were so certain, Rogan continued, that “they were calling (Nunes) cannon fodder.”
Given her swift technical knockout loss to Nunes and her refusal to fulfill any media obligations leading up to the fight, it turned out that Rousey was never really back. Worse still, given her lack of promotion, Nunes didn’t get a chance to arrive. It’s one thing to bank on superstardom in Hollywood and another to do so in controlled fist fighting, where there are no retakes, no scripts and sometimes no better advice to follow than to, as longtime trainer Ray Longo put it to Chris Weidman moments before he became middleweight champion, “punch a hole in his [expletive] chest.”
If new UFC owner Endeavor still needs lessons in the differences between entertainment and reality, the MMA gods will be all too happy to keep laying them down. Attempting to defy them only serves to upend those memorable and real moments, the same kind of moments upon which the company and the sport were built.
For all that you could say about being a sports fans, it is an exercise in patience and loyalty. Fans of other sports invest a lifetime following their team and repeatedly watching them lose, all for the mere hope that it may one day win the big one. As the UFC marks is 25th year, perhaps there is no better time for fans and executive types alike to recognize just how spoiled we’ve all become.
There have been so many “Oh, my God moments” -- Lorenzo Fertitta coined the term years ago -- that we’ve come not only to expect them but for each one be crazier than the last. To some extent, the unpredictable nature of the sport and the high quality of the UFC produce makes it hard not to develop this expectation. For all intents and purposes, though, the UFC has settled into its place; and while this place may be far beyond what was ever imagined in the beginning, it’s still not where White and those of us who were along for the ride had hoped it would be back when he routinely call it “the fastest growing sport of the world.”
Now the preeminent brand has come to a crossroads: to dive headlong into the money fights that brings us temporarily to that “mainstream” place or to unstrap the water skis and step back into the realm of sports. The ladder will bring the UFC into the next 25 years; the former will turn it into something else. Though it’s true that more people watch when shiny belts are doled out, when water bottles are thrown at press conferences and, sadly, even when dollies are thrown through bus windows, sports endure because they answer an age-old question: Who is the best? Their answers rarely come in the form of a Hollywood ending but oftentimes in a manner as sobering as life itself.
The chaotic build up to UFC 223 saw Al Iaquinta given the chance to fight for the lightweight title. It took a freak injury, another fighter missing weight and a few other insane turns of events, including having to have his underwear weighed. Nonetheless, Iaquinta was 155.2 pounds when he stepped in cage to face the undefeated Nurmagomedov -- a problem the UFC would worry about later.
Magic was in the air on April 7 and not only because it was 11 years to the day that Iaquinta’s cornerman, Serra, shocked the MMA world and knocked out St. Pierre. Longo was also at Iaquinta’s side. Plus, there was all the drama that had to happen for the New Yorker to be there standing under the lights in the main event. That magic slowly left the Barclays Centre, as Nurmagomedov cruised to a decision win. The Dagestani had his own ideas for the future.
“I’m gonna change this game,” Nurmagomedov said at the post-fight press conference. “Now, [there’s] only one champion. No more fake champions, no more champion who never defends his title. This champion wants to defend his title.”
This fan just wants to see it play out.
M.G. Myers is a freelance writer from Ottawa, Canada.