Discontent among fighters is at an all-time high.
Calls for unionization have found unprecedented support among both fighters and spectators in the face of the continued power struggle between the UFC and its roster of fighters. Questions of status abound, as fighters openly wonder whether their classification as independent contractors coincides with the many restrictions placed upon them, perhaps more representative of those placed on employees.
This discontent is most broadly expressed among each division’s forgotten elites; fighters whom, despite remarkable achievement and notable wins over fellow elite opposition, have been denied the financial or professional opportunities of their more marketable peers. Fighters such as #KhabibNurmagomedov and #BryanCaraway have openly expressed frustration with their inability to receive a championship fight within their respective divisions.
Tony Ferguson has put together an inscrutable run, winning nine-consecutive UFC fights against world class opposition, although his future is uncertain in the face of a decision win over former divisional kingpin, #RafaelDosAnjos. Ferguson now finds himself an indirect casualty of the ambitions of the UFC’s lightweight king, #ConorMcGregor.
The most marketable fighter in the history of the sport, McGregor decides his own fate in an unprecedented way. While most fighters are at the whim of their promoters, he exercises unique power, possessing the final say on seemingly all matchmaking decisions. Since claiming the featherweight championship in 2015, McGregor, rather than defending the title, opted for a pair of welterweight bouts against veteran #NateDiaz. McGregor would eventually move on to a fight against #EddieAlvarez, making history by unseating Alvarez to become the UFC's first dual-division champion.
As McGregor has now decided to sit out while he awaits fatherhood, his title will remain undefended, leaving Ferguson, and Nurmagomedov, as the most deserving contenders in the division.
But when McGregor ultimately decides to return, who will receive the next crack at the lightweight belt? Ferguson or Nurmagomedov? Or, perhaps it's Diaz? The odds favor none of them specifically.
As the sport’s greatest symbol of accomplishment, many believe that UFC championship opportunities should be awarded to those who deserve them, predicated on in-cage performance and quality wins over elite opposition. The frustration of the forgotten is, thus, understandable.
To possess the skill and athletic ability to perform at the championship levels of the UFC is an immense task, accomplished only by a very small handful of athletes. It is not an unreasonable expectation that they should be appropriately rewarded for their abilities; however, this is often not the case.
The aforementioned Nurmagomedov (24-0, 8-0 UFC), who dominated dos Anjos prior to the Brazilian’s incredible championship run, is considered by many to be the world’s finest lightweight, and the division’s uncrowned king. And while he delivered a fine promo following his #UFC205 win over Michael Johnson, Nurmagomedov remains an elite, but relatively unmarketable fighter, for whom a championship opportunity may never come.
But for the UFC, making championship bouts is as much a fiscal issue as it is one of greatness.
In the minds of many fans, a UFC championship should be contested between a division’s two most credentialed fighters. For others, the belt is merely a prop, and interesting, exciting matchmaking should take precedence over pure athletic merit.
For some fans, there exists an overlap. The desire to see elite fighters receive title opportunities is not motivated merely by feelings of deservedness, at least not in a meritocratic sense; instead, they wish to see deserving athletes receive financial opportunities of the sort afforded only to world champions and, to a lesser extent, title challengers. They lobby for the forgotten few not due to a desire for sporting purity, but to see the fighters they adore receive fiscal security, to the extent possible.
This begs the question of what a UFC championship represents, and how one would be classified as “deserving” of an opportunity.
As Nate Diaz famously stated, “I think that title thing is a fairy tale.” Championship belts in prize fighting occupy a bizarre space. Fundamentally, Diaz is correct; a world title is a marketing tool. Many pay-per-views have historically been sold on the merit of the world champion, regardless of who that individual might be. Even for a fighter whose personality does not resonate with the public, a headlining spot on a UFC pay-per-view with a championship belt in hand guarantees at least the UFC’s lower limit in terms of buy rate. The promotional aspect of a title belt is the one which the UFC is most heavily invested in, as has always been evident in their matchmaking decisions. Purity of sports, as vague a concept as it is, is secondary to net revenue. Cash is the bottom line, and the only priority.
Consequently, the issue which arises is one of dissonance. The audience is attracted not by the shimmering gold, nor by the name emblazoned on its face. They are attracted by the promise of greatness, represented within those twelve pounds of gold. To sell a world title fight to the consumer, the promoter must maintain a careful balancing act, and within this measuring of truths lies their greatest deceit; while championship matchmaking is based on little more than expected revenue, the championships themselves must embody the idea of absolute athletic achievement.
A UFC champion must always be recognized as their division’s greatest fighter, not merely because of their success, but by virtue of the simple fact that they are the champion. It is no coincidence that champions are ineligible for voting in the UFC’s own ranking panel; they occupy a singular spot beyond that of their contemporaries, and regardless of the opinions of those who vote upon these rankings, the champion is infallible. In this very real, tangible sense, they are literally undeniable.
Should the championship lose its intrinsic prestige, the UFC’s bottom line will suffer. The phrase “world champion” is instantly recognizable to all who hear it, and this is fundamental to the UFC’s end game. Without this perception, the belt reverts to what it truly is: merely a mesh of gold and leather. A false idol.
At the point where meritocracy and profitability intersect, the championship exists. To the casual fan, one not so immersed in the UFC’s matchmaking history, the illusion of grandeur is easy to maintain. Conveniently, this type of fan also forms the bulk of the organization’s pay-per-view audience. Though a division’s champion and its greatest fighter are often one in the same, the two are mutually exclusive concepts.
Regardless, with the promise of greatness comes responsibility.
In order to place such weight behind world titles, that greatness must be maintained, and therein lies the problem. In a space where the greatness of a world champion is constantly reaffirmed, expectations are formed on the parts of both the viewer and the competitor. The UFC cannot have it both ways; though many may understand the true purpose of a championship belt, it still represents the apex of a mixed martial artist’s success in the public eye.
In turn, those whose success merits it will understandably feel entitled to compete for the crown. Though frustrated fighters may seem to misunderstand the intent behind these belts, this is only a half truth. The misunderstanding is a purposeful deception, one propagated among the spectators in the arena. Glory is not obtained in the mind of an individual, but in the minds of those who bear witness to their achievements. The idea that a title belt is always held by a division’s greatest fighter is true because we believe it to be true. By enforcing this perception, the UFC pledges to book championship matches with appropriate reverence.
The devil, as always, remains in the details, and such details are lost on the average fan, who lacks the intimate knowledge of the sport necessary to appraise the landscapes of its divisions. This will always be the case. Then, the game becomes simplified; those who are deserving because they sell tickets, and those who are deserving because of their achievements will continue to compete for fleeting opportunities, while the UFC balances their bottom line with the sanctity of their most potent promotional tools. With their revenue most deeply influenced by the least informed sectors of their audience, this equation will continue to yield unfavorable results for the forgotten elites, whose greatness is no less real, but remains a faint signal obfuscated by the noise of their divisions’ most marketable stars.
UFC Champions Beginning 1/1/17:
- Stipe Miocic (heavyweight)
- Daniel Cormier (light heavyweight)
- Michael Bisping (middleweight)
- Tyron Woodley (welterweight)
- Conor McGregor (lightweight)
- Jose Aldo (featherweight)
- Max Holloway (interim featherweight)
- Cody Garbrandt (men's bantamweight)
- Amanda Nunes (women's bantamweight)
- Demetrious Johnson (flyweight)
- Joanna Jedrzejczyk (strawweight)