Casualties of the UFC’s Quest for Legitimacy

By: Eric Stinton
May 29, 2018

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.

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If you missed UFC Fight Night 130 on Sunday, you didn’t miss much. There were 11 fights of little memorable action and even less divisional relevance. The only fight that did have potential to shake up things -- the main event -- was a glorified staring contest that was marred by a botched weight cut and even more botched scorecards.

Despite airing a day later than usual and the added regional flavor of Liverpool, England, the card fell flatly into the larger pile of generic combat into which the Ultimate Fighting Championship has morphed. Without the structure that a season and postseason provides and absent any regular major events to look forward to like tennis, the relentless march of meaningless fight cards can at times feel like Penrose steps as a stairmaster; we move forward through the calendar but are perpetually looking out toward the next platform, and damn does it get exhausting to keep up with.

It wasn’t always like this, though. MMA -- and let’s be real, the UFC has long been synonymous with the sport itself -- was appealing at first because it was so different and strange. It existed on the fringes of sports and society, inhabited by characters as audacious as they were straight-up odd. If the mainstream sports were living in posh mansions, MMA was the rough-and-tumble kid who just moved to the outskirts of town glaring through the gates. Even the more mainstream athletes of yesteryear -- the Chuck Liddells, Tito Ortizes and Ken Shamrocks et al -- were less like NFL or NBA players and more like comic book characters. For all its esotericism, MMA was fun because it was unpredictable and dangerous and weird.

Much of that character was lost during the UFC’s quest for mainstream recognition. The number of events increased every year until 2014, plateauing in the low- to mid-40s where it is now. The Reebok deal further diluted the personality of the sport by muffling the personalities of the fighters. As the UFC’s prominence grew, the sport slowly shed the scales that made it unique in exchange for the sterile familiarity of cellophane.

Of course, this quest has not been an inherent evil. The addition of rules unquestionably made the sport more watchable, and the level of athlete has improved along with the UFC’s broader recognizability. Nobody is pouring out any liquor for backyard tough guys in Condom Depot spandex exchanging nut shots. The increased profitability of the UFC ensures that the sport will continue, and as much as that feels like an inevitability now, that wasn’t always the case. Perhaps most importantly, fighters get paid more than they used to, and that’s always a good thing.

Yet these steps of progress came with a cost, and we continue to pay the price, albeit in different currency. Fighter pay has not increased commensurately with the growth of the UFC. Consider the deal that the UFC just inked with ESPN. Here’s what UFC President Dana White had to say about it: “Our last deal was $116 million a year. This one is $300 million … I’ve been in Maine blowing my brains out for three days celebrating. That’s how good it is.” That’s a lot of millions in additional revenue. Guess how much of it goes to the fighters. Your most cynical answer was probably your most accurate. As Bloody Elbow’s John Nash reported in a financial breakdown of the deal: “… athlete costs such as compensation, insurance, medical and travel, [are] treated as something like fixed cost that does not rise with additional contracted revenue.” Put simply, while White blows his brains out, those who accumulate brain damage get nothing. We’ll ignore for now the continuous robbery of Reebok payout that has supplanted a large chunk of fighters’ sponsorship earnings. Just more casualties on the quest for mainstream legitimacy.

You may be thinking that the UFC’s additional revenue ultimately benefits we fans, and in many ways, that’s true. With UFC Fight Pass and soon ESPN+, the sport is easier to watch than ever, and despite the stubborn insistence of “Face the Pain” through the years, the production value of UFC events is excellent. The company puts on a phenomenal live show.

At the same time, however, there have been some backsteps. Most notably has been the steady leak of top-flight talent. Just recently, Yair Rodriguez was cut, allegedly for turning down too many fights. Never mind that Rodriguez disputes this narrative or that other fighters like Nate Diaz have been able to pass on fights without facing such repercussions. The fact is he was one of the most exciting fighters to watch in one of the most exciting divisions in the promotion, and he was sent packing for reasons that don’t stand up to scrutiny. It is perfectly reasonable to expect fighters to take fights. You could argue that athletes abdicating control over matchmaking to a larger body or process is a mark of legitimacy. In other sports, teams must compete against each other, or there are tournaments that dictate competition. Thus, it is understandable that the UFC wants to have the ultimate leverage when it comes to matchmaking.

Yet in Rodriguez’ case, the punishment seems petty and vindictive. Keep in mind, these are independent contractors who don’t get paid if they don’t fight; it was no financial burden for Rodriguez -- or any fighter -- to stay on the sidelines. Cutting him was clearly a power play, as was getting stingy with Rory MacDonald, Gegard Mousasi, Ryan Bader, Phil Davis, etcetera ad nauseam. The fans do not benefit from letting the best fighters walk away.

These sorts of casualties may or may not be worth the progress the UFC has made -- that’s up to you to decide -- but they are, in fact, casualties and usually they are the result of the UFC brass’ obstinacy and ego, not out of some systemic necessity. There is no denying that MMA has only gotten better in the last 10-plus years, but that doesn’t mean the titans of the industry shouldn’t be held accountable for their actions. The reality is that these casualties will continue to persist. The UFC operates in the way it does for the same simple reason a dog licks its genitals: because it can.

Eric Stinton is a writer and a teacher from Kailua, Hawaii. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014 and has published fiction, nonfiction and journalism in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Eastlit, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat and Vice, among others. He currently lives with his fiancée and dachshund in Seoul. You can find his work at ericstinton.com.

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