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After missing out on the biggest fight of his career this past weekend when opponent Khabib Nurmagomedov failed to weigh in, Tony Ferguson was dealing with the news surprisingly well. He even made a public statement imploring his fans to still buy the UFC 209 pay-per-view even though “the people’s main event” was cancelled. Ferguson came off as a professional who made weight, a company man, and someone who was being taken care of.
Then he found out he wasn’t making his show money for the cancelled fight.
As much as everyone keeps talking about how the Ultimate Fighting Championship is seemingly nickle-and-diming fighters at a new level since the promotion was purchased by WME-IMG, it doesn’t always seem like a lot of mixed martial arts fans understand exactly what a cluster of a situation this is. With $1.8 billion of the $4 billion purchase price coming by way of debt financing, it’s not just the purchase price that WME has to make back. The interest alone is in the $137 million a year range. So you can see how the new owners have moved into a precarious position.
The state of the UFC right now is clearly one where the new ownership came in banking on 2016’s pay-per-view success while relying on the notoriously low fighter pay. Whether or not this was realistic in the first place is highly debatable, but either way, the landscape changed at a breakneck pace. Jon Jones, not a huge draw, but bigger than most, failed a drug test days after the sale and less than a week before it was announced. Returning attraction Brock Lesnar failed multiple tests around the same card Jones was on, UFC 200. The top draw in the company, Conor McGregor, became a double champion...and quickly went on an indefinite paternity leave while angling for a boxing match with Floyd Mayweather Jr.. And Ronda Rousey, the UFC’s biggest mainstream star, is ostensibly retired after an embarrassing performance where WME brass was convinced she would run through bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes, who shellacked her.
The ripple effects have become especially noticeable in the last several weeks. Layoffs were, realistically, not surprising due to the new parent company wanting to remove redundancies. But what’s been happening lately on the talent end is very different in that the roster has been hemorrhaging ranked fighters at a record pace.
Sure, some, like Zach Makovsky were expected due to losing streaks, and long-time welterweight contender Rick Story has gone on a voluntary hiatus, but some of the names are just mind boggling. Lorenz Larkin, who emphatically entered the top 10 at welterweight by running through Neil Magny in August (and would likely be even higher in the rankings now because his previous win was over new top contender Jorge Masvidal), fought out his contract. In spite of being a top contender, charismatic, and arguably one of the five or ten most exciting fighters to watch on the whole roster, he was stalled in negotiations, removed from the rankings, and seemingly sent on his way to Bellator MMA. Surging light heavyweight contender Misha Cirkunov eventually made a deal, but only after Dana White buried him to the media for “flak[ing] out” on a new contract when he did the same thing as Larkin. This even though he’s a finishing machine and relatively young in the UFC’s aging, shallow former showpiece division.
Perhaps more telling than the plight of the cut contenders was that the promotion cut a certain fighter with a losing record. Women’s bantamweight Jessamyn Duke has not won a MMA fight since her “Ultimate Fighter 18 Finale” victory over Peggy Morgan, who was immediately cut. She has lost five fights in a row, with the last two coming under the Invicta Fighting Championships banner while still under UFC contract. With how out of the ordinary it was that she was getting that extra shot, it seemed as if the former top prospect, who’s now 3-5 (1 NC), was kept in the promotion as a favor to training partner and friend Rousey. And where’s Rousey now?
Where this all gets concerning is that, while many of these fighters going away hurts the quality of fights offered by the UFC tremendously, this honestly is completely understandable from a fiscal point of view. This isn’t the old Zuffa where the owners were just lining their pockets at the expense of the fighters. The new owners could lose the company if they don’t make massive profits each year. What would have just been cheap before is now a legitimate means of self-preservation. WME-IMG did not get into this game to raise costs, and they bought in via a way that makes it so that’s not even an option on the table.
If you’re fighting in the UFC? That’s not a good thing.