The Bottom Line: The Downside of Fighters Making the Rules

By: Todd Martin
Oct 10, 2017

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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Following the conclusion of UFC 216 on Saturday in Las Vegas, the time came for the announcers to discuss what comes next for the participants in the main event. The logical next matchup to promote isn’t a tricky call. Newly crowned interim lightweight champion Tony Ferguson, in the midst of a 10-fight winning streak, should battle undisputed titleholder Conor McGregor to prove which one is the best fighter at 155 pounds. That is, after all, the whole point of creating an interim title.

Daniel Cormier went in another direction. Recognizing the behind-the-scenes buzz that McGregor feels a third bout with Nate Diaz would be more profitable, Cormier openly advocated for McGregor-Diaz instead, despite acknowledging that Diaz is 6-4 in his last 10 fights.

“Conor McGregor makes the rules,” Cormier said. “This is Conor McGregor. And why not? Conor McGregor should make the rules.”

McGregor does make the rules. That much is true. McGregor has more leverage than any fighter in Ultimate Fighting Championship history coming off his superfight with Floyd Mayweather. Whether McGregor should make the rules is a completely different story. It’s hard to figure how that serves anyone in the sport other than McGregor himself. However, that’s not the most striking part of all. Even if McGregor is able to elect to fight a much, much less deserving challenger in his first title defense in over a year, hearing UFC announcers point this out to fans watching on pay-per-view is truly bewildering.

Fighters’ interests are different than those of promoters, fans, journalists and other fighters. Fighters are looking to make the most money during small windows of opportunity, and losing to dangerous, lesser-known fighters doesn’t help one’s drawing ability. Fans have benefited from the UFC system that steers fighters towards the most deserving opponents, as opposed to boxing, where boxers have much more power and the most desired fights often never happen.

As MMA fighters have gained more power, they’ve been able to dictate opponents more than they could in the past. That, along with the UFC’s bizarre fetish for fighter callouts, has created a changing culture where more fighters than ever before are trying to carefully target the best risk-reward matchups rather than just being open to fighting anyone. This is good for star fighters and not as good for rising and soft-spoken fighters. It’s not a positive development for fans, and it’s even worse if they catch on to the trend. This is something we’re already seeing with individual fighters.

McGregor has always looked out for McGregor, which is understandable. However, this often collides with the larger interests of his sport. The featherweight and lightweight divisions have been badly damaged because McGregor has basically held them hostage for years while never defending a title. The situation is more likely to get worse than better because McGregor built his name taking risks. Now that he’s a megastar, risks are no longer so much in his interest. He’s going to be tempted by novelty fights with charismatic opponents rather than the best current fighters.

McGregor’s situation has been discussed the most, but he’s far from the only fighter making the rules with negative consequences. The return of the great Georges St. Pierre next month will of course be a big event, but it doesn’t feel as big as it should. This is one of the biggest superstars in the history of the sport with no unavenged losses over the course of his career, and he is returning after a long hiatus having never lost his title. This should be one of the biggest fights in years, but it remains to be seen if it will end up rising to that level. A big part of that relates to the circumstances of St. Pierre’s return.

Rather than returning to regain the welterweight title he never lost, St. Pierre instead has openly lobbied for UFC middleweight champion Michael Bisping. UFC President Dana White made it clear he wanted St. Pierre to fight for the welterweight title instead but ended up giving in after Tyron Woodley’s disappointing fight with Demian Maia. This whole escapade ended up hurting St. Pierre on a number of levels.

The heart of the problem is that St. Pierre’s appeal was always his everyman personality. Fans related to St. Pierre as hardworking, soft spoken and relatable. The optics of St. Pierre wielding political power and getting preferential treatment are worse for him than pretty much any other fighter. It’s the exact opposite of how fans want to think of St. Pierre. Beyond the general sentiment towards St. Pierre’s return, there’s also the specific situation of targeting a fight with Bisping. “The Count” has said he thinks St. Pierre picked that fight because he viewed him as an easier opponent. It’s hard to imagine he’s the only one thinking that. This is the perpetual problem that comes up when fighters are making their own fights. Fans think they’re choosing easier matchups even if that isn’t their mentality, and it ends up diminishing them. Beyond that, St. Pierre’s return has jammed up the middleweight division just like McGregor’s moves jammed up the featherweight and lightweight divisions. This is frustrating for fans in general and infuriating for the fans of the top contenders.

Like McGregor and St. Pierre, Demetrious Johnson is another fighter hurt by his decision to pick opponents. Johnson has never had the popularity of the other two, but it still hurts his image when he fought so hard to avoid taking on T.J. Dillashaw, the toughest opponent he would have faced in years. Johnson’s virtuoso performance against Ray Borg at UFC 216 was trumpeted by journalists, but many fans were likely turned off by Johnson toying with someone who lost to Justin Scoggins three fights ago rather than stepping up to the challenge of a great former champion who volunteered to move down in weight.

In recent years, those arguing in favor of Johnson as the Greatest of All-Time have needed to respond to the counterpoint that he hasn’t fought the same level of competition as the other contenders for the crown. The frequent response was that Johnson could only fight the opponents that were presented him, but that argument went up in smoke when “Mighty Mouse” made his own rules about who he will defend against.

McGregor, St. Pierre and Johnson are all phenomenal fighters, and they have earned the right to stick up for their own interests. However, the knowledge that fighters are picking their fights is inherently corrosive. It makes the fighters look less courageous; it makes their opponents look less imposing; and it makes the unchosen potential opponents more alluring. Thus, even in instances when fighters do wield that sort of power, it’s in everyone’s best interest to at least keep it quiet rather than broadcasting it to the world.

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.

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