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On Friday, Oct. 19, the Ultimate Fighting Championship came back to one of its favorite stomping grounds to host UFC on ESPN 6 at the TD Garden Arena in Boston. The card featured the rebooking of Jeremy Stephens vs. Yair Rodriguez, a showcase performance for Maycee Barber and a questionable decision by Greg Hardy. In the main event, former UFC middleweight champion Chris Weidman tried his hand at moving up to 205, only to be ferociously knocked out by undefeated light heavyweight contender Dominick Reyes.
While there were several calls for Weidman to strongly consider hanging up the gloves, that wasn’t the only topic of discussion following the event. After his violent performance, many fans and pundits believed that Reyes had earned a title shot against 205-pound kingpin Jon Jones, citing his wins over Ovince St. Preux, Volkan Oezdemir, Jared Cannonier and now Weidman as their reasoning. Given that light heavyweight is one of the UFC’s thinnest divisions in terms of contenders, there’s a strong likelihood that “The Devastator” will be next in line for a chance at dethroning one of the most dominant champions in the history of the promotion.
Using a win over Weidman as the catalyst for that opportunity, however, is an interesting proposition. Ever since losing his title to Luke Rockhold by way of TKO at UFC 194, the former undefeated middleweight champion has struggled to find his groove after taking on a “who’s who” of 185-pound contenders. While he has looked competitive in the majority of those fights, he has taken significant damage in all of them, even getting knocked down in his lone win over Gastelum during that time span. While moving up a weight class has certainly revitalized the careers of a few fighters (Robert Whittaker, Anthony Smith and Thiago Santos for example) the result of the Friday night fight didn’t exactly come as a shock to most fans, especially given that Rockhold’s knockout loss to Jan Blachowicz at UFC 239 proved a move up doesn’t necessarily help one’s ability to take a punch.
So why then does a win over a struggling fighter who hasn’t won a bout since 2017, give an undefeated contender like Reyes a boost for a title shot? What gives cause to the belief that if you finish a man who has never before competed in a certain weight class, it should leapfrog you to the front of the line for a shot at that division’s most lucrative prize?
It’s because Reyes didn’t beat just anybody who fits the above description -- he beat Chris Weidman, a fighter that has a name in the sport.
When it comes to fighters who have carved out something of a legacy for themselves in MMA, fans and media can often turn a blind eye to an athlete’s current situation in favor of nostalgia. Back at UFC 234 when Israel Adesanya defeated MMA legend Anderson Silva by unanimous decision, the promotion had stated that the winner of bout would receive a middleweight title shot, to which most fans and pundits agreed was a logical decision. At the time “The Spider” held a pitiful record of 1-4-1 in his last six with the lone win being a controversial decision over Derek Brunson, and although Adesanya certainly proved himself to be championship material, a win over the No. 15 ranked Silva would have left most desiring at least one more bout for “The Last Stylebender” before a title shot had it been against any other name. If Silva had ended up victorious, it would have meant the 43-year-old Brazilian being granted a title shot off of a single win over a somewhat-tested prospect.
That type of title shot, however, is not without precedent. Dan Henderson was granted a championship match against Michael Bisping despite a 2-5 record in his last seven bouts because he defeated a very much struggling Hector Lombard by TKO at UFC 199. While the 14th ranked Henderson’s comeback victory over “Showeather” hardly merited a chance at the middleweight strap, the legendary fighter had a highlight-reel knockout over the then-current champ and was looking to retire after his next fight. After Bisping stoked the flames of the idea, the promotion booked the bout and once again fans and media accepted the epic rematch as the right fight to make, despite there being almost no grounds for it from a meritocratic standpoint.
These are just a few examples of how a fighter’s legacy can not only boost their own opportunities within the sport, but the opportunities of their opponents as well. When a past-their-prime former champion with a worsening record defeats one or two prospects, they may be granted an immediate No. 1 contender bout or even title shot simply because of what they once did at their peak. If an up-and-coming or middling fighter is able to get past a legend who holds name value from the athlete they once were, they too may get to skip the line to title contention or at the very least increase their visibility to in the MMA world (i.e. the rise of Smith after knocking out a Rashad Evans on a five-fight losing streak).
The power of having a name in MMA is a coveted position. Whether it allows for more favorable matchups on the way to a title shot, or a significant increase in compensation, a name in MMA can help a fighter extend their career-long after they’ve lost the belt or failed to bounce back from a signature win. Even though pay-per-views points are not nearly as much of a factor as they once were given the UFC’s deal with ESPN Plus, building hype and trying to follow in the footsteps of superstars like Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey is still the most advantageous and lucrative move for most fighters, and fans shouldn’t expect athletes to stop trying to build their name anytime soon.