Filed under: News, UFC
With so many champions looking to make their fortunes outside their own divisions, do UFC titles still have the value they once did? Retired UFC and WEC fighter Danny Downes joins MMAjunkie columnist Ben Fowlkes to discuss in this week’s Trading Shots.
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Downes: On Saturday night at UFC 218, Max Holloway defeated Jose Aldo via third-round knockout to retain the featherweight title. Lest you think there’s finally stability at 145 pounds, Holloway already has eyes on other things.
He expressed interest in eventually moving to lightweight and grabbing a title there. He did say that he wants to solidify his legacy as the featherweight GOAT first, but you know if some of that dual title money comes his way, he’ll jump ship quick.
This got me to thinking about the status of UFC championships in general. Demetrious Johnson and T.J. Dillashaw look like they’re finally going to fight. Holloway has his eyes on another division. Conor McGregor is in the middle of his descent into madness. Geroges St-Pierre (a lifelong welterweight) holds the middleweight title, but it looks like he’s going to be out for an undisclosed amount of time. Daniel Cormier is the reigning light heavyweight champ, but that’s because Jon Jones can’t stay out of trouble.
Couple all these divisional issues with the fact that the UFC throws around interim title shots the way you throw money around after a couple glasses of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and what does a UFC title mean any more? Has the importance of the belts diminished?
Fowlkes: It usually a means a piece of the pay-per-view revenue, so that explains why the titles retain importance in the minds of many fighters. Plus you get to walk around with a big shiny belt having people call you champ, so what’s not to like about that?
But I see your point, and it goes even further than what you mentioned. UFC heavyweight champ Stipe Miocic, for example? He’s been inactive since expressing his dissatisfaction with the state of his pay. And bantamweight champion Dillashaw? The first thing he did upon reclaiming the title is start talking about a move down to flyweight.
Meanwhile, flyweight champion Johnson seems to be the one most committed to defending his title and staying in his lane, and fans are increasingly frustrated by it. Oh, and welterweight champ Tyron Woodley? He might like to try middleweight now.
That’s why I think it’s worth asking how we got here, because it’s not just the UFC’s bad habit of pulling an interim belt out of the supply closet every time it wants to spruce up a fight card (though that’s part of it).
Really though, it’s that champs want to get paid. That’s the whole idea, right? I mean, sure, they also want to prove that they’re the best in the world, but that’s a somewhat hollow feat if it doesn’t come with fame and riches. And how do you get the big money? You get it with the big fights – not just run-of-the-mill title defenses.
This is the reality we have created for ourselves in this sport, and the McGregor phenomenon is a big part of it. He’s by far the highest paid superstar in the game, so it makes sense that other fighters will do what they can to replicate that success.
That’s how you get this trend of weight-class jumping and money-fight hunting, which, when combined with the UFC’s willingness to get selective about when a title makes you the best (and when it makes you another fighter who should shut up and do what you’re told) leads to a gradual devaluing of the titles themselves.
But OK, that’s where we are. Those titles are, as Nate Diaz so presciently declared, a bit of a fairytale. My question is, what do you want to do about it?
Downes: Before you treat a problem, you have to properly diagnose it. You’ve already mentioned a number of contributing factors. Fighters copying the McGregor model and the UFC diminishing the belts are certainly both issues. What you ignore, though, is the root cause of all these symptoms. The major reason why we feel indifference toward UFC tiles nowadays is the lack of depth of the roster.
Look at the rankings. Besides lightweight and perhaps welterweight, what division interests you outside the top three?
If there were more depth in each division, then you wouldn’t have to hop around to find other interesting fights. You would also get more respect from the fans. Who knows, maybe even Carlos Monarrez from the “Detroit Free” Press would have enjoyed himself at UFC 218.
The answer to this problem is to find more high-level MMA fighters to populate these divisions. Easy answer, but extremely difficult to accomplish. But there are a number of things the UFC can do besides hoping another McGregor walks in the door.
The first is to spread the wealth. I know this is probably even less likely than Ronda Rousey’s clone existing, but if you want to attract the best talent, you have to offer competitive wages. This doesn’t just apply to the exodus of talent to Bellator, but the fact that MMA loses out on athletes who choose other sports.
Since the UFC won’t share the money, it could spend some of it on production. The pre-fight video packages and hype are seemingly unchanged from what we were watching a decade ago. The Reebok uniforms make fighters indistinguishable from one another. Where’s the individuality?
We always compare MMA to professional wrestling. Imagine if the WWE only had two characters and only two types of costumes. The matches would get repetitive and boring very quickly.
A lot of things in life rely on luck or timing. MMA is no different. Amazing fight cards fall apart due to injuries. Cards that look boring on paper exceed expectations in reality. Sometimes a plumbing apprentice from Ireland becomes the biggest star in the sport. A lot is left up to chance, but there are tangible things the UFC can do to fix the ennui gripping casual and hardcore fans alike.
Fowlkes: The depth argument works in some weight classes (like the one that rhymes with “schmevyweight”), but not all. Lightweight is arguably the deepest division there is – shoutout to that Eddie Alvarez vs. Justin Gaethje crackerjack for proving that sometimes the hype is more than justified – and still it has one interim champ and one absentee titleholder. And what happened when the interim champ demanded a fight to unify the title? The UFC president rushed to remind him that he doesn’t get to call any shots around here.
Nobody has done more than Dana White to un-promote his own champions. From Woodley to Amanda Nunes to “Mighty Mouse” to Cris Cyborg – even GSP – you’re never more than a quick Google search away from White bashing his own fighters, usually in a transparent effort to undercut their financial demands.
And that’s where your wealth-sharing plan comes in, Comrade Downes. Should the UFC pay fighters more in order to attract talent? Sure, but I don’t think the new owners at Endeavor bought this thing because they saw an opportunity to spend more on the same product. One of the things that made the UFC an attractive purchase was its financial structure, and the fact that you’re essentially buying a whole sport with very few restrictions or regulations impeding your profitability.
The crazy thing is that the pieces are all there. Just look at the young talent on display at UFC 218. If you can’t make Francis Ngannou into a star, you don’t deserve to make a dime. It’s just a matter of making the fighters a priority, which is tough for the UFC, which for so long has operated on the principle of brand over everything.
Ben Fowlkes is MMAjunkie and USA TODAY’s MMA columnist. Danny Downes, a retired UFC and WEC fighter, is an MMAjunkie contributor who has also written for UFC.com and UFC 360. Follow them on twitter at @benfowlkesMMA and @dannyboydownes.