It’s not uncommon for the UFC to tout the unpredictable nature of MMA as one of the sport’s major selling points.
In fact, the phrase ‘anything can happen’ has become a staple of UFC president Dana White’s interactions with the media. There have been times when it seemed like a lazy, generic and somewhat pathetic effort to promote a fight between a ripped, ready fighter and a short-notice blow-in, but this upset filled year has lent tremendous weight to the claim.
In a sport where injury induced withdrawals are frustratingly common, it’s a nice thing to be able to fall back on.
However, one has to wonder whether or not this will continue to be a good thing for the company and the sport as a whole. Everyone revels in the unexpected, but much of the appeal comes from irregularity. Really big shocks don’t happen with such frequency in other sports, and that’s what makes them special. When surprises start to occur all the time, they become…well, less surprising.
In other words the novelty is bound to wear off at some point.
Another drawback is that it becomes much harder to build stars in an environment that so oppressively hinders momentum.
Perhaps most troublesome of all however, is the impact that constant instability can have on a division. In recent months, we have seen the power structures of both the UFC middleweight and women’s bantamweight divisions reduced to rubble by multiple shocking title changes.
Sure, this can be exciting, but with champions only making a couple of title defences in a year, it can also lead to deserving contenders dropping down the pecking order and losing out on their shot at the gold in the ensuing shake-up. Not to mention that it has a tendency to breed inactivity, with those who have supposedly earned number one contender status choosing to sit out and wait for their opportunity as opposed to taking the risk of competing in the interim.
On Saturday night at UFC 201, a fighter who made that very decision cast another division into a state of turmoil.
Tyron Woodley was promised a shot at Robbie Lawler’s welterweight title after his bout with Johny Hendricks fell apart only days in advance of UFC 192. Trusting that the promotion would honor their word, a serious leap of faith, and not wanting to risk a catastrophic defeat before he was awarded his chance, Woodley lay in wait. By the time he stepped into the octagon to face the ‘Ruthless’ one, he had not fought in 547 days.
The powerfully built Missouri native’s decision paid off however, as he smashed Lawler to pieces just over two minutes into the very first round. And oh what a crowded mess he created.
Stephen Thompson is currently the number-one contender for the gold, a status he earned with a decision victory over former title challenger Rory MacDonald in June. But the defeated former champion, Lawler, indicated at the post-fight presser that he feels deserving of a shot at redemption.
Then there is Carlos Condit and Demian Maia.
The dangerous pair meet each other on August 27th and the winner is also likely to feel some sense of entitlement. After all, Condit pushed Lawler to his limit back in January and many felt he should have been crowned champion that night. While the clingy Brazilian bogeyman has won five straight fights, beating the likes of Neil Magny, Gunnar Nelson and Matt Brown along the way.
To make matters worse, Woodley announced during a post-fight appearance on Fox Sports 1 that he had little interest in fighting any of those guys next. Instead, the new champion stated that he wants a big money showdown with Nick Diaz, who will soon return from suspension.
It’s a situation that mirrors the mire at middleweight with astounding symmetry.
Despite the swathe of worthy challengers seeking a shot at him after he dethroned Luke Rockhold in June, Michael Bisping seemed to find a potentially lucrative rematch with the division’s number 13 ranked fighter, Dan Henderson, most appealing. UFC brass shared the Englishman’s enthusiasm and that fight looks likely to happen in October or November.
This precedent must worry Thompson, Lawler, Maia and Condit, as it shows that the promotion is willing to dispense of any pretence that it’s rankings have meaning if there is money to be made. A returning Diaz fighting for the title would certainly draw eyes and, as a result, dollars.
Obviously attempting to control the frequency of upsets isn’t a viable way to avoid such chaotic situations. That would lead the UFC down the path that boxing promoters have trodden in recent years, setting up fights that protect their biggest stars. But things would be a lot less messy in the wake of unexpected results if the company adopted a more rigid system for identifying the top contenders.
In the interest of fairness and stability, this is the only way forward.