In advance of this weekend’s UFC 201, it’s worth pondering the resurgence of the UFC’s Welterweight Champion, ‘Ruthless’ Robbie Lawler.
His has been a road full of beautiful violence. However, it has also been fraught with potholes. He kicked off his career with a great 7-0 start, including three straight UFC victories. Then he lost three of his next four fights, left the UFC, and started over again.
Over the next seven or so years Lawler would continue his struggles with consistency and fight tactics. He would go on streaks and then hit slumps. Lather, rinse, repeat. In 2013 Lawler was back in the UFC courtesy of their acquisition of Strikeforce and at that point it certainly seemed Lawler’s best days were behind him. He was 3-5 in his last eight fights and had been primarily fighting as an undersized middleweight.
Then the totally unexpected happened. Without any real precedent, Lawler became frighteningly polished and was suddenly able to meld mindless aggression with tactics. It was a sight to behold, and one of the greatest career turnarounds that has ever been witnessed. It also taught us a valuable lesson about MMA – you cannot accurately predict a fighter’s career arc or potential.
In 2015 and 2016 we have had this lesson taught to us repeatedly. Lawler is really just the tip of the iceberg. For example, take Rafael dos Anjos. In 2011 dos Anjo’s career seemed to be one destined for a path similar to Lawler’s. He had a few fights in the UFC and showed flashes of true potential. But, overall, he didn’t seemed to be the kind of transcendent talent you keep a close eye on. Twelve fights later, dos Anjos is a former champ and now considered to be one of the greatest lightweights in MMA history. Quite the turnaround.
If you want another similar story you could look at the career arc of Fabricio Werdum. Once again, tons of talent but not the kind of guy you thought would eventually win UFC gold. Or there is Alistair Overeem. Or Vitor Belfort, Miesha Tate, Ben Rothwell, Chael Sonnen, Anthony Johnson, Mark Hunt, Michael Bisping – the list goes on and on. Every single one of these fighters (and many more) has struggled with consistency and could have been labeled as “on the downside of their careers” until all of the sudden things changed.
Which brings me to my point. Prematurely cutting a fighter just because they are perceived to be “on the downside of their career” is dangerously unprofessional territory and a slippery slope for the UFC.
When it comes to a career in MMA, there are a ton of unseen factors that we cannot account for when evaluating a fighter’s performances. Sometimes they are struggling with or distracted by personal relationships, like when Belfort lost his sister. Sometimes they need to switch camps, as with dos Anjos. Heck, and sometimes they just need to become more emotionally mature.
Whatever the reason may be, after watching Overeem land a flying front kick to Andrei Arlovski’s jaw a few months back, we should all remember not write off a fighter’s career with too must haste. You never know when they may surprise you. And yet, oftentimes the UFC completely disregards this possibility and releases a fighter without any consistently used logic or reasoning.
Take Thales Leites as another example. After beginning his UFC career with a 5-1 record, Leites challenged Anderson Silva for the Middleweight belt and lost. He then lost a controversial decision to Alessio Sakara and was released by the UFC. People were absolutely baffled by his firing. Upon his release from the UFC, Leites went on a 6-1 tear and was re-signed by the UFC. After he was brought back, the Brazilian rattled off five consecutive wins with three finishes and was once again considered a top ten UFC middleweight. He even developed the more fan-friendly style the UFC craves. So, in all honesty, the guy should never have been released in the first place.
Unfortunately, questionable or downright unjustifiable firings are commonplace in the UFC. In addition to Leites, the UFC has irrationally cut numerous other fighters such as Jon Fitch, Jake Shields, Yushin Okami, Gabriel Gonzaga, Mike Pierce, and many others. While the UFC does not always publicly give a reason for their firings, they tend to stick to a couple of lines. For example, one of Dana White’s favourite stances is that the UFC wants fighters who are on their way up the rankings, not on their way down. So you can reasonably assume the UFC simply thought that most of these fighters were trending down and, thus, decided to cut them loose.
The issue with the UFC defending their decisions in that manner is that they look like total hypocrites in doing so. On one hand they cut future heavyweight champion Werdum when he had a 2-2 record; on the other hand, Dan Hardy lost four fights in a row and instead of being cut he was given more opportunities than ever, including a cushy commentating gig for the UFC’s shows in Europe.
Then there is Dan Henderson. It pains me to write this as I love the guy but why is he getting a title shot? I thought the UFC was only interested in ascendant fighters? This hypocrisy does not take place in a vacuum. There are serious consequences. Fighters are not keeping quiet anymore. If you want to see the negative outcomes take a look at MMA news sites. Reports of fighters banding together and joining the Mixed Martial Arts Fighters Association are common. There is even a United States Congressman pushing for the Ali Expansion Act. Or, if you prefer a simpler approach, you could just take a look at Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza’s or Chris Weidman’s Twitter accounts. They are super pissed and justifiably so.
If the UFC refuses to consistently enforce their stance on ascendant fighters, they look like hypocrites and ruin fighter morale. However, if the UFC starts to cut all fighters who appeared to be past their prime, they would most likely have gotten rid of Robbie Lawler. The same can be said of every fighter that was mentioned above.
Now pause and think about that. If the UFC actually obeyed the standards they preached during the releases of guys like Jon Fitch and Jake Shields, there is a very good chance they would have cut Bisping, dos Anjos, Henderson, Lyoto Machida, Overeem, and Tate. What do all of these fighters have in common? They have all struggled with consistency at some point in their UFC careers and they have all either challenged for a UFC belt or been a champion. In other words, the UFC would be cutting some of their best and most valuable fighters.
Watching Lawler fight Rory McDonald for the title last year was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. When Tate choked out Holly Holm, I was literally screaming at the television in excitement. We are talking about some of the greatest fighters in MMA history. Fitch was cut from the UFC with a 14-3-1 record. If you take a look at the history of the welterweight division he is right up there with GSP, Matt Hughes, and some of the other champions! How ridiculous is that?
Shields was cut from the UFC after one loss in his last five fights. One loss alongside victories over Condit, Tyron Woodley, Lawler, Henderson, and Demian Maia. This is not good for the sport. Cutting fighters without a true performance-based reason is totally disastrous. Can you imagine if Cristiano Ronaldo got fired because he had three rough games? What if the U.S. swim team told Michael Phelps they were no longer interested in his services because he was “trending down”? It is literally incomprehensible.
Just like athletes in other sports, fighters deserve to be treated like true professionals. They deserve contracts that can’t be tossed in the garbage easily. They deserve opportunities to turn their career around.
But guess who else deserves it? You do! The fans! We deserve to watch MMA that is not be tainted by politics and childish undermining. We deserve to live in a world where top ten ranked fighters are preserved, not relegated to smaller promotions after one or two losses. We deserve to watch ‘Ruthless’ Robbie Lawler go from journeyman middleweight to dominant UFC Welterweight Champion and we deserve to see Rafael dos Anjos go from zero to hero.
Jacob Miller, Pundit Arena