Debets: What’s the UFC Doing With Its Next Generation of Stars?

By Jacob Debets Mar 1, 2018

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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Max Griffin landed 33 more strikes than Mike Perry at UFC on Fox 28. He was 1-2 in the Ultimate Fighting Championship heading into the bout and was the second-biggest underdog on the card according to the oddsmakers. Griffin had been brought in to lose to “Platinum Perry,” preferably by the kind of vicious stoppage for which the Florida native has become notorious.

When the fight started, however, it was apparent that Griffin didn’t get the memo. He controlled the distance well, as he took advantage of his five-inch reach advantage and cracked Perry with jabs and a variety of kicks, opening up a nasty cut on Perry’s forehead that would bleed copiously throughout the 15-minute contest. Apart from a desperate third-round rally from Perry, the fight was all Griffin; and when the scorecards were read, Perry was already walking towards the Octagon door. He knew, just as everyone else in the arena knew, that he lost the fight. It was his third loss in his last five contests.

Were it not for some debatable judging in Texas on Feb. 18, a similarly dispiriting account would also apply to one Sage Northcutt, who won a contentious decision over Thibault Gouti -- now 1-4 in the UFC -- at UFC Fight Night 126. Throughout that fight, Northcutt displayed limited head movement and telegraphed takedown attempts; and in the second round, he went down from a right hand that almost ended the fight. Ultimately, Northcutt took home the victory by the narrowest of margins, but an assessment of his performance yields the same conclusion as Perry’s: These young men have all the potential in the world to develop into legitimate contenders, but at 21 and 26, respectively, the way to do that is not on MMA’s biggest stage. Not now, not yet. That leaves the UFC in something of a hazardous position, given how much it has invested in promoting the two.

Northcutt was famously signed at just 19 years old after UFC President Dana White discovered him on “Lookin’ for a Fight,” and he was thrown into main-card Fox fights with considerable promotional muscle behind him. Meanwhile, Perry made his debut on the one of the biggest cards of all time at UFC 202 and thereafter earned a similarly generous degree of attention from the media and fans for his entertaining fighting style and eccentric personality. Both men were touted as future stars for their charisma and unique backstories, and the UFC capitalized on their drawing power by giving them fights as often as it could.

After promising starts with the company -- both men scored back-to-back finishes in their first two fights -- their ceilings came into sharper focus. Perry struggled against fighters on the periphery of the top-15, and although Northcutt has put together an otherwise impressive 5-2 record since signing with the company in 2015, it was built on the backs of fighters that probably didn’t deserve to be in the UFC. The fighters he beat have a combined UFC record of just 3-10, and three have since been released by the promotion.

So what’s the UFC to do with Northcutt and Perry? That’s a difficult question to answer. In another universe, perhaps one where the UFC’s owners weren’t in calamitous debt and ratings weren’t at an all-time low, it wouldn’t be beyond comprehension for the UFC to quietly release the two fighters or alternatively give them a significant hiatus between fights so they could work on improving their games. In a sport where mental fortitude is perhaps just as important as ability, another loss for either of the two men -- especially against subpar opposition -- could be detrimental to their confidence and possibly their brand power, and it makes sense to play the long game in the hope that their fighting prowess catches up to their star potential somewhere along the way.

Assuming the UFC wouldn’t want to cut ties with either of the two fighters given the risk they’d sign with Bellator MMA, one might also look at some version of the developmental deal that the second-named promotion signed with uber-prospect Aaron Pico in 2014 as an option. In that case, Bellator paid Pico an undisclosed stipend for two years to contribute to his training and other combat-sports endeavors -- before he eventually debuted with the company in 2017. In the case of Northcutt and Perry, this could mean the UFC keeping them on the payroll while they compete on the regional scene, ensuring they can afford top-flight training and build their records without the same physical risks and media scrutiny to which they’re currently subjected.

Unfortunately, the UFC of 2018 is not known for its patience and long-term planning. It seems more likely that the promotion will continue to milk Perry and Northcutt for the ratings they bring in, sacrificing the possibility of long-term stardom in order to meet Endeavor’s increasingly unrealistic financial objectives.

Still, given the promotion’s disappointing year in 2017 and its desperate need to build main-event attractions, alternative strategies should be worth talking about. For every Cody Garbrandt that can swim in deep waters and make a title run at age 25, there are many other young athletes that require a more cautious strategy. Let’s just hope the new UFC knows how to play the long game.

Jacob Debets is a recent law graduate who lives in Melbourne, Australia. He has been an MMA fan for more than a decade and trains in muay Thai and boxing at DMDs MMA in Brunswick. His work has been published widely, including on Fight News Australia, LawinSports, LowKickMMA, MMASucka De Minimis and Farrago. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA Industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.

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