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Mixed martial arts is a sport that for years, prior to “The Ultimate Fighter” and pay-per-views that do one million buys, was cultivated and developed through its online presence. Back when the UFC was off widespread PPV and went dark, when keeping up with Pride Fighting Championships meant staying up for some English teacher in Japan to do a questionable play-by-play on a forum, when tape trading was a legitimate hobby and not a bizarre, antiquated pastime, MMA was incubated by the Internet and flourished.
Before crying Michael Jordan faces and other widespread sports memes, MMA had its own in-jokes and punchlines: Rickson by armbar, Yoshihiro Takayama as “The Hawtness” and, of course, “My pic with Matt Hughes.”
My point: Owing to the crucial nature of its online past and present, MMA was long ahead of the curve on this style of humor. Perhaps because of its carnival freakishness, it's a sport that readily lends itself to inventing unique terms and turns of phrase. This is a sport with a deep, self-referential glossary.
Having said all that, we need a new MMA neologism. As we trudge further into 2017, we need a word, a rock-solid and clever noun, to describe the unfortunate elite fighters who, through no fault of their own, become ensnared in an increasingly common and brutally frustrating professional purgatory. Something other than “prisoner,” I mean.
Even if you're in full support of a Michael Bisping-Georges St. Pierre middleweight title fight this autumn and even if you desperately, sincerely want Conor McGregor to box Floyd Mayweather Jr. in his next prizefight, you'd have to be utterly heartless to not feel for Tony Ferguson, Yoel Romero and whatever inevitable future contenders, who in spite of their successes, get trapped in the contendership tar pit from hell.
It's not as though title contendership in major league MMA promotions has ever been totally sensible, and there are plenty of historical cases we can point to where a particular fighter was conspired against by dumb circumstance. However, the MMA world we now inhabit in 2017 -- more importantly, the one that Ferguson, Romero and other fighters like them inhabit -- is one in which fighters are more likely to have their dreams of contendership ruined by the whims of fellow fighters or their own promoter.
As mentioned, we do have well-known instances of lamentable situations where a fighter never quite got the title crack he or she deserved. Probably the most famous and tragic example is that of Karo Parisyan. We're a decade removed from “The Heat” being an elite welterweight, and his myriad of issues outside the cage have served to erase many of the thrilling memories of his early career, especially his initial UFC tenure. After taking wins over Nick Diaz, Chris Lytle and Matt Serra, Parisyan earned a shot at Hughes' welterweight title at UFC 56.
It was the beginning of the end for Parisyan as a top-flight welterweight. A notorious slacker in camp, Parisyan put together perhaps the most focused and professional camp of his entire career to prepare for the man who was, at the time, still the greatest welterweight ever. Then, Parisyan tore his hamstring. Very, very badly. Today, there's a divot in his leg. The injury forced him out of the Hughes fight, and he was replaced by a skeletal Joe Riggs, who missed weight for the biggest fight of his career.
Parisyan recovered, sort of. He fought eight more times in the Octagon, and in August 2006 -- a great year for fights on both sides of the Pacific Ocean -- he had the near-unanimous “Fight of the Year” with Diego Sanchez. However, Parisyan's hamstring injury was not only a persistent and recurring problem physically but also led him toward a harrowing painkiller addiction that essentially erased the brash, swaggering Armenian kid that could hit ippon seionages with natural, reflexive ease.
For over a decade now, Parisyan's misfortune has been the boilerplate narrative for the forgotten or marginalized contender, and it is a story that has typically hinged on injury. However, we're over a decade past that moment, and now, the cruel circumstances that can potentially ruin an athlete's title contendership have new, more diverse and possibly even more insidious authors.
Injuries are never going to disappear from this sport and will continue to strike would-be title contenders, be it in the UFC, Bellator MMA or any other MMA promotion. However, injuries used to be, for the most part, the overwhelming culprit. The alchemy is different now.
Tony Ferguson hasn't lost a fight in nearly five years. Since his last defeat, a decision loss to Michael Johnson in May 2012, he has put together one of the 10 -- at worst 15 -- best resumes in the sport. He also happens to be one of the most consistently entertaining fighters in MMA, a brilliant boxer whose sudden and deft submissions create a sublime portrait of well-rounded technique and violence. He's good on the mic and can talk some legitimate trash. He may not be McGregor, but Ferguson is, in broad strokes, exactly the sort of fighter the UFC has thirsted for under any of its owners.
Romero? He's an Olympic silver medal-winning wrestler who executed perhaps the greatest single takedown in MMA history in just his third pro fight. Excessive vaseline, spilling water in the cage and “No for gay Jesus” moments aside, Romero's UFC tenure has been a thrill. Despite the fact that he's going on 40 years old, the Cuban remains one of the most freakishly gifted athletes in the whole sport, a legitimate world-class wrestler who has arguably the most sudden, powerful and effective flying knee in the game. While Romero may not have the English language on lockdown, he certainly doesn't shy away from the media. Prior to GSP's emerging out of retirement, Romero's management cooked up a satirical GoFundMe page to cover Bisping's hypothetical future medical expenses. He then started calling into Bisping's SiriusXM radio show to berate him directly on the phone.
Again, from Semaphore Entertainment Group to Zuffa to WME-IMG, these are precisely the sort of fighters you want on your roster. These are the fighters you want to fight for titles. Ferguson, Romero and, frankly, most elite MMA fighters are not going to be Conor McGregors or even Jon Joneses for that matter. However, both fighters are stark reminders that at the highest levels of MMA, winning matters less than ever.
Romero is 8-0 in the UFC. Meanwhile, if Ferguson's next fight is not a UFC title bout and he gets his hand raised, he will have a 10-fight winning streak. No fighter in the history of the promotion has ever won 10 fights in a row and not gotten a title shot, other than Royce Gracie, who fought 11 times before the UFC established its inaugural superfight championship. However, Gracie also fought at a time where the tournament format reigned supreme, and he won three of the damn things. Plus, considering the UFC was conceived as an infomercial for Gracie jiu-jitsu, it goes without saying that Gracie was hardly subject to the same professional impediments Ferguson and Romero are up against today.
St. Pierre is adamant he won't fight before the fall. Bisping, cheeky as ever, claims that GSP is a great “warm-up” for Romero and that after he beats “Rush,” he'll be more than happy to fight Romero six weeks later. To call that “wishful thinking” would be a gross understatement. If Bisping defeats St. Pierre and comes out of the bout totally healthy, we should get a Romero defense by year's end. This scenario requires absolutely no one getting hurt, no one blowing a drug test, Bisping winning, him being fairly healthy coming out of said victory and Romero being available come late 2017. That is asking for an awful lot of normalcy in a sport predicated on chaos, never mind that Romero was essentially promised title shots following his last two victories over Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza and former UFC champion Chris Weidman.
If GSP wins, who knows what will happen? The greatest welterweight of all-time signed a four-fight deal with the UFC this time around, but no one has any idea how many times he'll actually fight. From the sounds of his interview with Ariel Helwani on “The MMA Hour” on Monday, St. Pierre seems to have little interest in actually defending the 185-pound title if he wins. I'm tempted to say that may be the best-case scenario for middleweight equilibrium and justice, but knowing this sport, that seems awfully wishful, too.
As I said, these are not situations created wholly by injuries anymore; it's a more complex alchemy of injuries, scheduling, upsets, star power and profitability. The night Romero took a split decision over Souza at UFC 194, Luke Rockhold took the UFC middleweight title from Weidman. Did the UFC have to schedule a rematch in June? No, it could've moved right onto Romero.
Well, kind of. Romero spent the first half of last year in a different sort of limbo, initially facing a two-year suspension after testing positive for Ibutamoren in a U.S. Anti-Doping Agency test before he and his team proved he had taken a legal dietary supplement tainted with the banned substance. As a result, Romero wouldn't have been able to fight until July 12 of last year.
So somehow, Bisping, at 37 years old, with one bad eye and no track record of one-punching anybody, let alone a fighter who absolutely trashed him 17 months earlier, came in on short notice and improbably won the UFC title. That same night, MMA legend and former Bisping tormentor Dan Henderson somehow landed a head kick-back elbow combination on -400 favorite Hector Lombard and knocked him out.
With Bisping and Henderson's history, the brutal nature of the knockout in their July 2009 bout and the sheer surprise of a sudden opportunity to have one of the best MMA fighters ever fight for a UFC title one last time, there was no way the UFC wasn't going to pull the trigger. Within minutes of UFC 199 ending, even if half in jest, social media was awash with fans piqued by the idea of Bisping-Henderson 2. MMA fans love Henderson and they love to hate Bisping. It was immediately and cripplingly obvious that “Hendo” would receive one of the least deserved UFC title shots in history.
What I just described was a mere 10-month period in a single division, and I didn't even bring up the classic “What if?” surrounding Bisping's bout with Anderson Silva and the fact “The Count” was clearly toast at the end of the third round.
In less than a calendar year, the uneasy combination of promotional preference, chance upset victors, injuries, drug tests and the UFC's schedule combined to create a bizarre stagnancy in the 185-pound division. Just when it seemed like normalcy may reign again, just when it seemed like the suddenly deep and talented middleweight division was back on its proper course, St. Pierre showed up.
You can't write this stuff. It's like a bad joke. Imagine you sat down with Romero after UFC 194 and explained that he's not going to fight for a UFC title in 2016, maybe not even 2017, because of a contaminated supplement, Weidman injuring his neck, Bisping somehow becoming UFC champion, Henderson authoring a ridiculous upset and having a pre-existing history with the surprising, new champion and GSP un-retiring with a focus on becoming a two-division titleholder. I can't possibly imagine he or anyone else would've believed a single word you said.
Ferguson? His situation is even more miserable. For over a year now, the career of “El Cucuy” has revolved almost entirely around Khabib Nurmagomedov. When Nurmagomedov's blown weight cut resulted in him being hospitalized and canceling his UFC 209 bout with Ferguson, it was the third time in 16 months that a scheduled showdown between the two had fizzled.
As good as the 185-pound division has become, it ain't no lightweight. The 155-pound weight class takes well-rounded, skilled mixed martial artists, chews them up and spits them out. Year in, year out for over a decade now, lightweight is the best -- that is to say, the most skilled and deepest -- division in MMA. There's a reason no UFC lightweight champion has ever successfully defended the strap more than three times. The last four UFC lightweight champions combined have registered two successful title defenses.
Speaking of champions, with the Nurmagomedov bout falling apart for the third time, Ferguson has taken to publicly calling out McGregor, the UFC's undisputed lightweight champion. He deserves that shot. He deserved it before he dominated former champion Rafael dos Anjos for 25 minutes. He deserved it before he won his barnburner with Lando Vannata. He deserved it after he choked out Edson Barboza in a rollicking eight-minute tilt.
Alas, McGregor showed up and demanded a UFC lightweight title shot, and because he's Conor McGregor, he got it. Then dos Anjos got hurt. Then McGregor lost to Nate Diaz, created a historic rivalry and brought about the need to run that one back in August. In July, Ferguson easily could've slid into the challenger spot that Eddie Alvarez was given, but the UFC was still pathological about trying to make Ferguson-Nurmagomedov happen.
Alvarez blasted dos Anjos and was supposed to face Nurmagomedov. Why “The Eagle” was chosen instead of the more active, deserving Ferguson is anyone's best guess, but a savvy 13-year pro like Alvarez -- a fighter whose career has been built on seizing big-money opportunities wherever they are -- had grander designs. After establishing himself as one of the five best lightweights ever and becoming a Bellator MMA and UFC lightweight champion, Alvarez thought it was time to get paid. That meant that once again McGregor got to do the Vince McMahon walk right into Ferguson's spot and with very little backlash.
McGregor blasted Alvarez. He made history and got even richer. Smashing Alvarez the way he did, on a historic night in MMA history as the UFC debuted at Madison Square Garden, only made McGregor into an even more rapacious opportunist. Now that he has actually won the belt, he's free to hold it hostage while he politicks with Mayweather. It remains to be seen if McGregor-Mayweather ever actually happens, but it's safe to say that McGregor's multi-million-dollar pipe dream is infinitely more important to him right now than defending his UFC lightweight title, against Ferguson or anyone else.
Of course, it figures that when an incredibly entertaining fighter in MMA's finest weight class going on a historically noteworthy winning streak, his career path happens to intersect in the most troublesome way possible with possibly the biggest star the sport has ever seen, the one fighter on UFC roster who can call all his own shots and put his own promoter over the proverbial barrel. Now he has the belt. The UFC spent a year hellbent on doing Ferguson-Nurmagomedov, and when it put an interim strap on the line, the bout imploded once more. Meanwhile, if Mayweather moves on from McGregor negotiations, “Mystic Mac” may suddenly decide he wants to fight GSP instead.
Oh, and because he didn't end up fighting Nurmagomedov, Ferguson claims he was paid less than half of his show money for UFC 209. Ferguson was set to make $250,000 to show and another $250,000 if he had beaten Nurmagomedov. Even if he had fought -- the UFC was trying to put together a last-second rematch between Ferguson and Johnson, the last man to beat him -- it wouldn't have been a title fight. If Ferguson had fought, he would've done so for a drastically reduced purse against a dangerous boxer-wrestler who already beat him once. Where is the upside there?
Because of this protracted lightweight saga, Ferguson has had to take fight after fight to stay busy and get paid. Whether or not his next opponent is Nurmagomedov, Ferguson's next fight will probably be an interim lightweight title bout, but in this sport, in this particular division, it can evaporate in an instant.
Vannata, more than a -400 favorite, just lost every single round to unknown David Teymur at UFC 209. You know, “Groovy Lando,” the man who came in on short notice for Michael Chiesa in July and nearly knocked out Ferguson in the first round. That's the lightweight division in a nutshell. At least in Romero's case, he can hypothetically sit and wait for Bisping-GSP to resolve. What can Ferguson even do, as a mere subject in the kingdom of McGregor's star power?
Ferguson may live in California and Romero may live in Florida, but these two men, as professional prizefighters, are living in one damn cold world. There was a simpler time, where if you could simply win and stay healthy, you would eventually get your day in championship court. These days, winning and staying healthy are charming assets but hardly the determining factors in whether or not you get on the UFC title docket.
A win just doesn't mean what it used to. Or eight of them for that matter. Or nine. Maybe not even 10.