Opinion: Fairytale Championships

By Eric Stinton Mar 28, 2016

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.

In the aftermath of UFC 196, you can’t help but feel good to see the increased exposure of Nate Diaz. The Ultimate Fighting Championship veteran of nearly a decade has been a fan favorite since his days on “The Ultimate Fighter,” and while he has never exactly been graceful on the microphone, he has always been honest and interesting.

This was no less true when, earlier this week, the Stockton Slap specialist made an appearance on “UFC Tonight.” Sitting alongside fellow “Ultimate Fighter” alums Kenny Florian and Michael Bisping, Diaz detailed his comfort with being a moneyweight fighter simply looking for the biggest possible fights. When asked whether those fights would be for a title, Diaz brushed it off in a vintage soundbyte: “I think that title thing’s a fairytale, man.”

First off, you have to love the fact that Diaz said that to Florian, who had three failed attempts to win a UFC title, and Bisping, who has always knocked at the championship door but has never been invited inside to try his hand. Yet Diaz knows what he’s talking about; once upon a time he, too, had a title shot, and he was handily defeated by Benson Henderson. Diaz made $50,000 for that fight, half of what he made in his next four fights combined. Against Conor McGregor, he earned more than four times the amount of those five fights put together. There was no title or title shot on the line.

It’s easy to brush off Diaz’ claim as that of a jilted ex-lover, that since he wasn’t able to secure the title when he had his shot, he’s devaluing it now as a defense mechanism. Maybe so, but I’m more inclined to believe that even if he won the lightweight title, it would not have significantly changed his attitude -- unless it significantly changed his bank balance first.

The fact of the matter is that Diaz is right. Championship titles are fairy tales or at least have a lot more in common with each other than most people like to think.

The history of champions itself is a story that spans years of the sport. Looking back at the lineage of champions -- say, from Pat Miletich to Robbie Lawler -- is to look back at the story of MMA’s growth. Like a penciled-in mark on the wall, we can see where we started and where we are now and then fill in the spaces between with the evolution of skill, technique and athleticism that MMA has undergone in that time. Sure, belts are also indicative of who was the best fighter at a given weight and at a given time, but each new champion is essentially a new chapter in the MMA narrative. We find these things interesting because humans are inherently creatures of storytelling.

Beyond that, though, is the reality that titles -- or at least title shots -- are not always reflections of merit. More than anything, narratives drive the championship pictures. A good story moves the proverbial needle more than a deserving contender begging for a title shot in a post-fight interview ever can. Hence the multitude of rematches that clog up championships for prolonged periods of time; it’s easier to drum up interest where there’s existing narrative material than it is to start a new story from scratch.

Think of it like this: What is the most overused narrative hook in UFC history? Probably something along these lines: “These guys really don’t like each other.” It is a tried-and-true angle for a reason. Grudge matches connect with us on a deeper level than the mere aesthetic of talent. We endow each strike with malice and ill-intent, even if they are demonstrably no different than they ever were before, because we can relate to those feelings. Stories build emotions, and unlike technical appreciation of MMA craft, everyone understands emotions.

When it’s not even remotely possible to stir up animosity -- or, more likely, the appearance of animosity -- simply make it a battle of nationalism. For instance, consider the middleweight title fight between Chris Weidman and Lyoto Machida. Two exceptional fighters with exceptionally little charisma somehow became the faces of a comically contrived United States vs. Brazil showdown. Creating a home-team sentiment is a whole lot easier to sell than this: “These guys really have dedicated a lot of time to becoming excellent fighters, so let’s take a deeper look at their game.”

Whether or not these advertising angles are authentic is beside the point. Having been a professional fighter since his teenage years, Diaz has figured out that being good isn’t always good enough. Fighters have to be willing and able to partake in the kayfabe leading up to the fight. Participating in the entertainment charade is as important a skill as a crisp jab when it comes to getting paid.

That’s why we (allegedly) have the otherwise head-scratching Diaz-McGregor rematch. It warrants no analysis to say this is an existentially meaningless fight when it comes to rankings and titles. However, there are storytelling elements woven into it already, tales of revenge and validation. Plus, it will be a hell of a fun fight, which we also know from the first match.

Professional fighting may be as real as it gets, but Diaz is still justified in calling the hierarchical process in the UFC what it is: a fairytale. He is even more justified in paying it no mind in order to chase the biggest fights and the biggest paydays possible. After all, when you make a living getting punched in the face, stacks of cash make it much, much easier to live happily ever after.

Hailing from Kailua, Hawai’i, Eric Stinton has been contributing to Sherdog since 2014. He received his BFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and graduate degree in Special Education from University of Hawai’i. He is an occasional columnist for Honolulu Civil Beat, and his work has also appeared in The Classical. You can find his writing at ericstinton.com. He currently lives in Seoul with his fiancé and dachshund.

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