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Back when I still started my day stuck on a freeway for an hour every morning, I was regularly reminded of an adage that was more enraging than illuminating. Though it supposedly has its roots in some sort of zen enlightenment, I tend to think that it actually sprouted from some snarky, contrarian dude in the passenger seat. The adage goes something along these lines: “You aren’t in traffic; you are traffic.”
I’m not sure what the creator of that was really going for. I suppose he or she was trying to alter the maddening experience of being forced into what is essentially a game of politically correct bumper cars where you want to smash into the person in front of you but can’t. However, instead of thinking “whoa” and feeling my impatience dissolve into the vibrations of the universe, all it did was magnify the fact that there were no other options but to tackle traffic, day in and day out. It’s tantamount to telling Sisyphus that he was doing it all wrong: “The secret is to be the rock.” Yes, visualize, breathe deep and become your own futility.
There’s a lesson here for Michael Johnson.
The Blackzilians lightweight snapped a two-fight skid by completely flattening Dustin Poirier in 95 seconds at UFC Fight Night 94 on Saturday in Hidalgo, Texas. In doing so, he announced not only a return to form but also a return to the top shelf at 155 pounds. Prior to losing back-to-back fights to Beneil Dariush and Nate Diaz, Johnson had all the looks of a serious contender in a division in no short supply of serious contenders. Now, “The Menace” is right back in the mix. It was a big win.
After the fight, though, Johnson called out nobody in the most specific way possible: “Conor McGregor, Nate Diaz getting paid that money and they’re out here scrapping, having a sparring match. I come to finish fights. I go for the kill. Pay me, baby, what’s up?” He then clarified that he would fight anybody but wanted to be in the big-money fights. Here’s the thing: If you want to be in a money fight, you have to be a money fight. Right now, despite his monstrous knockout win and undeniable talent, Johnson is not a money fight. If you need to explicitly call for a money fight, odds are you are not the one bringing the money to the fight.
Johnson asking for a big-money fight pretty much amounts to Johnson asking for money; he’s a great fighter, with all the physical and technical tools to make a legitimate run at the title, but he’s not exactly bringing droves to the show. This isn’t just Johnson, of course. Lots of fighters are looking for an inlet to the “moneyweight” waters. However, it’s one thing if, like Tyron Woodley, you try to conjure a money fight from nothing. Woodley has leverage; he’s the welterweight champion, and even though being champion means less than it used to, it still means something. The ever-increasing six-figure purses are incentivizing fighters to seek out the biggest, most profitable fights they can get, and good on them for doing so. However, if your biggest claim to fame is being an “Ultimate Fighter” finalist on a one-fight winning streak, it may be best to temper your expectations. Be the rock, Sisyphus.
There are levels to this. The core components of moneyweight fighters are not uniform across the board. The moneyweight division has a lot to do with both Ultimate Fighting Championship promotion and self-promotion, a lot to do with performance and a lot to do with market trends and audience preferences that are simply more fate than formula. McGregor captures audiences in a different way than the Diaz brothers do -- or Ronda Rousey, or Brock Lesnar, or even the moneyweight journeymen like Urijah Faber and Donald Cerrone, for that matter. They all command a certain magnetism that translates into more butts in seats and eyes on screens, but they all got to that point in different ways. Achieving stardom in a niche sport is not a preset package you can staple together and slap on anyone. For most of MMA’s stars, it has taken a great deal of time and opportunism. Success -- in anything in life but definitely in professional fighting -- is a mixture of stubborn consistency, talent and good ol’-fashioned luck.
The only aspect truly within a fighter’s control is his or her in-cage performance. Winning is always a plus, but it’s neither a prerequisite (ask Nate Diaz) nor a guarantee (ask Khabib Nurmagomedov). Sometimes, exciting losses can help as much if not more than forgettable wins. Following his stunning knockout at UFC Fight Night 94, Johnson is on the right path, but his embarrassing loss to Diaz and forgettable “loss” to Dariush are still a bit too fresh in the rearview.
I’m by no means opposed to or confused by fighters trying to call their own shots and line their pockets as much as possible. These aren’t roaming, feudal warriors we’re talking about. They’re working men and women with bills to pay and mouths to feed. Thanks in large part to McGregor, the financial ceiling has been blown off, and fighters would be foolish not to try and capitalize on it. It just comes off as empty and silly when they’re not bringing something to the table, and like it or not, it’s on them to convince us that they are.
I’ve harped on the need to up fighter pay from the ground up time and time again, and nothing has changed on that front -- on my end or on the UFC’s. The pay structure now may not be how it should be, but it is how it is. Reality is that in the current UFC climate you have to force the hand of the powers that be by making yourself as indispensable as possible. This is especially true in a deep division like lightweight, where the requirements for calling your own shots are a little more advanced.
So no, I’m not waving the finger at Johnson, just like I wouldn’t judge a kid for asking for a pony for Christmas or discourage a mediocre student from applying to Stanford University. He’s sowing the seeds for future big fights now, and for that I commend him. Get your swerve on, Mike. Become your own money fight. Sisyphus smiles.
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.