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We're still amid what has become a routine, seasonal MMA occurrence, albeit an informal one: When the Ultimate Fighting Championship goes a couple weeks without a major event and gives some of its staff a bit of a reprieve. With UFC 211 (online sportsbooks) coming up on May 13 in Dallas, this is the theoretical calm before the storm. I say theoretical because everyone in the UFC seems to making noise except for the promotion itself.
Since Al Iaquinta broke his two-year retirement on April 22 in Nashville, Tennessee, and clattered Diego Sanchez in 98 seconds, he has been the most talked-about fighter in the sport during a time without seemingly much to talk about. Perhaps that changed on Wednesday, when Nate Diaz made an appearance on “The MMA Hour” with Ariel Helwani, delivering an hour of his characteristically recalcitrant charm. While he was as irreverent as ever, Diaz's screed was also a sharp, penetrating manifesto for the modern MMA fighter.
Diaz and Iaquinta haven't been the only intractable independent contractors under UFC contract in the last two weeks, but they're the most provocative examples of a growing trend in the early era of WME-IMG ownership. To put it bluntly, many UFC fighters have realized that their promoter doesn't know them, doesn't care to know them, probably can't help them and almost certainly won't help them.
Diaz and of course his brother Nick Diaz have long been portrayed as anti-heroes, the cult favorites in a misfits toy box of a sport. However, part of the Diaz charm has always been that when it came to the promotional and business machinations of MMA, Nate and Nick seemed obtuse at best and at worst completely oblivious, yet there would always be moments of shocking awareness from them. I remember interviewing Nick on a particular occasion nearly a decade ago now. In the middle of an old-school, stream-of-consciousness Diaz rant, he suddenly began venting about one of his historically least favorite people, Jason “Mayhem” Miller, his popularity and the way he was pushed by fight promoters.
Nick sarcastically but caustically asked me if I thought he would be better promoted and make more money if he dyed his hair, painted his toenails and essentially acted like a pro wrestling character. I don't remember what I said. Then he asked me how people could be certain he wasn't playing some kind of character and why Miller -- a man nicknamed “Mayhem” for a reason -- was seen as some sort of manic pixie style of “crazy,” while he was portrayed as a legitimately crazy.
I've thought about this exchange for almost a decade now. I never for a second thought Nick Diaz was any serious method actor, but something about his words dumbfounded me then and even more with every passing year. Ultimately, Diaz has proved a better historical fighter, drew bigger crowds and made more money via MMA, so this may not seem especially salient at this point, but I mean, wasn't the man right? Just a couple years later, it was Miller who entered the Strikeforce cage and instigated the infamous “Nashville Brawl.” Diaz has two DUI arrests; Miller's been arrested no less than eight times in the last five years, and his personal downward spiral has become a source of legitimate, ongoing concern in MMA. Who decides when a malcontent is a madman? What if they don't know what the hell they're talking about?
Those once-ephemeral moments of truly incisive Diaz philosophy have taken root and are now the nonchalant norm. Early in their careers, the Diaz brothers hated the system -- they raged against it -- but they couldn't reject it wholesale. Now they can, as the elder Diaz finally got himself a few major paydays in his UFC return, while Nate's pair of bouts with Conor McGregor in 2016 have given him millions of dollars he can use to light blunts until he decides to fight again. The Diazes, whether they realized they were doing it or not, spent years cultivating a one-of-a-kind brand and a passionate grassroots fan base. With Conor being Conor, Ronda Rousey in limbo and no Brock Lesnar on the horizon, the Diaz brothers suddenly have all the leverage over their promoter.
It is sweetly ironic and delightfully poetic that so much of that brand awareness and promotional leverage stems from the very thing that created so much polarization and consternation around the Diazes: smoking weed. Initially, Nick's refusal to stop smoking pot -- and testing positive for it -- cast him as immature and unprofessional, but over time, his repeated violations actually shed light on how truly idiotic regulations surrounding marijuana are in nearly every organized sport. Furthermore, the Nevada Athletic Commission's -- or at least former commissioner Pat Lundvall's -- preposterous vendetta against Nick only served to make him one of MMA's most sympathetic figures, a thrilling fighter in his physical prime waylaid by a cruel and unconscionable system. Nate's never tested positive but openly flaunts the loopholes in state and U.S. Anti-Doping Agency testing, most famously by ripping a vaporizer after UFC 202 and getting off scot-free. Now, the 209's favorite duo get cosigns from weed rappers like B-Real, Schoolboy Q and Wiz Khalifa and make money to show up at cannabis-related events, just like McGregor works the nightclub party circuit.
Admittedly, the Diazes are now surprisingly in a privileged spot most fighters aren't. After all, Nate's “the cannabis industry is throwing money at me” comment to Helwani immediately followed him saying, “In one year, I got the two biggest selling pay-per-views in UFC history.” However, here are six random soundbites from the rest of his “MMA Hour” appearance, which can effectively serve as a treatise on self-preservation and promotion in the modern UFC:
I think right now, they're (WME-IMG) winging it.
It's the fighters' fault for not speaking up.
There's not much going on in MMA. No one's doing anything. Everything's kind of boring and everyone's complaining. It's getting stagnant.
All these guys who were champions, they're all complaining now. They should've stepped their game up.
I'm not fighting for fun. It's not fun for me. Am I willing to fight? I will fight anybody, right in my front yard.
I'm not playing the game no more. There's no stars; all these fighters aren't doing anything. They're just saying the same old stuff.
Yes, Diaz may be coming from a new and surprisingly advantageous position that few fighters can equal; no one else in the UFC has done Jimmy Kimmel and Conan O'Brien in the same week. Still, the underlying ethos is the same: You have to speak up, step up and do everything in your power to dictate your own prizefighting fate. If you don't, the best case scenario is that you wind up like Tyron Woodley, a two-time defending welterweight champion who feels he is under-promoted and undersold at every turn, or Stipe Miocic, a heavyweight champion who has openly stated he was trying to be a “company guy” when he signed his last contract, only to now feel taken advantage of by his promoter. The worst-case scenario? You're never a champ; you're just another mark getting used and abused by your promoter, which brings us to Iaquinta.
Iaquinta hasn't made bank off of fighting, hence why he took 24 months off to focus on selling real estate. It's part of why he destroyed his hotel room in a rage after his UFC 183 win over Joe Lauzon, having been passed over for a $50,000 bonus, and why when his Sanchez demolition didn't earn him 50 Gs, he instantly morphed into maniac on Twitter, telling the UFC to [expletive] itself, mocking UFC President Dana White's “Muscle & Fitness” cover and most recently daring the company to cut him while referring to UFC brass as “sissies.” Given Iaquinta's temperament, his recent social media rampage might seem like sour grapes from an entitled athlete who feels he's owed something. Maybe Iaquinta does think he's owed something, but his two-year retirement, ongoing real estate commitment and current Twitter reign of terror attest to the fact he doesn't think the UFC can or will provide whatever that “something” is. He, too, has opted out of “the game.”
Like the Diazes before him, Iaquinta's being publicly mad as hell and not taking it any more creates a fog of rage that makes him seem unstable and irrational. With that said, consider the MMA landscape in 2017, think about the present condition of the UFC, its roster and the lack of focused leadership under WME-IMG thus far. Then read this exchange:
Mike Perry (@PlatinumPerry) April 29, 2017
Get off your knees you're embarrassing yourself https://t.co/4uFTo7cTQO— Al Iaquinta (@ALIAQUINTA) April 29, 2017
Dana White responds to twitter eggs but not Mike Perry... sad!— Al Iaquinta (@ALIAQUINTA) April 29, 2017
“Ragin' Al” may come off like a jilted lunatic, but he's one of the only fighters who seems to understand what he's up against. Not only did he clown on Perry for being obsequious and trying to ingratiate himself to the UFC president, but his last diss cuts straight to the bone and to the heart of the matter: White will never stop arguing with anonymous fans on the Internet, but he's long since stopped caring about the likes of Mike Perry.
The UFC handpicking and grooming future champions used to net us the likes of B.J. Penn and Cain Velasquez. Now, White is a bazillionaire who obviously is nowhere near as passionate about this sport as he was a decade ago. Lorenzo Fertitta and his obsessive desire to collect all the best fighters is gone. So is Joe Silva, who not only had an amazing eye for talent but was also the voice of reason throughout his UFC tenure, the individual that would stand up to White and Fertitta and scream in their faces -- figuratively, of course, given his height. In the present moment, the UFC's choice in “chosen ones” seems to be based on being young, athletic and telegenic in the most trite way possible. This is why, through no real fault of their own, Sage Northcutt and Paige VanZant are now objects of widespread MMA scorn.
The UFC no longer has 50 fighters in five divisions on its roster, with six cards per year and eight bouts to a card. The UFC's owners do not sit intently cageside, watching every single round, developing new favorite fighters and fantasy matchmaking in their heads like hardcore fans. Sure, if you're a McGregor or Rousey and you can quickly magnetize and command a mainstream, international audience in combination with remarkable in-cage success, the company may suck up to you, but the era of UFC loyalists becoming stars -- and for the most part, stars being UFC loyalists -- is gone. That is why Matt Hughes and Chuck Liddell -- the two ultimate Zuffa loyalists -- no longer have their cushy, largely ceremonial jobs after WME-IMG's budget cuts and why both, despite being in their mid-40s and 12 to 15 years removed from their primes, are talking about possibly fighting again. The UFC will not save you.
While it may make Diaz and Iaquinta more entertaining, biting and provocative, fighters don't need to openly mock or castigate the UFC to get ahead. The promotion is no longer guided and directed by a tight-knit cabal of relatively like-minded fight fans; its power has been decentralized, leaving the vast majority of its hundreds of fighters to aimlessly orbit in space, hoping to collide with someone or something else and create meaning or value for themselves. However, getting to call your own shots in the matchmaking department isn't just some luxury reserved for McGregor.
We may very well end up with a Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino-Megan Anderson fight at UFC 214 in July, and if we do, it will be almost entirely through the media efforts of the two fighters and the organic reaction to it. Angela Hill may wind up getting the biggest fight of her life against Paige VanZant, and if she does, it will be a result of “Angie Overkill” lambasting VanZant for her now infamous and deleted Reebok promo. Bantamweights Thomas Almeida and Jimmie Rivera cordially agreed to fight one another on Twitter recently. Who on Earth would turn down that fight? Not long after, lightweights Evan Dunham and Michael Johnson did essentially the same thing on the same platform. Yet many fighters still think “Whoever the UFC puts in front of me!” is an acceptable answer to “Who do you want next?”
This rote response used to be annoying simply because it was dreadfully boring, but there was still some perceived valor in the idea of being willing to fight anyone the UFC could throw your way. At this point, it's not just repetitive but baffling and oblivious. Your promoter is not your friend, your buddy or your pal, and fighting whoever, whenever, wherever for whatever money the UFC happens to offer is a dead concept. You will not replace Liddell in White's heart. You can only save yourself.