Opinion: Survival of the Illest in a Chaotic Lightweight Winter

By Jordan Breen Jun 17, 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.

Watching Will Brooks, camera in his phone flipped 180 degrees and focused on his grinning face as he screams “We in, boy!” with the true jubilation of a kid on Christmas, it’s clear he got the gift he desperately wanted, even if it’s the middle of June.

It has been three and a half years since his breakthrough clobbering of powerhouse grappler Satoru Kitaoka on New Year’s Eve in 2012. It has been just over two years since his short-notice upset of Michael Chandler to take the Bellator MMA lightweight title and a little less than that since he climbed onto a social media soapbox and made it abundantly clear he wasn’t especially interested in reigning as Bellator’s champion, or anyone’s champion, if it wasn’t the UFC’s. Now, he has that chance.

Scott Coker and Bellator knew what was going to happen and, true to historical form, moved business along swiftly. Coming off of his November title defense over Polish leg lock specialist Marcin Held, Brooks was making about $50,000 to show and $50,000 to win in Bellator; little birdies say the promotion offered him about $150,000 per fight. “Ill Will” was happy to balk at the offer, having made it clear that he wanted to be in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, no ifs, ands or buts. Just as he had done with former Strikeforce middleweight champion Jake Shields six years ago -- much to the chagrin of the fighter and his late father and manager -- Coker released Brooks from his contract outright, knowing a bidding war for a disinterested champion was a waste of time, even if it undermines the fighter’s leverage in negotiation and ability to score a fat contract.

June 15 was the first day that Brooks was officially a free agent, no strings attached, welcome to sign with any promotion he chose. It took a mere matter of hours for the UFC to announce his signing. By 3:30 p.m. ET, the MMA world already knew that Brooks was finally a UFC lightweight and that he’d be debuting in just over three weeks at “The Ultimate Fighter 23” Finale, filling in for James Krause against Ross Pearson. Better still for Brooks, despite Bellator’s decision to release him rather than negotiate, he will debut in the UFC making approximately $50,000 and $50,000, with his purse escalating from there, meaning he didn’t even get lowballed and pressured into taking less money to chase his dream, despite the fact Zuffa had no real reason to match what he was making in his last Bellator fight.

Up to this point, things really couldn’t have worked out much better for Brooks. However, now is the time where the figurative rubber meets the road. Not only is Brooks fighting a quality opponent in less than a month, but he’s coming into the UFC with the expectation -- both from himself and the MMA populace -- that he will quickly emerge as a serious title contender in the deepest, most talented and resultantly unforgiving weight class in MMA. The lightweight division can humble you so quickly, so cruelly, that you forget Christmas, be it in June, December or any other month, ever existed at all.

I am loath to say “be careful what you wish for.” That adage suggests there was a more prudent decision for Brooks to make and that in his zealousness for a UFC contract he may have neglected to consider the consequences of his action. That idea doesn’t apply here. Brooks turns 30 October; he’s in his physical prime; and while the money isn’t the same as what Bellator offered outright, if he enters the UFC ranks with multiple wins, he may quickly eclipse that. Brooks has been adamant about proving he’s the best 155-pounder in the world, and the UFC is the only place he can truly achieve that goal. Even if his UFC run proves unsuccessful, it’s not as if Brooks has bamboozled himself by getting a surprisingly sturdy contract for the opportunity to chase legitimate greatness instead of going to fight Ben Askren in Malaysia for One Championship.

If I’m going to continue to belabor a metaphor as I’m known to do, Brooks ought to be careful with his Christmas bounty in June. Even if you get the gift of your dreams, that doesn’t mean it’s not dangerous or that it can’t backfire. Even if you’ve spent the last several years dreaming about unwrapping your official Red Ryder carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air rifle with the compass in the stock and the thing that tells time, you can still shoot your eye out.

As I said, the lightweight division is beyond unforgiving, a crucible inside of a shark tank. On the whole, the fighters are more well-rounded and possess more dynamic, fight-ending abilities, and there are so many more of these sorts of athletes crawling around. Maybe Brooks will find a particular inspiration as he stands on the precipice of potential greatness, elevate his game and run roughshod to a UFC lightweight title shot, but individual agency has played an unsettlingly reduced role at 155 pounds.

Consider another former Bellator lightweight champion, Eddie Alvarez. Sure, Alvarez is about to be blessed with the UFC lightweight title shot MMA folks have thirsted for over the last seven or eight years. On the other hand, Alvarez entered the UFC hot off his thrilling November 2013 rematch win over Chandler, only to be handed a one-sided decision loss to a surging Donald Cerrone 11 months later. The matchmaking didn’t get much easier from there, as Alvarez was lined up for bouts against perennial divisional standouts Gilbert Melendez and former UFC champ Anthony Pettis.

In both cases, Alvarez abandoned his fan-friendly firefight style of combat for his wrestling, sneaking by Melendez on points before getting lucky against Pettis by eking out a split decision that a majority of the MMA public thought he lost. Alvarez, one of the 10 best lightweights ever, finally gets his crack at a UFC title, but he’s 2-1 in the promotion, has yet to have one great performance that reflects the sort of fighter he is, was blessed with favorable judging in a make-or-break fight and is still largely getting a title shot because the oft-injured Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson couldn’t get into the cage for their slated title eliminator two months ago.

The fact that Alvarez has underachieved in the UFC but still earned a title bid against Rafael dos Anjos seems to suggest that you don’t always need a gaudy eight-fight winning streak in the division to get a championship crack. However, Alvarez’s situation was born out of a host of chaotic factors that always seem to be part and parcel of the lightweight division, like brutal matchmaking, upset losses and ill-timed injuries to key contenders and questionable judging in the sort of razor-thin, nip-tuck fights that 155-pounders tend to produce. If you try to enumerate how many specific outcomes needed to occur in order for Alvarez to be the next man on deck for dos Anjos, you suddenly realize what a tempestuous world the lightweight division is.

When those forces conspire against you, when you’re the target, this lightweight division will ruin your life with flyweight speed and heavyweight power. Look at the aforementioned Pettis. His electrifying stoppages of Cerrone, Melendez and Benson Henderson may constitute the most outstanding three-fight winning streak I’ve ever seen in MMA. In a division where anarchy reigns, it looked like “Showtime” had the prodigious offense to shield himself from the chaos. Yet Pettis is 0-3 since the Melendez win and is now bound for the 145-pound division in August. Two years ago, he was a pound-for-pound king, and now he has been shamed out of the lightweight courtyard.

What if dos Anjos hadn’t smashed his orbital bone so quickly in Dallas? What if Pettis had gotten the decision he deserved against Alvarez? If either of those things happened, he wouldn’t have ended up in a stylistically challenging matchup against a fringe contender like Edson Barboza, who hung that third straight L on him. Yes, the line between winning and losing in MMA is always a damn fine one, and that is intensified in deeper, more skilled weight categories. At 155 pounds, falling on the wrong side of the line at the wrong time or against the wrong guy can teleport you straight into professional purgatory.

Brooks need not look any further than his own career trajectory if he needs a reminder of how stormy the lightweight seas are. When Brooks smashed through Kitaoka, he was an undefeated nobody and opened as a +400 underdog, yet came out of the fight looking like the Next Big Thing in the division. The one time Brooks tasted defeat, he was knocked silly by Saad Awad, a +300 underdog by fight time, in just 43 seconds. When they rematched eight months later, Brooks handled him with ease.

What was Brooks’ great breakout moment? Stepping into a Bellator title shot on a week’s notice against Chandler -- a fight in which bettors pounded the favorite so hard that Brooks closed as high as +700 and above on some sportsbooks. How did he win? In a fight most people scored 48-47 Chandler or a 47-47 draw courtesy of Brooks’ big third round, “Ill Will” won a split decision without a single 10-8 score. His entire MMA career, even before entering the UFC’s 155-pound gauntlet, has been a microcosm of the lightweight division’s unrelenting volatility.

For now, it’s still Christmas in June for Brooks and for all those thrilled to see him tangle with the best the division has to offer. However, when you face the best lightweights in the world on a constant basis, matchmaking, live underdogs, injuries, super-close fights and iffy judging are always swirling in the atmosphere, ready to storm. Brooks need only to take a look around him -- or even in the mirror – to realize how quickly the 155-pound division can turn a summery Christmas into a long, hellish winter.

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