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Since Pride Fighting Championships was absorbed by Zuffa in 2007, the Ultimate Fighting Championship has been considered the gold standard for mixed martial arts -- and for good reason. The UFC has consistently been home to the world’s top fighters. As aspiring martial artists have clawed their way through the landscapes of seemingly lesser promotions, the question we ask ourselves is whether or not someone is “UFC-caliber.” What does that mean now?
There was a time when having those three letters attached to your bio meant you were a cut above others. It meant that you took on the best competition on the outskirts of MMA to prove you were worthy of stepping into the Octagon. Despite this historic norm, the tide appears to be changing. This shift was apparent with UFC Fight Night 117 and Bellator 183.
At the famed Saitama Super Arena in Saitama, Japan, on Friday, a filler UFC card devoid of many relevant names outside of the top two fights was held. This included legendary kickboxer Gokhan Saki, who made his debut in the promotion. While Saki gave us a highlight-reel knockout and delivered on the action front, was his inclusion warranted based on the “UFC-caliber” mentality? The Turkish fighter was previously finished in his only other MMA bout in 2004. Although he has a stellar resume as a kickboxer, he was inactive for over two years. This absence from competition was preceded by a win over an opponent on a two-fight losing streak and his being crowned the inaugural Glory light heavyweight champion after injury TKOs secured his spot at the top of the tournament.
There was a time in the recent past where the inactivity and the dubious nature of his prior wins would have mandated Saki get a win outside of the promotion before being signed.
When Brock Lesnar announced his intention to compete in MMA, he wasn’t immediately brought into the UFC. His NCAA credentials and massively popular status in professional wrestling meant nothing until he earned a win over Min Soo Kim at K-1 Hero’s event. Even James Toney was a more recent champion than Saki when he stepped in against Randy Couture at UFC 118.
The top two fights at Bellator 183 on Saturday added another wrinkle to the debate. Benson Henderson, who left the UFC on a two-fight winning streak, dropped a split decision to fellow former title challenger Patricky Freire. This was Henderson’s third loss in four fights under the Bellator banner. Needless to say, the former UFC and World Extreme Cagefighting lightweight champion has struggled to find solid footing in his new home.
Lorenz Larkin left the UFC on a high note, as well. His two-fight winning streak also led into an immediate bid for the Bellator MMA welterweight crown. However, after a losing effort against champion Douglas Lima and a finish at the hands of Paul Daley at Bellator 183, he, too, has been met with a rough road.
Perhaps the argument can be made that these fighters are past their prime and can no longer hang with the so-called inferior competition outside of the UFC; or perhaps that competition isn’t so inferior. Both Henderson and Larkin own recent decision wins over Jorge Masvidal, who is now on the shortlist of potential UFC title challengers at 170 pounds. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone who wouldn’t say that beating “Gamebred” doesn’t make someone “UFC caliber.”
In his Bellator debut, Henderson faced a tremendous size disadvantage against then-champion Andrey Koreshkov. His next title shot in the 155-pound division saw him lose a relatively competitive fight to Michael Chandler. Do losses to either of these men completely destroy the notion that Henderson could still have credible success in the current UFC lightweight landscape? While Sherdog.com columnist Todd Martin may be correct in saying his best days are behind him, I believe that he still matches up quite well against some top lightweights and if afforded the opportunity would still be a tough matchup for some of the top 10 fighters in the division.
Meanwhile, Larkin’s spectacular knockout win over Neil Magny -- who is currently ranked as the No. 9 welterweight in the world by Sherdog.com -- made him the only person to have finished the Colorado native with strikes. Does a loss to the criminally underrated Lima and forever heavy-handed UFC exile Daley mean Larkin is no longer a UFC-caliber fighter? It would be outrageous to even entertain such an idea.
The notion that a fighter is UFC-caliber is outdated and should be put out to pasture with such select phrases as “don’t leave it in the hands of the judges” and “to be the champ, you’ve got to beat the champ.” The UFC is still the creme de la creme of MMA. However, the automatic assumption that those initials are the end-all-be-all doesn’t fit into the current structure of the promotion. When the roster can balloon to over 500 fighters to fill a bloated schedule of 41 fight cards in 2017, the standard lowers. Add in the need to sell tickets and pay-per-views to meet the financial needs of new ownership and that standard lowers even further to attract the attention and dollars of the mainstream audience.
When top-tier fighters of all weight classes are spread throughout numerous promotions, it would be foolish to simply use UFC-caliber as the standard to measure combatants. Look no further than the exclusion of Ben Askren and the inclusion of Phil Brooks, aka “CM Punk,” as a testament to this. It is unlikely that the UFC will lose its spot as the brand standard for the sport in the near future, but it is even more unlikely that the saying “UFC-caliber” will mean anything nearly as significant as it did in the not too distant past.