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Perhaps the most unanimously beloved championship domino fell when Robbie Lawler was knocked out at UFC 201 on Saturday in Atlanta. Prior to that, it seemed like no division was safe.
Starting with Holly Holm’s win over Ronda Rousey at UFC 193, every division except light heavyweight, flyweight and women’s strawweight has seen varying degrees of championship reshuffling. Conor McGregor dethroned longtime featherweight king Jose Aldo; Dominick Cruz reclaimed his bantamweight title from reigning champ T.J. Dillashaw; Stipe Miocic shocked undisputed heavyweight champion Fabricio Werdum in Brazil; Michael Bisping upset Luke Rockhold in spectacular fashion; and Eddie Alvarez put a beatdown on Rafael dos Anjos. Now, Tyron Woodley can add his name to that list. The only three divisions not affected by this have basically been held steady by all-time talents -- Joanna Jedrzejczyk, Demetrious Johnson and, with all due respect to Daniel Cormier, Jon Jones. I know, Jedrzejczyk hasn’t done enough yet to be grouped in such company, but consider this my prediction that she’s on her way.
It is indeed a turbulent time to be a UFC champion. Although some weight classes, like lightweight and heavyweight, are historically unkind to prolonged title reigns, others have been defined by distinct championship eras.
Coincidentally, welterweight is probably the most dynastic division: Other than blips of Carlos Newton, B.J. Penn and Matt Serra, 170 pounds has been the weight class of long reigns. Pat Militich had his four-defense title run; Matt Hughes had two separate title reigns, one with five defenses and the other with two; and of course, we probably don’t need to say much about George St. Pierre, who dominated to the extent that we’re simply enjoying the post-GSP era right now. Woodley had a great performance against Lawler, but he’s at least another three wins away from the starting line of that conversation.
So what’s the state of things amid the title turnover? Expectedly, there are abundant hot takes as to what it all means, as it is human nature to compartmentalize the unexplained as broadly as possible. Allow me to be your guide through the thicket.
The most noticeable -- and worst -- take is that this is somehow a sign that the Golden Age is behind us. This rationale has less to do with objective observation and more to do with nostalgia. Due to the short history and polarizing nature of MMA, the popularity of the Ultimate Fighting Championship waxes and wanes with the star power of individuals. As such, people tend to get drawn into the sport because of specific fighters. For those who got into the sport near or at the ground floor, there’s a strong nostalgic pull of yesteryear. The great champions of old have singed into the history books so many memorable moments that it’s easy to mistake our affinity for them as a sign of quality long gone. The contrast is especially bad when newer champions don’t move the needle for us, which happens when they don’t stick around long enough to become familiar. Plus, the haze of hindsight can often blur reality and make us forget the very real shortcomings of former greats; for all we know, Woodley might have done the same to late-career St. Pierre as he did to Lawler.
A weird misreading happens when there’s frequent turnover at the top. Instead of interpreting that kind of parity as “anybody can win on any given night,” some see it as “any nobody can win on any given night.” This ignores the fact that the top-to-bottom level of talent in the UFC is far more competitive at a much higher level than ever before, not to mention the more important nuances of how styles and fighters can match up differently. Make no mistake, professional fighting is as good as it has ever been, regardless of longstanding champions.
The weird thing with that line of thought is that by discrediting the newjacks in a preemptive and unnecessary defense of the old guard, it actually undermines the latter’s greatness. Part of the reason why guys like St. Pierre and Anderson Silva are as idolized as they are is because they were capable of putting together such extraordinary runs. With the titles swapping hands so much now, it shows just how hard it is to do that. In saying the reason for the ongoing championship Round Robin is a lack of elite talent, it cuts pedestals shorter than they should be. The fact that it is so easy for belts to change hands is a testament to how hard it is to hang onto them.
It’s easy to see how this kind of rationale sprouts, especially since St. Pierre -- or Silva, Jones, Chuck Liddell or any other long-reigning champion – ended his career as a top draw. Now, it feels like everybody is losing before they get a chance to achieve that level of stardom. It stands to reason that being the best fighter in a division makes anyone some kind of draw, though of course Demetrious Johnson can attest to the fact that it doesn’t always convert into more fans or bigger fights and paychecks. Still, the biggest draws in the sport have also all been champions. Clearly, popularity and in-cage greatness are not necessarily related.
If anything, this is all part of the MMA lifecycle. It’s probably for the best; new names become old names, and one day they lend the weight of their accomplishments to build up the next in line. Have no fear, the state of UFC championships is fine, and it will continue to be so as more and more champions have shorter and shorter reigns. That’s why the sport is fun and why it’s so special when someone comes along and stays put at the top of his or her division.
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.