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Fighters don’t always get what they deserve. Title shots are often dispersed based on considerations that go beyond merit. Great champions are dismissed as having always been overrated as soon as they start losing. The battle for pay continues year in and year out. Injured fighters find themselves stuck between facing criticism for pulling out of fights or derision for losing if they work through whatever ails them. It’s an exciting sport but not always a just one.
A couple of recent examples are instructive. Cub Swanson toiled away for years as a top contender without ever receiving a title shot. It’s unlikely there was any animus against him; the timing just didn’t line up. Swanson just kept going and built up a four-fight winning streak that included a classic victory over Doo Ho Choi. Not seeing a title shot on the horizon, Swanson decided to bet on himself. He fought through the final bout of his Ultimate Fighting Championship contract, figuring a win over Brian Ortega would put him in position to earn a great new contract and a title opportunity in the UFC or elsewhere.
Of course, Swanson’s big bet failed. Ortega submitted Swanson in December, Swanson’s leverage disappeared and he’s now a 34-year-old free agent who seems to be as far away from his title shot as ever. It feels like the fan-friendly and highly respected veteran deserved better, but those are the breaks of the sport.
Circumstances are even worse for UFC middleweight champion Robert Whittaker. He slowly worked his way to the top of the division, was handed nothing along the way and earned everything he got. However, Whittaker never got the chance to challenge the middleweight champion for his belt. Instead, he had to wait for the title to be vacated. His first title defense was supposed to take place in his home country of Australia, but that was stripped of him, too, when he fell ill to a severe staph infection. Whittaker did everything right, and it certainly hasn’t paid off as well as one would hope.
Given those cruel realities, it was encouraging to see the way things turned out Saturday on a big evening for MMA. It was a night when underappreciated hard workers got the due they are deserved in both the UFC and Bellator MMA. That wasn’t necessarily expected going in, and happy endings are far from guaranteed in mixed martial arts.
Going into the heavyweight title fight at UFC 220, all the hype surrounded Francis Ngannou. He was the potential superstar on the rise with the explosive knockout power. Champion Stipe Miocic, on a tremendous roll of his own and fighting to become the first fighter to score three consecutive UFC heavyweight title defenses, was an afterthought. That’s only apropos, given that underestimation has been a defining characteristic of Miocic’s career. Miocic was an underdog against Roy Nelson, against Junior dos Santos, against Fabricio Werdum -- and against Ngannou. The firefighter just kept winning.
The fight against Ngannou was a microcosm of Miocic’s career, in general. Ngannou came out strong, but Miocic worked his way through danger and pulled away over the long haul. Ngannou was more glamorous with the power of his early punches, but Miocic was more effective. By the end of the night, the discussion centered on Miocic’s legacy rather than Ngannou’s potential. It was a well-deserved collective tip of the hat to a deserving champion.
It has been a rough year for Daniel Cormier. His second fight with bitter rival Jon Jones ended in a knockout loss. Fans seemed to side with Jones in spite of the stark contrast between the ways the two men have conducted themselves over the years. Jones then failed another drug test, leading to Cormier being given back the title after being knocked out. The whole situation was a mess.
Those realities won’t go away for Cormier, but in the UFC 220 co-main event, the elite competitor got back to what he has done so well over the course of his life: thriving in competition. Like Miocic, Cormier avoided the early danger of a hungry younger challenger. Cormier then pulled away in even more emphatic fashion, pounding out an important win against Volkan Oezdemir. It was a reminder of Cormier’s greatness, the Jones bouts aside.
As striking as Cormier’s performance was the reaction to it. Cormier, one of the sport’s true good guys, hasn’t always been greeted like one. In Boston, he got the sort of reception he deserved. He was warmly received by the crowd, had the opportunity to fully celebrate his victory and got to pose backstage with his family and his title. Cormier has had some rough days in the past year, but this was a richly deserved bright spot.
Fighters got their due not only in victory but in defeat. Bellator’s welterweight division in recent years has flown under the radar. Champions like Douglas Lima and Andrey Koreshkov have fought at a very high level but don’t get much respect relative to the UFC’s welterweight division. Bellator 192 continued that pattern, as Rory MacDonald was the focal point of the welterweight title fight much more so than Lima.
At the end of their bout, MacDonald may have gotten his hand raised, but Lima proved the quality of Bellator’s welterweight crop. Lima gave MacDonald everything he could handle, and after the fight, MacDonald declared the Brazilian his toughest opponent. It didn’t seem like too much of an exaggeration given what a tough fight Lima gave MacDonald. It’s not hard to imagine Lima winning a rematch, nor is it so hard to imagine Lima or Koreshkov presenting significant problems for the UFC’s best. Lima earned his respect.
Just like negative developments can sometimes catch fighters and fans by surprise, so too can positive ones. UFC 220 and Bellator 192 provided respect, accomplishment and love for fighters who richly deserve it but don’t always get it. That’s something worth celebrating.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.