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When Sage Northcutt-Mickey Gall was signed as the co-main event for UFC on Fox 22 this Saturday in Sacramento, California, it elicited praise in many circles. It was perceived as smart of the Ultimate Fighting Championship to match up two young mixed martial artists who are relatively famous for different reasons but not necessarily very good fighters yet. While it is a perfectly fine next fight for each man, it’s not the sort of bout the UFC would be wise to regularly feature second from the top on the biggest platform the company has at its disposal. The UFC has generally shied away from this sort of matchmaking, and for good reason: It’s the classic example of the type of fight that undermines the UFC’s core identity as the proving ground for the world’s best fighters, and it offers relatively nominal short-term upside.
It’s important to note that this argument against Northcutt-Gall as a Fox co-main event is not about fairness but rather is utilitarian. It may seem wrong that Northcutt is showcased above Urijah Faber -- perhaps the most important fighter ever in the development of the lighter weight classes in MMA -- in Faber’s retirement fight in his hometown. There may be merit to that, but MMA promotions are businesses, and they tend to pay attention more to the bottom line than to sensitivities. The issue is that this sort of booking isn’t in the best interests of the sport in the first place.
In Japan, major fighting organizations have been more apt to book novelty fights. It has led to big mainstream successes, but it has also led to much greater volatility and was a key reason for the precipitous fall of the once mighty K-1 organization. The Japanese promotions taught their fans that being a better fighter was often secondary to a variety of other attributes. Over time, that made it harder to create stars based on in-ring success and led to an arms race of sorts for novelty attractions with diminishing returns. Gabi Garcia being matched against a 52-year-old politician in the Rizin Fighting Federation is just the latest example.
Northcutt-Gall is of course a far cry from that fight, but it fits a similar pattern. Gall may prove to be a high-level fighter one day. However, he has done literally nothing to suggest that he’s any better than a random 3-0 prospect on a Legacy Fighting Championship undercard. Northcutt is a more proven commodity. He has fought four times now in the UFC against low-level opposition, and it’s clear he’s nothing special as a fighter yet. His fight at UFC 200 was of such a different skill level compared to the fights surrounding it that it was jarring. Northcutt-Gall isn’t a battle of elite prospects; it’s the battle between the guy who beat a famous pro wrestler and the guy who became famous for his looks.
This isn’t to demean either man. Neither has done anything wrong, and they’re young enough that they may prove to be world-class fighters one day. It’s just that they’re clearly not there yet, and there are opportunity costs to giving such a choice spot to them. It’s not like there is a shortage of intriguing young fighters.
Take as a random example Lando Vannata, who has similar youth, trains out of an elite camp and entered the UFC undefeated just like Northcutt and Gall. Unlike Northcutt and Gall, Vannata was thrown in the deep end on short notice at age 24 against Tony Ferguson, and he gave Ferguson all he could handle. Vannata’s performance against Ferguson, even in defeat, was more impressive than anything Gall or Northcutt have done by a very wide margin. What was his reward? His next fight was on UFC Fight Pass, and when he looked every bit the real deal as a fighter, it was viewed live by a mere fraction of the number of viewers who tune in to a UFC show on Fox. There’s nothing to suggest Vannata is less marketable than Gall or Northcutt; he just hasn’t been marketed as much.
If the UFC was built primarily around novelty fights, this wouldn’t be an issue. However, the UFC is built around titles. Fighters who can’t compete at the championship level have only a limited upside, as all of the top-grossing UFC pay-per-views without exception are built around champions or former champions. Just because fighters can fight at a championship level doesn’t mean they become drawing cards, either. It’s very difficult to get fighters to that level, which makes it even more counterproductive to focus on fighters who are unlikely to get there when there are dozens of championship-level fighters who can use all the help they can get capturing the public imagination.
Building around fighters that fans recognize are not at the top level sends the message to those fans that being the best isn’t that important. The more successful you are in turning those fighters into stars, the more it undermines high-level fighters who are less featured. Building novelty fighters up thus becomes a lose-lose proposition unless they prove they can fight at a high level; and it isn’t as if there is a dearth of marketable fighters who can fight at an elite level. In a promotion where merit reigns supreme over the long haul, resisting the temptation of slightly more appealing short-term novelties is consistently the smarter play.