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Poor James Vick. A 9-1 mark in the Ultimate Fighting Championship used to be the sort of record that would likely get you a title shot, and if not, would certainly have you very close to one. After Vick defeated Francisco Trinaldo by a clear-cut unanimous decision at UFC Fight Night 126 on Sunday in Austin, Texas, he doesn’t appear to be on the verge of a title shot at all. However, what makes the situation even sadder for the Texan is that he seems resigned to this fact. After the fight, he seemed to have given up on the notion that the fighters above him in the lightweight rankings would agree to fight him. He’s forced to accept fights against the likes of Trinaldo, a tricky and successful fighter who doesn’t have the sort of name value upon which an opponent can capitalize.
In the past, there was generally only one real way for a UFC fighter to end up in Vick’s predicament despite a strong winning track record. That way was convincing the UFC that you weren’t a marketable commodity. In particular, if a fighter came along with a particularly unpleasing style, the UFC would sometimes match him with other opponents perceived to be skilled but unmarketable. If that fighter kept winning, he still might eventually get a title shot. If the fighter lost, it would mean many more steps backward or potentially a cut from the organization.
That isn’t Vick’s problem. He may not be the most exciting fighter on the roster, but he is entertaining enough. He has finished over half his UFC wins, mixing strong striking with a sneaky good submission game. Moreover, Vick isn’t devoid of personality. He’s willing to talk to build up his fights, and he clearly thinks about what he can do to raise his stature in the sport. Vick is not the sort of fighter the UFC tends to keep away from the limelight, nor is there any real signal that’s what the promotion is doing with him.
If Vick has built up quite the resume over the course of his UFC career and there aren’t obvious reasons to prevent him from shooting up the lightweight rankings, why haven’t those chances come? It has little to do with Vick. It doesn’t have all that much to do with the UFC decision making, either. Rather, it’s a reflection of a changing sport.
As the UFC has taken on such a hectic schedule, its roster has grown and grown. This affects all divisions but makes it particularly difficult for those in the deepest divisions like lightweight. To begin with, it’s exceedingly difficult to build momentum. There’s just too much talent. Someone as good as Will Brooks can come in and be promptly bounced out. Talents like Beneil Dariush, Evan Dunham and Rustam Khabilov are completely lost in the shuffle. Even if you do build momentum, there are so many established elite fighters that it’s hard to pass them by. A fighter on a big winning streak can feel like he’s running in place through no fault of his own.
Another significant change in the sport has been that it’s harder to get established stars to fight dangerous opponents on the rise. There’s more money in the sport, which means there’s less desperation to take the next possible fight. There are also so many shows that it’s easy to turn down an offer and then agree to something more favorable a few weeks later. This has given the UFC much less leverage, and fighters are using their leverage to pick opponents with good risk/reward ratios. It happens up and down divisions, often times resulting in fighter A accusing fighter B of ducking fighter A while simultaneously fighter C accuses fighter A of ducking fighter C. Vick can’t seem to get the fights he wants, and that’s not entirely accidental.
While these changes seem to be working against Vick, it’s worth noting that there’s also the possibility they’re working in his favor. He’s been stockpiling wins and the win bonuses that come with them for years. We don’t know how Vick would do if matched against the elite of the division fight after fight. His defeat to Dariush in June 2016 might signal a fighter who is just a little short of elite.
If that ends up being the case and Vick turns out not to be an elite lightweight, it was fortuitous that the sport has developed to where he was able to excel at just the right level for him. There are certainly plenty of examples over the years of UFC title challengers who weren’t ready for that level of competition yet and suffered one-sided losses followed by extended declines. The old expression about being careful about what one wishes for applies to few enterprises better than hand-to-hand combat.
Of course, if Vick has evolved into an upper-echelon fighter, the prime of his career is being squandered when he doesn’t have the opportunity to show what he can do against the best. Vick himself also deserves the opportunity to test himself at that level, and fans deserve the chance to see it. As such, while it’s understandable the wait has lasted as long as it has, it’s time for the UFC to step up and make sure next time out that Vick has a big fight coming his way.
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.