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Ultimate Fighting Championship President Dana White last week publicly expressed frustration in his inability to get Nick Diaz and Nate Diaz fights. Nate on Monday fired back at White’s characterization of the issue but acknowledged in the process that he was offered fights he laughed off. It doesn’t really matter who’s right or wrong; there’s nothing wrong with the UFC trying to encourage top fighters to compete just like it’s the prerogative of those fighters whether they choose to do so. However, regardless of blame, the fact remains that Nate has only fought four times since 2013 while Nick has fought just once. These are two of the most exciting fighters in the game, and we’re missing out on the primes of their careers.
On the micro level, healthy fighters electing to fight infrequently -- a suspension also contributed in Nick’s case -- is bad for the UFC in the sense that it has plenty of shows to fill. UFC matchmakers can use every star they can get in order to put together the best cards and generate higher income. The popular Diaz brothers absolutely fit the bill in that regard, as their fights are almost always of significant interest. Still, it’s just a few fights here and there that we’re talking about. It’s no existential crisis. In the bigger picture, whether this evolves into a larger trend over time is of paramount importance to the UFC. It could end up being a very big deal.
The potential threat the UFC faces over time is that more and more fighters will follow the course of the Diaz brothers, taking fewer fights at the peak of their marketability. A fighter here or there is no big deal, but there are good reasons to believe those numbers could grow. The sport has evolved in a way that makes inactivity more likely on a number of different fronts (online betting).
Over the course of MMA history, fighters have regularly dropped out of competition in the primes of their careers. In the past, the reason was pretty much always simple. There just wasn’t very much money in the sport. If the passion wasn’t there, the incentives were low. For so many MMA pioneers, the appeal in fighting was principally the thrill or the challenge. MMA in that way naturally selected for people who had a real passion for the competition. Now, fighters are entering MMA viewing it as an occupation. That changes the dynamics of the sport.
Plenty of people enjoy their jobs but there is a difference between approaching something as a hobby and approaching it as an occupation. Take Tony Ferguson for example. Ferguson fights with a relentless spirit in the cage. Nobody would accuse him of just doing it for the paycheck. However, he got into the sport with the knowledge that the potential was there to make good money. When Khabib Nurmagomedov dropped out at UFC 209, Ferguson looked at the diminished paycheck he was being offered to fight a different opponent and turned down the opportunity.
A common story among MMA fighters of previous generations was struggling just to get a fight on a smaller show. They’d show up and hope the promoter could find them an opponent. There was little to no money. The opponent would often be completely unknown and perhaps even in a different weight class. The idea of turning down a fight because a win bonus was only in the $100,000 range rather than $250,000 would have seemed absurd to the Jeremy Horn of that time period.
It’s important to reiterate that the fighter in question is Ferguson. This is not someone lacking in guts or courage. He’s a fighter’s fighter. That reality underscores the change in fighter outlook all the more strongly. Ferguson approaches fighting as a way to feed his family and will make calculations with that in mind. That’s not a knock on him in the slightest. It simply means that even the gutsiest in-cage competitors aren’t going to fight just for the sake of fighting like so many in the generation before.
That change in outlook and motivation becomes crucial when combined with another change in the sport: greater paychecks. As more money has flowed into MMA, the biggest stars can do quite well for themselves. Nate made huge sums of money for his bouts with Conor McGregor and, as a result, doesn’t particularly need another paycheck anytime soon. Some fighters will obsessively want to keep making more and more money, like McGregor or Floyd Mayweather Jr. However, others are going to be perfectly content to take a long break after a high six-figure payday. That appears to be the case with the Diaz brothers. They want something particularly enticing in order to go back into training camp.
If a fighter is motivated by pure passion for the competition, big money entering into the equation won’t mean fewer fights. Likewise, if a fighter is driven in life by the desire to constantly purchase nicer things, he doesn’t need to be innately driven by competition in order to fight frequently. However, the combination of those two factors makes it more likely over time that fighters will take more time off when increasingly lucrative paychecks provide what they entered into the sport to attain. Then there’s a third contributing factor that could play a role over time.
MMA is different from most occupations in regards to the risk involved to the participants. Moreover, just like paychecks have gone up over time, so too has knowledge about concussions. In recent years in the NFL, players are retiring at increasingly young ages. It’s not just players worn out by the toll in their late 20s now but players just a year or two into their careers. They recognize the dangers, and they retire after collecting a few big paychecks. As knowledge about the dangers of head trauma increases, more fighters are likely to take a cautious approach. The Diazes have been in some wars; they’re certainly not hurting their long-term health by taking some time off.
It’s entirely possible that the Diaz brothers, particularly Nick, turn out to be extreme outliers in their willingness to fight less even in their primes. However, the reasons for more fighters to take that course will only grow more pronounced. It will affect the sport greatly if over time we see more fighters getting into the sport for the financial rewards, making that money and then getting out before they take too much punishment. If that proves to be the case, we’re seeing the early pioneers for a trend that White surely won’t be cheering on.