Illustration: Ben Duffy/Sherdog.com
Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.
At the time I write this, 82 percent of the fighters in Sherdog’s official rankings are under contract with the Ultimate Fighting Championship or its de facto feeder organization, Invicta Fighting Championships.
That number does not even fully depict the shadow the UFC casts over today’s mixed martial arts landscape. All 15 fighters in the women’s strawweight rankings are in the UFC. In four other divisions -- middleweight, lightweight, men’s featherweight and women’s bantamweight -- 14 out of 15 ranked fighters are UFC or Invicta signees, and WBW only falls short of a perfect 15 because of the company’s seemingly vindictive, yet unsurprising decision not to re-sign Leslie Smith.
To put the UFC’s current level of industry dominance into historical perspective, here are a few snapshots from over the years.
• 36 percent: In March of 2002, the UFC was barely a year into the Zuffa era. At their last event, UFC 35, Jens Pulver had beaten B.J. Penn for the lightweight title, then promptly packed off for greener pastures. At the other end of the weight spectrum, Josh Barnett was about to throw a wrench into the heavyweight title picture before jumping ship himself. Barely a third of the ranked names in Sherdog’s poll of MMA media members were UFC fighters, and that is by the most charitable accounting possible; that only counts weight divisions that existed in the UFC at the time. Include featherweight, and the UFC’s number drops to 30 percent.
• 60 percent: In December of 2007, the UFC was unquestionably the world’s premier MMA promotion. The purchase of Pride Fighting Championships had been finalized that spring, and by the end of the year just about anyone who was coming to the UFC had done so. In fact, several of Pride’s biggest stars had already jumped ship before the merger. While there were plenty of exceptions, the general trend was that fighters from the heavier weight divisions came to America while the lighter ones stayed in Japan, as organizations like Dream and Sengoku rose from Pride’s ashes. In spite of the pervasive feeling that the UFC had scored a definitive victory over its last true rival, only 60 percent of the top-10 fighters in Sherdog’s official rankings were in the UFC.
• 83 percent: By March of 2013, the organization had achieved near-hegemony over the world of mixed martial arts. The final absorption of World Extreme Cagefighting in 2010 had been a major step, but the acquisition of Strikeforce in early 2013 was an unprecedented coup that had brought the vast majority of the world’s top MMA talent onto a single payroll. Other upstarts such as Affliction, EliteXC and the aforementioned Dream were gone. Bellator MMA was still growing but had settled into a clear second-fiddle role, rarely daring to challenge the UFC directly as Strikeforce and Affliction had attempted to do. Over 83 percent of the ranked fighters in the Sherdog Official Mixed Martial Arts Rankings were in the UFC.
In the five years since the Strikeforce merger, the UFC has continued to command the lion’s share of high-level talent at more or less the same rate. It is a situation that presents benefits as well as drawbacks for fighters, fans and the sport as a whole.
The most obvious benefit to having most of the best fighters in the same organization is that those fighters are routinely tested against one another. To fans who have come to MMA in the post-Strikeforce era, it is difficult to explain how frustrating it once was to have so many dream fights take place either past their expiration date, as in the case of Chuck Liddell vs. Wanderlei Silva, or not at all, as in the case of Fedor Emelianenko vs. Randy Couture. For every blockbuster fight that never happened, there are ten other, smaller-profile matchups that were equally intriguing to the hardcore types. Would Sean Sherk have beaten Tatsuya Kawajiri? You’d better believe I had an opinion in 2006, but now I’ll never know. Or perhaps I should say, in light of the recent Fedor Emelianenko vs. Frank Mir fight: Now I’ll hopefully never know.
Those what-if scenarios are vanishingly rare today. While I’ve resigned myself to die without ever knowing whether Mamed Khalidov was the second-best middleweight of his era or the 15th-best; he is very much an outlier as a fighter who has a long-standing, very well-paid relationship with an organization other than the UFC. I remain shocked that Ben Askren is retired without having had the chance to prove himself against the UFC’s killer welterweight division, so much so that I don’t quite believe it yet. In effect, I have become spoiled by the glut of talent in the world’s No. 1 MMA promotion, where the main problem in many divisions is an overabundance of deserving contenders, to the point that I am slowly starting to forget those days of arguing what-ifs and fantasy matchups on the forums. It isn’t a bad problem to have.
The drawback to the gradual consolidation of talent into the UFC is that it has also consolidated power into that organization’s hands and taken options away from fighters. Most fans I know are dissatisfied with the way UFC fighters are compensated, incentivized and generally treated by the promotion. That says nothing of how the fighters themselves feel about it, which is a matter of frequent, public record. However, with the exception of the Khalidovs of the world, plus a few veteran fighters who are able to parlay their name recognition into unsustainably large Bellator paychecks, leaving or spurning the UFC for a better situation is simply not an option in 2018 the way it was in 2003. The idea of a sitting champ taking off, Jens Pulver-like, to seek his fortune elsewhere would be laughable today.
The UFC’s labor relations have been the subject of countless articles and opinion pieces on this and other media outlets. Whether the discussion is of the organization continually flouting the line between employee and contractor, as my colleague Anthony Walker discussed recently, or how the UFC’s financial windfalls are of very little direct benefit to the fighters, as Eric Stinton wrote this week.
Stinton sums up the dynamic at work beautifully: the UFC operates the way it does because it can. And why can it? Because nobody has thus far been able to stop it, and there is no consensus on how one even would. If you ask one of the many fighters who feel mistreated by the UFC, Leslie Smith for example, you would be likely to hear that the answer is for fighters to form a union and engage in collective bargaining, like stick-and-ball sports leagues do. On the other hand, there is a significant faction, Jon Fitch and other MMAFA members among them, who would tell you that without class-action litigation, and without an extension of the Ali Act to cover mixed martial arts, unionization is an empty gesture with no real muscle behind it.
Whether the true solution is unionization, litigation, antitrust regulation or some combination of those, the fact remains that any solution is made more difficult by the UFC’s overwhelming success at bringing the best fighters in the world under their banner. And thus many fans, myself definitely included, are left in the difficult position of enjoying the fruits of what UFC President Dana White famously called “global f’ing domination,” while at the same time feeling uncomfortable with what that domination entails for the people who sweat and bleed for our entertainment.
A perfect example of this ongoing dilemma came up while I was writing this article: Yair Rodriguez’s summary dismissal by the UFC due to his apparent refusal of an offered fight with Zabit Magomedsharipov was front-page MMA news last week, was mentioned in passing in my own column last Friday and was a major topic of Ant Walker’s column this week. As it happens, the news just came out that Rodriguez is back in the UFC and -- to nobody’s surprise -- he is scheduled to fight Magomedsharipov in September. This is a situation that has played out similarly countless times; while Rodriguez is the one singing at the moment, any attentive MMA fan knows the tune by heart.
Hence the difficult position I mentioned previously. On the one hand, I positively love that fight. It offers likely fireworks as well as divisional relevance, the kind of main-card banger that changes my mind on whether to buy a pay-per-view or not. On the other hand, I cringe at the obvious strong-arming of Rodriguez by his erstwhile employer. It is disheartening that even a promising young fighter like “Pantera,” who represents the UFC’s coveted target market of Mexico to boot, has so little voice or autonomy. All I ever wanted was to see the best fighters pitted against each other while being compensated and treated well for doing so, and now I wonder: why is it a zero-sum game? Has the sport evolved in such a way that we can’t achieve both of those things at the same time without taking steps backwards?