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In the aftermath of his last trip to the Octagon and still glowing in his impressive unanimous decision victory over Top-10 ranked Mark Hunt, Brock Lesnar was questioned on his future with the Ultimate Fighting Championship. More specifically, Lesnar was asked whether anything -- like his contract with World Wrestling Entertainment -- could obstruct him from another trip to the Ultimate Fighting Championship, possibly even a second run at the heavyweight title he’d lost in 2010. Without taking a breath, he answered: “Well, let’s get one thing clear. Brock Lesnar does what Brock Lesnar wants to do.”
At the time -- and certainly in the wake of two failed drug tests that nullified his victory over the “Super Samoan” -- few could have realized the exactness of that statement. Lo and behold, almost two years after it was made, Lesnar called UFC President Dana White and told him he wanted to fight the winner of the UFC 226 main event between Stipe Miocic and Daniel Cormier. White’s response? “Ok.” A few days later, Lesnar was center stage, promoting a fight with newly minted heavyweight champion Cormier in the most unpolished way possible.
Never mind that Lesnar still has another six months left of a United States Anti-Doping Association suspension to serve. Never mind that had he entered the USADA testing pool a few days earlier, he would have been barred from entering the cage, much less from engaging in shoving matches with Cormier and members of his team, under the terms of the USADA policy. Never mind that Lesnar is still indefinitely suspended by the Nevada State Athletic Commission and has an outstanding fine of $250,000 owed to the body. Never mind that Lesnar is the subject of an ongoing legal action stemming from his last fight, a RICO lawsuit brought by Hunt against the South Dakota native, White and the UFC. Never mind he hasn’t won a fight in nearly a decade and that all but one of the fighters he beat during his short career have long since retired from competition. Never mind that for the first time in years, the heavyweight division is actually ripe with promising contenders.
Remember, Lesnar does what he wants, and as long as what he wants corresponds with the promotion’s bottom line, then consider it a done deal. With few exceptions, fans and media have accepted this outcome with resignation, if not outright enthusiasm. Gone, it seems, are the days where purists cling to the idea that the UFC -- at least the UFC promoted by White and Lorenzo Fertitta -- is a place where world titles mean something and both meritocracy and sensible matchmaking are the company’s bedrock norm.
How did we get to this place? Winston Churchill once said, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” It’s an adage worth thinking about here.
The UFC has always marketed itself as a sports league but retained broad discretions to -- in the words of Marc Ratner’s testimony before Congress last year -- “put on the fights the fans want to see.” That applied back in 2002, when Ken Shamrock waltzed into a massive title fight with Tito Ortiz at UFC 40 after losing two of his previous three bouts; and it also applied in 2008, when Lesnar got a title shot against Randy Couture after winning just one fight under the UFC banner. Back then, though, these decisions were seen as exceptions to the rule. At UFC 40, the company was still haemorrhaging money in poorly thought out marketing campaigns, with the savior reality series “The Ultimate Fighter” still more than two years away. In 2008, Lesnar was a 31-year old athletic phenom who’d just taken out Pride Fighting Championships standout Heath Herring and was just about the only thing that could entice Couture to abandon his quest to fight Fedor Emelianenko in Affliction MMA and return to the Octagon.
The powers the UFC’s management reserved to make big fights that were impermissible on competitive principles alone were tolerated by fans and fighters because (a) they were used sparingly, and (B) the rest of the time, fighters -- no matter how high their profile -- had to earn their shot. The UFC understood the value in playing the long game and letting fighters’ athletic performance do most of the work, most of the time. Sure, this was subject to the expectation that fighters win in entertaining fashion, with the upshot being that wrestling-heavy fighters with a smothering style might need to win more often than their stand-and-bang counterparts, but at least winning was still part of the equation. Can we really say the same about the UFC in 2018?
In retrospect, one can’t help but attribute the ascent of Conor McGregor to the situation we find ourselves in now. More so than any of the men and women who came before him, the UFC gave McGregor a long leash to disrupt long-standing conventions based on the Irishman’s economic impact -- an attitude that was also likely informed by the fact the Fertittas were looking to inflate the value of the company before selling it to the highest bidder. First it was rushing “Notorious” into a title shot against featherweight champion Jose Aldo off the back of beating journeyman Dennis Siver. Then it was creating a featherweight logjam while McGregor sought a second title in the lightweight division, a campaign that was interrupted by a late-notice upset loss to Nate Diaz, followed by a rematch McGregor demanded. By the time the UFC had changed hands from Zuffa to talent agency William Morris Endeavor in July 2016, much of what had earned the company loyalty from the hard-core fans -- sensible, top-down matchmaking, divisional certainty and a non-negotiable obligation on champions to consistently defend their titles against the next top-contender -- had been suspended.
Throw in crushing debt, a palpable lack of knowledge about the sport and a vulture-capitalist mindset with a corresponding exodus of senior executives that might otherwise have steadied the ship, and by the time WME had its hands firmly on the baton the Fertittas had passed them, it had transformed into a poisoned chalice.
Two years later, a new status quo is in effect. Superfights, no longer the preserve of dominant champions like they were when the company was trying to make Anderson Silva-Georges St. Pierre a thing, are now the new normal. Returning champions with high profiles like St Pierre and Lesnar are invited to jump a laundry list of deserving contenders to fight for titles, even when there’s no expectation that they stick around to defend them. To accommodate these moves, entire divisions are being put on ice for months or even years at a time, giving highly ranked contenders nothing to fight for in the intervening period.
Interim titles have been utilized as one means of mitigating stagnation -- five have been awarded in the last two years -- but as Sherdog’s Ben Duffy pointed out last week, not even the UFC can bother acting like those belts mean something. Fighters have just as little reason as fans to trust the UFC’s promises at this point, a sentiment that is underscored by the company’s increasingly unsparing attitude towards compensating fighters whose opponents withdraw at the last minute.
For a brand that markets itself as sports-entertainment, the pendulum seems to have swung firmly in favor of the latter. What happens inside the confines of the cage may be an athletic competition, but the architectures dictating a fighter’s progression after the blood has dried -- at least at the very top -- have been recalibrated to respond only to pecuniary inputs.
That’s a reality we seem to have accepted -- although some fighters seem to be stuck in the “anger and bargaining” stage, number three in the seven stages of grief -- and thus far doesn’t seem to have had the disastrous consequences that myself and many others in the media predicted they would. Beyond making Bellator MMA a more appealing option for fighters when free agency rolls around, there’s nothing to indicate this new normal is anything but sustainable and lucrative for the UFC’s management for the foreseeable future.
I guess all we can do is strap ourselves in and enjoy the theatrics, because they’re not going away anytime soon.
Jacob Debets is a recent law graduate who lives in Melbourne, Australia. He has been an MMA fan for more than a decade and trains in muay Thai and boxing at DMDs MMA in Brunswick. His work has been published widely, including on Fight News Australia, LawinSports, LowKickMMA, MMASucka De Minimis and Farrago. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA Industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.