Mamed Khalidov belongs in the UFC. | Photo: Jumana Totongi/Sherdog.com
Attention all Ultimate Fighting Championship hopefuls: despite the promotion’s plans to hold more events in more countries on more platforms than ever in 2014, UFC President Dana White would like you to know that he does not need you -- at least not on your terms. That is what White essentially said when he told Ben Askren to go find some real competition in World Series of Fighting and get back to him.
“I think it’s crazy that he’s ranked in the top 10. He hasn’t fought anybody and has no challenges,” White told MMAJunkie.com in a recent interview. “The best thing that could’ve ever happened to that kid was leaving Bellator. Now he has the opportunity to go to World Series of Fighting and show what he’s got.”
Apparently Askren’s 12-0 record, elite wrestling background and Bellator MMA title are all meaningless credentials when it comes to inking a deal with the world’s premiere mixed martial arts organization; and why should they matter? When the UFC has Royston Wee -- who has dominated two opponents on the Malaysian Fighting Championship circuit -- at the ready, who needs Askren?
How flawed is the Askren-needs-to-go-to-WSOF argument? Imagine telling a retail employee who works at Wal-Mart that he needs to apply at Target before he can even think about folding clothes at Macy’s. Both Bellator and WSOF have their strong points, but the transition from one to the other is a lateral move at best.
Askren, who recently revealed he would be joining the Singapore-based One FC promotion, remains unapologetic for winning fights his way, with a grinding style that does not place a premium on finishing. In other words, there are more than a few people who would say Askren is boring, UFC brass included. His approach to MMA, while highly successful, is not exactly opening doors for him, but there is probably more to it than that.
What the ongoing Askren free agency saga has taught us is that not every high-profile star on the market is going to have Joe Silva and Sean Shelby beating down his or her door. Sometimes, a number of factors need to align, including a fighter’s price tag. On a busy weekend when potentially intriguing Octagon prospects such as Mamed Khalidov and Holly Holm were in action, it is important to remember that the promotion is not averse to hunting in the bargain bin when it comes to building a roster.
The line between what is and is not UFC-worthy is less clear than ever. On Jan. 4, Wee will slide on his four-ounce UFC gloves and step into the Octagon for the first time against Dave Galera at UFC Fight Night 34 in Singapore. Before and after the fight, he can tell everyone that he actually does train UFC, and he will have the backing of MMA’s most prominent logo to prove it. It pays to be a relatively cheap commodity that can, in theory, help put butts in seats as a local drawing card.
To be fair, this is not a personal attack on Wee, who for all we know might be the nicest guy in the world and maybe, just maybe, The Next Big Thing in MMA. Most likely, he will far short of that mark, but we can expect plenty more of his kind down the road as the UFC attempts to expand its international presence. For now, he is the poster child for oversaturation and the mediocrity that accompanies it, at least until “The Ultimate Fighter: China” spawns a legion of Tiequan Zhang wannabes.
If Wee has a place in the Octagon, what of the Khalidovs and Holms of the world, the ready-made stars who, while not guaranteed title contenders, are more likely to draw the interest of the fan straight out of the gate?
Khalidov earned his eighth consecutive win, all of them finishes, with a first-round triangle choke of Ryuta Sakurai on Saturday at KSW 25. Khalidov is Sherdog.com’s No. 10-ranked middleweight and owns wins over the likes of Melvin Manhoef, Kendall Grove, Jesse Taylor, Jorge Santiago, Igor Pokrajac and Tor Troeng, to name a few. He has only lost once since 2006. It was reported by Fighters Only in 2012 that he makes approximately $30,000 per fight under the KSW banner. That is not an outlandish sum, if true, but certainly more than most UFC newcomers make.
While Khalidov’s resume is not filled with top 10 foes, he has been dominant against recognizable competition. He could certainly be a more attractive option to fill out an injury-ravaged UFC card than many of the mid-tier regional stars that populate lineups these days. However, at this point, it is quite possible that Khalidov is content to be compensated handsomely to fight in Poland, and the UFC is equally happy to let him do so. Adding a couple of wins in WSOF would not change much.
In the case of Holm, it would seem that the UFC needs her more than the former world champion boxer needs the promotion. The women’s bantamweight division remains a work in progress and, outside of Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate, is still in search of more star power. If Rousey ever decides to leave MMA to make movies on a full-time basis, somebody will have to fill the void. Holm, with an entertaining standup style, girl-next-door looks and fan-friendly personality, could be that person.
However, like Khalidov, Holm might make more money fighting in her native New Mexico than she could in the UFC -- at least at first. Her team has been adamant about waiting for the right offer before “The Preacher’s Daughter” can even think about setting her sights on Rousey’s throne. Whether it was a legitimate hope or a bit of negotiating gamesmanship, Rousey’s manager, Lenny Fresquez, recently told Sherdog.com he thinks his fighter should be paid six figures to compete in the UFC. It is hard to fault the promotion for balking at such a demand when Holm’s six MMA victories, while dominant, have not come against the best opposition available.
White himself addressed the Holm phenomenon following UFC 166 in October.
“I was on the street the other day and some guy was like, ‘Hey! Sign Holly Holm.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, I know. Everybody’s telling me,’” he said. “I haven’t seen her fight, but I keep hearing about her. Holly Holm: I don’t know what she looks like [and] I’ve never seen her fight, but I know who she is.”
White went on to compare Holm to a female Conor McGregor, a fighter in which the UFC has invested plenty. If Holm can generate anything near the hype of McGregor, she would be a boon to Zuffa. Still, the two sides must come to terms before Holm can punch the clock in the Octagon. As we have seen before, it is not always a guarantee.
What makes a fighter UFC-worthy then? Is it entertainment value, hype or talent? Sometimes, but occasionally it has more to do with affordability, availability and location.
The issue with the latter is that fans do not get excited about UFC events simply because the promotion threw some guys in a cage and called it a brand. They want to see the best in the world. If that means signing the likes of Askren, Khalidov and Holm for a little more cash than the Royston Wees, Dave Galeras and any other unknowns being sold as UFC-worthy, then so be it.
In truth, we do not know what kind of offer, if any, the UFC has made to the likes of Askren, Khalidov or Holm. Any or all of the above could sign with the promotion at any time. In MMA, the landscape can shift dramatically in a matter of days, weeks or months. We can speculate, however, that all of the above probably expect significantly more than the usual debuting undercard types. There is risk for the UFC in high-profile signings, as well. If they flop or fail to perform up to expectations, suddenly Zuffa is under scrutiny for putting too much stock in someone who built his or her reputation elsewhere.
Still, in the current climate, the fans would win if both sides could soften their stances and reach a compromise. There are plenty of events to go around.