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The Ultimate Fighting Championship was built on a simple principle: The best fight the best. Where boxing moved towards the biggest paydays and at times ignored integrity in matchmaking, championship belts and rankings, the upstart sport of modern mixed martial arts often differed. If you were the best in the world, all you had to do was step into the Octagon and prove it.
Fast forward to 24 years after the opening bell at UFC 1 in Denver, and we are looking at a much different landscape. Still the world’s undisputed leader in MMA, the UFC has seemingly abandoned the strict guidelines of separating itself from the negatives associated with its sister sport. In fact, 2017 has been an almost complete 180.
While not the biggest shock to regular observers of the sport, the recent vacancy at the top of the middleweight division highlights this changing dynamic. What is most alarming about Georges St. Pierre relinquishing his newly acquired 185-pound belt is not that he has invalidated entire division -- a topic I and my colleagues at Sherdog.com have discussed at length; it’s that this was fully sanctioned by UFC brass. Immediately following UFC Fight Night 123 on Saturday in Fresno, California, UFC President Dana White told reporters that expected the title to be abandoned. Those concerned about the sporting integrity we have come to expect from the promotion should be alarmed by this otherwise mundane statement.
While we have seen some tomfoolery enter the UFC’s championships before, the fact that this was expected by the promotion and still allowed to happen is particularly disturbing. It shows a total lack of concern for the future. St. Pierre submitted Michael Bisping in a thrilling spectacle at UFC 217, and while it was certainly an entertaining affair and successful on pay-per-view with an estimated 875,000 buys, it has now come and gone, with a talent-rich and vibrant division left in shambles in its wake.
Simultaneously, lightweight champion Conor McGregor has yet to defend his belt after defeating Eddie Alvarez over a year ago at UFC 205. Of course, he was allowed to leave MMA to challenge undefeated boxing legend Floyd Mayweather Jr. in what was a hugely profitable bout in August. This all came after the Irish superstar defeated longtime featherweight champion Jose Aldo and was stripped of the 145-pound crown shortly after UFC 205. Both the featherweight and lightweight divisions have since been forced to create interim titles in an attempt to keep the weight classes in motion.
While McGregor has yet to be booked for another UFC event, he is supposedly considering a return to the boxing ring to fight Manny Pacquiao. Despite the fact that both White and Top Rank CEO Bob Arum, Pacquiao’s promoter, have denied that any fruitful talks have taken place, this sounds all too familiar. Similar statements and damning declarations were made when Mayweather-McGregor was just a rumor, as well. In defense of this summer’s crossover event, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to simply entertain in the spirit of good fun, not to mention the insane amount of money made. However, it was lightning in a bottle, and all relevant parties should not be reaching to capture it again.
This year alone, we had a mockery made of the women’s featherweight title in a comically thin division, as Germaine de Randamie vacated the title after refusing to fight the No. 1 fighter at 145 pounds: Cristiane Justino. “Cyborg” captured the title after defeating Tonya Evinger at UFC 214. This was the same event that saw Jon Jones beat Daniel Cormier to return to the top of the light heavyweight division, only to see him stripped of the championship following a positive test for an anabolic steroid.
The UFC did not plan for de Randamie to abdicate her throne or Jones to ingest turinabol and should not be blamed for those black eyes. These were unforeseen and unfortunate occurrences that have jeopardized the legitimacy of their respective divisions. Just like when B.J. Penn left the welterweight belt and Randy Couture parted ways from his heavyweight title, the promotion was forced to pick up the pieces and eventually found solid footing. However, the intentional sabotage is unprecedented. Enough unexpected things happen between drug testing, injuries and the varying personalities that make up the roster. With that in mind, the company should not look for ways to destroy the integrity of the product presented to the audience.
The damage may not be long-lasting at middleweight, as interim champion Robert Whittaker has been promoted and is slated to defend his now undisputed belt against former champion Luke Rockhold at UFC 220 in January. The damage may not last long at lightweight, either, as Tony Ferguson sits comfortably with that division’s interim title. The featherweights now have an established king in Max Holloway. However, getting comfortable in the cycle of unwarranted title shots, ignored rankings, carnival matchmaking, interim champions and vacant belts is a dangerous road for the leading promotion to walk down. The more we find comfort in that, the more we find comfort in the best not fighting the best.