Worth the Weight

By Ben Duffy Sep 7, 2018
Illustration: Ben Duffy/Sherdog.com

UFC 228 is now available on Amazon Prime.

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.

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Well, would you look at that? After all of the to-do leading up to UFC 228, with the Ultimate Fighting Championship going to the rare measure of having a substitute title challenger on deck and the controversy that ensued when the champion claimed to be disinclined to fight that substitute on short notice, it turns out we were worried about the wrong title bout.

Darren Till weighed in at 169 pounds on Friday, offering onlookers two defiant middle fingers -- and a pair of truly skeletal cheekbones -- as he did so. Tyron Woodley then made weight without incident or complaint, as he always does. Meanwhile, the UFC’s first women’s flyweight champion was sitting in a hospital bed, likely with an intravenous line dripping saline solution into her. Nicco Montano’s weight cutting-related health crisis forced the cancellation of her first title defense, leaving opponent Valentina Shevchenko without a dance partner and UFC 228 without a co-main event. Couldn’t she have fought a blindfolded Kamaru Usman or something? I hear he was in town.

The irony here is immediate and rich: Montano won the belt in the first place when fellow “The Ultimate Fighter 26” finalist Sijara Eubanks was forced out of their bout by a failed weight cut. Eubanks’ withdrawal -- also on weigh-in day, also reportedly due to kidney failure -- left Montano to contest the inaugural belt with Roxanne Modafferi, who is one of the most accomplished fighters in the history of the women’s divisions but had just lost to Eubanks. Needless to say, the fight did little to legitimize Montano in the eyes of most fans, and she would have entered the Shevchenko fight as the biggest underdog of any defending champion in UFC history.

Here then is the point to which we’ve come as a sport. There is now a division in the UFC where 100 percent of the title fights have been altered or cancelled altogether, thanks to blown weight cuts.

Observation No. 1: More Weight Classes are not the Answer
Remember when the introduction of the UFC’s 125-pound women’s division was announced? There seemed to be a sense that it would become a happy place for fighters who had not had a home: big strawweights who struggled to make 115, such as Joanne Calderwood, or career 135ers like Modafferi who were underpowered by modern bantamweight standards.

However, that view took no accounting of human nature in general and of the nature of professional fighters in particular. For as long as fighters perceive being the bigger man or woman in the cage on fight night to be a significant advantage, they will go to extremes to achieve it. It doesn’t matter whether there are two weight classes or 20. Name me a number, and I’ll show you a fighter somewhere who is willing to kill himself to get under it.

This doesn’t refer directly to Montano -- more on that later -- but as a general observation, more weight classes are not the answer.

Observation No. 2: We Need to Figure Out What Titles are Worth and Treat Them Accordingly
Shortly after the news of Montano’s withdrawal came out, a poll popped up on the Sherdog forums. After over 300 votes, 81 percent of poll respondents were calling for the UFC to summarily strip Montano of the belt, rather than rebook the fight.

Whoa, whoa, whoa. Where does that even come from? Is it sheer frustration from seeing yet another marquee fight go down the tubes because of weight cutting? Is it because Montano is such a lightly regarded champion that this fight was seen as little more than a formality before Shevchenko’s coronation? Whatever the reasons, that seems very hasty to me. Montano has gone nine months without defending the belt, which is far from ideal but hardly unprecedented. It’s not as if this is a well-established division with contenders queued out the door that’s been placed on hiatus.

Weight-cutting threatens fighters’ health and even their lives, which trumps everything else, but other than that, I feel the cheapening of championship titles is doing almost as much to undermine the sport and prevent it from being as great as it should be. The UFC has an established history of cheapening its own championship currency with panicky and desperate moves -- see the saga of interim welterweight champ Colby Covington for Exhibit A on that topic -- but it would be well-served to take a deep breath here and pay no heed to that forum poll or the emotions that are driving it.

For a division that has sputtered out of the gate and has a legitimacy issue hovering over its title, to strip its first champion of the belt without having her relinquish it in the cage is a step in the wrong direction. If we’re so sure that Shevchenko is simply going to steamroll her, why not just run it back in a month? It’s not about Montano; it’s about whether the belt means anything. If Shevchenko really is going to take over this new division and lay waste to all comers for the next few years, she -- and the division -- deserve the belt to be passed in the cage if at all possible.

I understand the zero-tolerance policy some fans espouse for weight-cutting offenders, especially those fighters who miss weight badly or chronically. Montano is not one of them. Unlike many of the UFC’s flyweights, who moved up or down to the 125-pound division, Montano has fought at this weight for most of her career and has a demonstrated an ability to make the limit. Remember, she made flyweight three times in six or seven weeks in the “Ultimate Fighter” house and won all those fights.

Till will fight for the welterweight title on Saturday. Win or lose, he made weight on Friday and then flipped us all the bird -- a testament to the value of second chances even for one of the most egregious weight offenders in today’s UFC. Montano, a first-time offender and someone who until now had done nothing less than pass all of the tests put in front of her, deserves at least that.

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