Opinion: UFC’s Q1 2020 Plans Put Merit on the Backburner for Business

By Patrick Auger Jan 30, 2020
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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On Jan. 18, at UFC 246, Conor McGregor made quite the comeback statement by TKOing Donald Cerrone in just 40 seconds. In his post-fight Octagon interview, “Notorious” stated that he made history by achieving multiple knockout victories across three weight classes (though Jared Cannonier would beg to differ) and touted his Proper 12 Irish Whiskey, showing renewed vigor and showmanship following the win. When asked about whom he wanted to face next, the Irishman said that he welcomed all-comers at both welterweight and lightweight, with plans to return to the gym quickly after a brief celebration with friends and family. According to Ultimate Fighting Championship President Dana White, however, the promotion plans on running back McGregor vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov for the 155-pound title the first chance they get, hoping to cash in on a sequel to the most lucrative pay-per-view in UFC history. This is providing Nurmagomedov retains his belt in April against Tony Ferguson, of course, but even if Ferguson were to hand the undefeated Dagestani his first loss, it certainly sounds like “Mystic Mac” would be the leading candidate for Ferguson’s first title defense.

That notion has left some fans (and Justin Gaethje) scratching their heads. After all, the bout with Cerrone at UFC 246 took place at 170 pounds. Although McGregor won in emphatic fashion, it seems counterintuitive that he should receive a lightweight title shot based off of a welterweight victory. It makes even less sense when you consider that Gaethje has been on a tear in the 155-pound division, securing three consecutive first-round finishes over ranked opponents, Cowboy included. If a win over Cowboy is enough to earn a title shot, then “The Highlight” certainly has a stronger case for the next crack at the belt than McGregor -- at the very least, he should get a No. 1 contender match with the Irish superstar.

Lightweight isn’t the only division experiencing this phenomenon. Just a few days before UFC 246, the promotion announced that Israel Adesanya would defend his new 185-pound title against Yoel Romero at UFC 248 on March 7. Romero os 1-3 in his last four bouts, most recently losing a tightly-contested unanimous decision to Paulo Henrique Costa at UFC 241. Costa was originally slated to challenge “The Last Stylebender” but was ruled out after having surgery for a biceps injury late last year. With no clear contender in the division—though this guy has been on a tear—and Adesanya calling for a fight with Romero, the “Soldier of God” will get his fourth middleweight title shot since first challenging Robert Whittaker back in 2017.

The bantamweight division has also opted to award a title shot to a fighter coming off of a loss. The UFC is attempting to book 135-pound champion Henry Cejudo against divisional newcomer Jose Aldo as the headliner of UFC 250 on May 9 in Brazil. Aldo most recently competed at UFC 245 against Marlon Moraes in a bout that saw “Scarface” lose a debatable split decision to the 31-year-old former title contender, with White openly stating in the post-fight press conference that Aldo should have been awarded the decision. Unlike middleweight, the decision for Aldo to get a crack at the belt is a bit more controversial given that contenders Petr Yan and Aljamain Sterling are both healthy and on impressive win streaks.

Fighters being awarded title shots coming off of losses is nothing new for the UFC, but as the promotion’s roster size has grown it has become increasingly rare. While a few divisions lack the depth to produce multiple relevant contenders (I’m looking at you heavyweight and women’s featherweight), most weight classes have at least two athletes who would be justified in receiving a match against their respective champion. In some cases, such as lightweight and welterweight, there is a legitimate backlog of worthy opponents for the champion to face, spurring heated debates about the order in which they should get their chance at gold.

To the UFC, however, there are two main factors at play in their decisions to award these types of title shots: schedule and name value. In the past several years, the organization has opted to increase its yearly amount of shows, hosting 42 events in 2019 and looking to do the same in 2020. As a result of this change, the promotion increasingly finds itself hard-pressed to book replacement main events should penciled-in fighters get injured or need additional recovery time before they step back into the cage, a common occurrence in the world of MMA.

Name value also plays a major role in that equation. With 12 of the 42 annual events being on pay-per-view, the UFC puts what they believe to be the biggest matchup draws on those cards, often in conflict with what makes sense from a meritocratic standpoint. While Cejudo vs. Sterling or Adesanya vs. Cannonier certainly make sense based on their current win streaks, the promotion has most likely assessed that Romero and Aldo will make for better business overall using their internal metrics. If Aldo were to be victorious in Brazil, it would certainly make for a great story, and if Adesanya can beat Romero, it would silence critics who say that Adesanya has yet to be tested against a true standout wrestler. McGregor vs. Nurmagomedov or Ferguson will almost certainly draw more buys than Gaethje facing either of those opponents as well.

Even though the UFC is starting off 2020 with multiple fights booked under these dubious methods, it is unlikely that the trend will continue much further into the year. McGregor is often the exception to the rule due to his massive drawing power and the organization only made the Adesanya vs. Romero fight because Costa was out for an extended time period. Whether rising contenders continue to string together wins or get derailed by someone at the top, meritocracy is the natural order of things in the sport, and eventually business needs and merit should align within most divisions. That being said, one shouldn’t hold their breath, because when it comes to the UFC there are always wild card options that could come into play. Advertisement

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