Sacrificing the Young

By Jordan Breen Jun 14, 2009
At UFC 99, I watched a worthwhile prospect in Ben Saunders outmatched in a pointless bout designed to trick and fool spectators. I watched a great prospect in Cain Velasquez diligently work on his craft in the cage, but with a sense of finitude for that luxury. Needless to say, I was a sad purist panda.

As verbose as I am, I'd like to write a 4000-word tome on all the inane ideas people have about developing prospects in MMA. However, because my editors think you're all ADHD-addled adolescents whose brains melt after 1200 words, I can't. So, let us stick to the more specific and pointed question of whether or not it's feasible for Zuffa to allow blue chippers to blossom in the UFC.

I've already dedicated radio hours and column inches to the fact that as a sport, MMA maims, rapes and kills its young. However, prospect development is an extremely foxy issue for Zuffa specifically. Because regional MMA is still a work in progress, prospects who can draw a major audience as a local star -- like Eddie Alvarez in his early career -- are few and far in between, and limited by the lack of stalwart promoters. Therefore, it's often attractive for sterling young fighters and their managers to get them big show deals, because it represents not only adequate purses but also a level of competition that can foster their development -- or, of course, completely railroad them.

However, the design for the UFC (or WEC for that matter) is at odds with the true development of prospects because the entire business is built around funneling fighters toward the top to fight for titles. Fans are already debating how Velasquez fares against elite heavyweights. Worse for fighters, it's often in Zuffa's interest to risk pushing prospects quickly in the off-chance they're able to develop like as B.J. Penn, Georges St. Pierre or Brock Lesnar, which gives the promotion another star.

This structure exists only to support itself. It holds any average prospect to an unrealistic standard: We all acknowledge that Penn, St. Pierre, Lesnar and others like them are freakish anomalies and that their ability to adapt to the sport is virtually without parallel. How then can this be the standard? How can we expect any 5-0 kid out of the Midwest with some game to do exactly as Penn, St. Pierre or Lesnar have done? Imagine taking a test on which your professional livelihood hinged, and because a select group of brilliant individuals had previously tested so well, the passing mark was now a 95.

Some fighters -- notably Roger Huerta -- have gotten the proper treatment as developing fighters. However, these instances are the exception rather than the rule, and worse, it tends to be the up-and-comers who’ve shown flashes of brilliance that get victimized.

The most bizarre truth about prospects developing within the UFC is that early mediocrity is a blessing in disguise. If you impress fans and the brass from jump street, you're going to get fast-tracked, and likely to your detriment. If you can manage to win as sterilely as possible, you'll actually get to face a greater number of opponents, different stylistic tests and you'll evolve into a better fighter because of it.

Jon Fitch is now a top-three welterweight, and he owes much to the fact that his first two fights in the Octagon -- a clear-but-lukewarm decision over Brock Larson and a second-round tapping of Josh Burkman -- weren't that enthusing. After he finally got a televised PPV bout with Kuniyoshi Hironaka in his fourth bout, he had to grind out a decision in an unremarkable performance. This forced him back into the prelims against the likes of Luigi Fioravanti. All the while, Fitch worked on his skills, rounded out his game and got to test his developing abilities against sturdy but beatable opposition.

Naturally, Fitch and his handlers at AKA didn't plan this, but the fact that Fitch was able to win without setting the world on fire early proved better for him in the long run. Yushin Okami, if his body would stop exploding in training, would get to enjoy this good fortune as well.

This bizarre bypass has also helped to produce champions. Rashad Evans was able to fight virtually the entire house on TUF 2 by being so mortal in victory. He was also matched fairly conservatively in his first UFC bouts. In fact, Evans was so underwhelming early on that he actually forced Zuffa to do the right thing -- the exact kind of move that helps fighters develop -- by bringing in a one-dimensional wrestler in Sean Salmon as an opponent. When Evans was faced with a fighter who wasn't worth grappling with, but had nothing for him standing, he was able to take his time, put strikes together and ultimately turn in a highlight-reel knockout in a fight that marked a turning point in his development.

Ditto for Lyoto Machida. While Machida has always had tons of talent, his quasi-mythical status now can largely be attributed to the fact that his UFC run has allowed him to hone and perfect his style to the point of dominance. Does he get six fights to synthesize his style before a title shot if he completely destroys Sam Hoger and David Heath? I doubt it.

Showing a flash of brilliance was certainly the mistake by Ben Saunders. He should've just positionally dominated Brandon Wolff and got a generic second-round submission instead of pretending to be Anderson Silva. But since he was so impressive against a fighter who didn't belong in the UFC, it allowed Zuffa to not only convince people that a Swick fight would be competitive -- never mind that original opponent Dustin Hazelett would have served him as well -- but also that if Saunders actually did win, Zuffa would have another contender to power its promotional structure.

Really, Saunders should've been on the undercard of UFC 99 against a random welterweight, improving his game against live opposition, instead of being completely out of his depth against Swick.

Velasquez is in a trickier scenario as a heavyweight. There is a dearth of matchups to be made in the UFC between elite heavies. Velasquez is nowhere near as good as he assuredly will be at some point, and he'll be the first to tell you. The good folks at Zuffa would probably affirm that, too. However, that doesn't change the fact he's going to be asked to fight top-10 opposition soon.

Velasquez may be good enough to handle that burden, but learning on the job against elite-level opposition is extremely difficult, and it shouldn't be an onus he has to bear. The only solace for Velasquez is that he is a heavyweight, where the lack of depth and comparatively lower talent level means that being rushed is perhaps not as unforgiving. However, I want the best Cain Velasquez; having him try to figure out how to put punching combinations together in the middle of a title fight is unnecessary and would be unfortunate.

Card space is being misappropriated. While George Roop is headed for at least three UFC fights, and while Krzysztof Soszynski has had three Octagon appearances in five months, we'll likely get one more Velasquez bout this year at a time in his career in which he should be fighting every 8-10 weeks. Saunders, who should be on a similar schedule, waited six months to fight Swick. Here's hoping he gets another one in before '09 closes out. Even if watching prospects develop can be an exercise in patience, it's an acquired appreciation as a fan, and one that I think would be readily acquired if Zuffa made these growing periods explicit promotional opportunities.

I feel like I could write another 3,000 words easy about how it isn't utopian to think Zuffa could profit from prospects fighting five times a year against handpicked, but well-selected opponents, and how there is card space to support this. Fortunately for me, and unfortunately for some other up-and-coming fighter, I'll have another day soon to write those words.
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