The Big Picture: Cutting Losses by Cutting Winners

By Eric Stinton May 27, 2019

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When watching fights is a weekly habit, it can be strange when a weekend arrives and there are no fights to watch. It’s like when you try to quit cigarettes and all those pockets of time spent on smoke breaks suddenly become awkwardly and impatiently idle. If the absence of fights takes you by surprise, it can be hard to kill your newfound time, even though you should be cherishing it and seizing the day. The Ultimate Fighting Championship, which usually occupies its time by showcasing fighters on its roster, kept busy this weekend by removing fighters from it instead.

This usually isn’t newsworthy. Fighters come and go all the time, mostly for reasons that are immediately understandable and reasonable. Wilson Reis, for example, has definitively lost four of his last five fights, three of them by stoppage. Marcelo Golm is on a three-fight losing streak, and Eric Shelton has gone 2-3 across the entirety of his UFC stint thus far. There’s a good chance average fans have no idea who any of them are, unless they tuned in to watch Reis get dismantled in his title fight against Demetrious Johnson two years ago.

Yet Elias Theodorou’s release was somewhat unexpected. He won a season of “The Ultimate Fighter” and has a good record: 16-3 overall, 8-3 in the UFC. He has never lost back-to-back fights. He has an interesting persona outside of the cage as the sport’s first ever “ring boy” for Invicta Fighting Championships, and he is an outspoken advocate for using medical marijuana instead of opioid-based painkillers. In a sea of forgettable and forgotten fighters, Theodorou is both successful and unique. What else do you want?

I’m sure there were some readers frothing at the mouth during that last paragraph, waiting to scream through the screen: “He’s boring!” I won’t argue with that; for all the intrigue he brings outside of the cage, inside of it is a completely different story. Only two of his eight wins have come by stoppage, the most recent of which was over four years ago. It’s not just that his last eight fights were all decisions, it’s that they were all pretty uneventful decisions. I don’t particularly enjoy watching him fight, and I can’t say I’ll miss seeing him in the UFC. If the slot he otherwise would have occupied on a fight card is filled with a less talented but more exciting action fighter, I won’t complain.

When it comes to cutting a fighter, though, there are a few glaring problems with that rationale. First, if being boring is a deal breaker, then there are a lot of fighters more deserving of getting cut than “The Spartan.” Plus, it’s a mixed message for fighters to simultaneously be more exciting -- i.e. take more risks -- and also to not lose. If you want fighters to put on more exciting performances, the idea that they could get cut with a single loss does not inspire anyone to take greater risks.

Also, who’s to say whether or not the majority of fans think he’s “boring?” People will always disagree about the likability of fighters for any number of reasons, be it their personalities or performances or politics. One man’s must-watch is another man’s smoke break. Unless the UFC is secretly taking surveys about the popularity of individual fighters, it’s irresponsibly hypothetical to cut someone because they’re supposedly “boring.”

However, let’s say for the sake of argument that there is a fan consensus that Theodorou is bad and nobody likes to see him fight. I still don’t think that’s a good enough reason to cut an otherwise successful fighter. There is a reoccurring tension in MMA between entertainment value and competitive excellence. Given the history of the sport and its kissing-cousins relationship with professional wrestling, promotions will always have to figure out the correct balance between substance and style.

The UFC has molded its identity as the least hyperbolically theatrical and most athletically competitive manifestation of MMA. It has opted for sterile name recognition over flame-throwing pageantry through its deals with Reebok, Fox Sports and now ESPN. As a general direction for the company, that’s perfectly fine. It’s the best way to handle the burden of having the most talent. If you want the spectacle turned to 11, watch One Championship.

That’s why it feels wrong to let go of fighters who are competitively successful yet lack in-cage dynamism. It’s a contradiction of the ethos the UFC has cultivated for itself. Fighters are put in a position of impossible career contortions. They have to be really exciting, but they better make sure and win; they have to become recognizable to fans, but they better wear Reebok all the time; they have to stand out from the crowd, but they better fall in line when the UFC says so; they have to manage their own careers, but they better be willing to fight whoever and whenever they’re told. They mustn’t talk about their pay, either; they are independent contractors, after all, solely in charge of their destinies while also heavily dependent on the UFC.

Of course, I am not contending the legality of the UFC to cut whomever it chooses for whatever reasons the promotion does or does not have. It is certainly within the company’s legal right. My contention is rather that doing so is simply not necessary.

The UFC is in an interesting spot. It has the vast majority of elite fighters on its roster, which should mean that overall success trumps everything else, though Jon Fitch and Yushin Okami would tell you otherwise. Instead, the UFC’s competitiveness is a natural byproduct of its talent pool, so diluting that pool a little bit here and there doesn’t make much difference to the overall product. Considerations about whether or not to keep fighters become granular. The UFC has to take into account each individual fighter’s wins and losses, how they won and lost and how much they got paid to do so. In short, to compete against the best mixed martial artists in the world, being one of the best mixed martial artists in the world isn’t always enough.

Eric Stinton is a writer and a teacher from Kailua, Hawaii. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014 and has published fiction, nonfiction and journalism in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Eastlit, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat and Vice, among others. He currently lives with his fiancée and dachshund in Seoul. You can find his work at Advertisement
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