The Big Picture: Same But Different

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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After Sage Northcutt was knocked out in his organizational debut at One Championship “Enter the Dragon” on Friday in Kallang, Singapore, Deadspin covered it with the following headline: “Poor Sage Northcutt Gets Knocked Out 30 Seconds Into Minor League MMA Debut.” This caused a surprising amount of ire in certain segments of the MMA community. Not only does One Championship boast a number of world-class fighters on its roster, but it’s not even a league in the first place.

Of course, calling One a “minor league” was not meant to be a comment on the structural organization of MMA so much as the talent disparity between that promotion and the Ultimate Fighting Championship. That Boolean framework of major league versus minor leagues is immediately understood by most of the general sports-watching audience. In that way, the headline makes sense, especially since a big part of Deadspin’s editorial style is its irreverence. Yet it is, in fact, inaccurate, for both the synonymizing of “league” and “promotion” and, partly, for the underlying assumptions about the differences between One and the UFC. There are clearly significant gaps between the two, but in a lot of ways, they aren’t all that different.

Let’s start with the most obvious divergent point: quality of fighters. Top-to-bottom across every division, no other promotion comes close to the UFC. Using Sherdog’s divisional rankings and considering only the 12 weight classes that currently exist in the UFC, a grand total of 13 fighters from other promotions are ranked in the Top 10. I should add here that I’m including Invicta Fighting Championships with the UFC for the women’s rankings due to the direct pipeline between the two; fighting in Invicta is more of a steppingstone toward fighting in the UFC than an alternative to it. Of those 13 non-UFC fighters, five are in the women’s featherweight class. Even the UFC’s shallowest division can claim half of the top talent in the world. It’s hard to deny that all rivers run through the UFC -- at least, all the ones that matter.

Yet that’s also not the whole story. Several fighters left the UFC on their own accord, at or near the height of their abilities, then proceeded to get definitively beaten in the so-called “minor leagues.” There are always multiple factors that could explain how those upsets happened, from individual cases of overconfidence to specific matchup challenges, but at this point, it’s necessary to consider that maybe we simply underestimate the goodness of non-UFC fighters. Concluding that one fighter is better than another when they have never actually fought is nothing more than a guess. While I’m pretty confident that newly minted One lightweight champion Christian Lee would catch a bad beatdown from UFC lightweight titleholder Khabib Nurmagomedov, it is still speculation. More to the point, it is clearly not the case that UFC fighters are always better all the time.

The UFC has most of the best fighters in the world, and fighters in other promotions are better than we think. Both of these statements can be true at the same time. The depth of talent is a significant difference between the UFC and One, even with the most generous appraisal of the One Championship roster, but I’m not convinced that it’s a particularly meaningful difference when it comes to why people watch one or the other. “Enter the Dragon” and UFC Fight Night 152 on Saturday in Rochester, New York, provide a useful comparison.

Many of the UFC’s almost weekly events have little to no divisional relevance. Said differently, they do not showcase “the best fighters in the world,” the main thing that differentiates the UFC from other promotions like One. The headlining bout UFC Fight Night 152 was between Kevin Lee, an unranked welterweight debutante, and Rafael dos Anjos, ranked No. 3 at 170 pounds despite lopsidedly losing his previous two fights. You can make a case that dos Anjos is one of the best welterweights right now, albeit a weak one in my opinion, and a similar case could be made about Felicia Spencer for the women’s featherweight division, but it gets harder and harder to say the same for anyone else on the card. However, it was a good event. There was action and excitement and dynamic finishes. That mattered way more than the lack of title implications on the card.

Compare that to “Enter the Dragon.” Aside from some of the kickboxers on the card, very few fighters are among the top of their divisions overall in the sport, just like on the UFC Fight Night card; and just like the UFC Fight Night card, that wasn’t the point. The fights were fun and action-packed. If we’re primarily in it for the action, which is most often the case, the “minor league” is more consistently entertaining, not to mention free.

Of course, sometimes you can’t divorce the quality of action from the quality of fighters. One will never be able to replicate UFC 236, for instance, where supreme talents clashed for the highest stakes in epic displays of skill and grit. There are also practical issues concerning the time slots of One events for fans in America; and perhaps there are people out there who genuinely don’t want to watch kickboxing and instead prefer the generic pro sports aesthetic of Reebok-era UFC. Those fans are like people who run for fun. I don’t understand them, but I know they’re out there.

The point isn’t that One and the UFC are actually the same, because they’re not. However, it’s just as true that they aren’t as different as they’re made out to be. That includes their quality of fighters and, more importantly, the quality of entertainment they provide.

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 ericstinton.com.
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