The Big Picture: When Risks Pay Off

By Eric Stinton Nov 5, 2019

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It’s no secret what the Ultimate Fighting Championship wants out of its fighters. If the BMF title didn’t illuminate it enough at UFC 244 on Saturday, just watch a few episodes of Dana White’s Contender Series and see who nets a UFC contract. Hint: It’s not the fighters who employ careful, strategic game plans and walk away with lopsided unanimous decisions. The promotion wants action, which is to say, it wants fighters to take risks.

This is not just an in-cage thing, either. The fighters for which UFC President Dana White and Company are looking are not the ones who take strategic bouts against hand-selected opponents, but those who will fight anyone at any time. For all the UFC’s efforts to sanitize mixed martial arts into something palatable to general sports fans, what it really wants it to be is action-packed violence, not strategic athletic competition. This isn’t subtext or insinuation, either; White is pretty explicit about it. Still, a lot of fighters opt not to take big-risk fights for that very reason: They’re risky. In a sport as inherently risky as MMA, it makes sense to control the risks you take as much as possible. However, the fighters who took the largest risks at UFC 244 in New York ended up as the biggest winners.

First was Kevin Lee. After losing his UFC debut to Al Iaquinta in 2014, “The Motown Phenom” went on a tear, winning nine of his next 10 fights. By the time he turned 25, he looked like a serious contender at lightweight. He looked increasingly sharp against increasingly tough opponents, with improving standup to match his already top-tier wrestling and submissions. He was a young veteran by the time he competed for his first title against Tony Ferguson at UFC 216. That was when things took a turn. He showed up to the interim title bout with staph infection, and after taking the first round against Ferguson, he was visibly gassed and eventually succumbed to a triangle choke.

On its own, losing to one of the best lightweights ever isn’t much to worry about, but things only got worse in his next few fights. A dominant win over the always-game Edson Barboza was dulled by the fact that Lee missed weight. Then he lost again to Iaquinta. He was not only heavily favored to win the rematch, but he was also up on the scorecards after three rounds and dropped the last two. A one-fight tour at welterweight saw him do well early on against Rafael dos Anjos, until he wilted and got submitted in the fourth.

It wasn’t just that Lee hit a bumpy patch in his career but how he was losing: looking every bit the phenom he was billed to be in the opening minutes, only to inevitably sputter out as the fight continued. Leading up to his fight with Gregor Gillespie at UFC 244, he was already getting counted out as a top contender despite being only 27 years old. It didn’t help that he was fighting Gillespie, an undefeated former NCAA wrestling champion who had won six straight fights inside the Octagon, five of them by knockout or submission. It was the biggest moment of Gillespie’s career, and it seemed as if it was arranged to be a coming-out party for a new lightweight contender. Instead, it was a new coming-out party for a previous lightweight contender, as Lee, staph infection and all, head kicked Gillespie to sleep in the first round. Returning to lightweight -- where the weight cut appears to be a reliable detriment to his immune system -- to face an unheralded but highly talented up-and-comer was a big gamble, but it vaulted Lee back into the title picture.

Darren Till was in a similar career predicament. Undefeated after six fights in the UFC, Till got his first crack at a UFC title in 2018, when he was 26 years old. Then he got demolished by Tyron Woodley. His next fight was in his home country against Jorge Masvidal. He enjoyed a strong opening round, only to suffer a highlight-reel knockout in the second. A month later, he was arrested in the Canary Islands after allegedly trashing his hotel room and stealing a taxi. It felt like a downward spiral that marked the beginning of the end of his championship potential, despite his turning 27 next month.

Moving up to 185 pounds wasn’t a surprise -- he was enormous at 170 -- but debuting against Kelvin Gastelum was a huge risk. Not only was this his first middleweight bout in the UFC and first since 2014, but he was fighting the guy who was last seen in a competitive “Fight of the Year”-worthy bout against the reigning champion. The action wasn’t particularly memorable, but the split decision was still significant. It marked Till’s arrival among the division’s elite and also proved, perhaps more importantly, that his best days are still on the horizon.

Masvidal also was in a risky position, even though he was the betting favorite. He has fought in almost every major and mid-major promotion in the world since 2003, always sensational in stretches but just inconsistent enough to keep a major title out of reach. He lost in the semifinals of the Bellator MMA lightweight tournament in 2009, which was coincidentally the last time he was finished, as Toby Imada hit him with the “Submission of the Year.” Three years later, he lost to Gilbert Melendez in a battle for the Strikeforce title. Leading up to UFC 244, Masvidal had never been closer to an Ultimate Fighting Championship title. Since coming to the UFC, he has gone 12-6, but four of those losses were by tightly contested split decisions. In an alternate dimension where a few judges scored a few rounds differently, Masvidal is 16-2 in the UFC.

Nate Diaz is arguably the biggest star in the sport right now -- he made Canelo Alvarez and Sergey Kovalev sit around in the locker room until his fight ended -- but he did little to propel Masvidal closer to a title shot while posing a legitimate challenge. While Masvidal is coming off back-to-back high-profile wins, Diaz has never beat a ranked welterweight. A list of his welterweight wins, in entirety, reads: Rory Markham, Marcus Davis, Conor McGregor and Anthony Pettis. Two of those guys are known for their lightweight runs; the other two are known only to diehard fans. Masvidal didn’t just need to win. He needed to win convincingly against an opponent notoriously hard to look good against. Yet Masvidal took the risk and shined. He battered Diaz and nearly kicked his head back to Stockton, California. As anticlimactic as the doctor’s stoppage was, the stoppage itself was impressive. Now “Gamebred” is as good as he always could have been, and he’s in control of his destiny more than ever before. Hopefully he’ll contend for the title next, but I wouldn’t hate on a BMF title defense, either.

Eric Stinton is a writer from Kailua, Hawaii. His fiction, nonfiction and journalism have appeared in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat, Medium and Vice Sports, among others. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint, or find his work at ericstinton.com. Advertisement

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