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The ordering process for Ultimate Fighting Championship pay-per-views has changed: UFC 238 is only available on ESPN+ in the U.S.
The scene had its distinct particulars, but the general story was a familiar one for boxing fans on Saturday at Madison Square Garden in New York. Fans had clamored for a fight between two unbeaten heavyweight champions: brash American knockout artist Deontay Wilder and gregarious British Olympian Anthony Joshua. As both fighters worked their way through lesser competition, the call became louder for Joshua and Wilder to meet. However, that’s not the way professional boxing usually works.
Wilder and Joshua are under different promotional banners, with the third top heavyweight, Tyson Fury, under a third. Wilder competes for Al Haymon’s Premier Boxing Champions, while Joshua is under Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom Sport. The culture of that sport is generally for promoters to protect their top fighters, so Wilder and Joshua continued to fight other, safer opponents rather than making the fight with the most demand. That trend continued until Joshua was shockingly knocked out in his American debut against Andy Ruiz, taking the luster off the fight fans most wanted to see.
Joshua and Wilder may still fight, just like Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao eventually fought, and it will likely still do big business in the process if they do. However, that’s far from guaranteed and likely to come after the point it’s most desired. It’s also a reminder for MMA fans that in spite of the various reservations we may have about the way the sport operates, it mostly succeeds in accomplishing what should be the first priority for any combat sport: making the bouts the people want to see.
Unlike in boxing, the talent in MMA isn’t as spread out so there isn’t the same number of dream fights that can’t get made as back when Pride Fighting Championships and the Ultimate Fighting Championship each had their own prolific stables. What’s more, the culture of MMA isn’t to protect records but rather to prove you’re the best, so individual promoters don’t keep perceived star fighters away from their top potential rivals. To borrow the line UFC President Dana White uses when it comes to regulation, MMA fighters tend to run towards competition rather than away from it.
Of course, the system isn’t perfect, and there is no clearer example of that than a fighter competing third from the top at UFC 238 this Saturday in Chicago. Tony Ferguson has won 11 fights in a row in the UFC, beating some of the best fighters in his division. He has beaten multiple former champions and finished eight of those 11 fights. He has won with style and earned bonuses in six of his last seven bouts. He was even the interim lightweight champion. Yet, he still hasn’t fought for the undisputed UFC lightweight title.
It’s not as if this is some sort of conspiracy against Ferguson. It’s just a number of factors have combined to work against him. Conor McGregor held up the division when he pursued a boxing match with Mayweather. In hindsight, bending over backwards for McGregor had many negative side effects, but it was hard not to make exceptions for the biggest drawing card in the history of the sport.
Injuries have also kept Ferguson out of action at key points. He has only fought four times in the past three years. Ferguson was supposed to fight Khabib Nurmagomedov for the undisputed lightweight title at UFC 223 but was forced to pull out the week of the fight with a knee injury. Moreover, the depth of the lightweight division ensures that there are almost always a few worthy title challengers at any point. If one isn’t ready, there are other solid options, which is not the case with many weight classes. That’s a big part of why Ferguson has fought twice in non-title fights since winning an interim championship and being forced to pull out of the title bout with Nurmagomedov.
The current situation with Dustin Poirier as the planned next challenger for Nurmagomedov is a perfect example of that. It’s hard to quibble with Poirier getting a shot after he has worked for years to earn one and has accumulated four straight impressive wins over decorated champions. Poirier deserves his shot. It’s just that we’re long past the point where we get to find out if Ferguson is the best 155-pound fighter in the world in a battle with the other fighter with the best claim to that title.
Donald Cerrone is no pushover as an opponent, and he has great momentum heading into the fight with “El Cucuy.” Ferguson may fall before the climactic fight, just like Joshua did. If he does beat Cerrone, however, there can be no further delays. Regardless of all other factors that may be at play, Ferguson needs to fight the Nurmagomedov-Poirier next winner. MMA isn’t boxing. The best fighters don’t compete to accumulate the gaudiest record; they compete to prove they’re the best. Ferguson has run up his win total long enough, and it’s about time to see if he’s the best.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.