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With Bellator MMA having just wrapped up two shows in Connecticut, including the hotly anticipated Michael Page-Paul Daley clash, the Ultimate Fighting Championship running its ESPN debut featuring Cain Velasquez-Francis Ngannou and the most significant card of the year so far coming in less than two weeks at UFC 235, it’s safe to say the eyes of the MMA world aren’t centered on Michel Prazeres. When the 37-year-old Brazilian travels to Prague for UFC Fight Night 145 on Saturday, he won’t be greeted by billboards with his face on them. Yet his story reflects a larger and important trend in the UFC and one the promotion would be well served to address.
Prazeres will enter the cage on an eight-fight UFC winning streak. That is a significant accomplishment in and of itself. In the 25-year, 467-event history of the company, only 12 fighters have had longer streaks, and an additional eight have equaled Prazeres’ total. That list of 20 fighters includes 14 champions (Anderson Silva, Jon Jones, Demetrious Johnson, Georges St. Pierre, Royce Gracie, Max Holloway, Chris Weidman, Khabib Nurmagomedov, Junior dos Santos, Robert Whittaker, Amanda Nunes, Joanna Jedrzejczyk, Tony Ferguson and Lyoto Machida), four former title challengers (Yoel Romero, Donald Cerrone, Gray Maynard and Jon Fitch), one upcoming title challenger (Kamaru Usman) and Prazeres, who looks to make it nine in a row when he fights 11th from the top on an obscure card in the Czech Republic.
There are of course reasons that the 26-2 Prazeres finds himself running in place despite winning fight after fight in a manner that literally has no historical precedent in UFC history. The Brazilian isn’t exactly the most marketable fighter on the roster. His most common method of victory is decision, and only one win of his 26 came via knockout or technical knockout. That lone KO came back in 2004, before George W. Bush was re-elected and before Mark Hunt made his MMA debut. He isn’t a big personality, nor does he have a major base of fan support. He also missed weight at lightweight multiple times before moving up to welterweight, where he continued to win.
If Prazeres ever received a title shot, it is safe to say it wouldn’t be a pay-per-view blockbuster. That’s why he finds himself spinning his wheels and getting nowhere, even as he continues one of the longest winning streaks in the history of the UFC. His opponent at UFC Fight Night 145 is Ismail Naurdiev, who hasn’t even fought in the UFC before. Another win will get Prazeres basically nowhere. In fairness, Naurdiev is a replacement, but original opponent Ramazan Emeev wasn’t what you’d call a marquee opponent, either. It’s understandable the UFC isn’t bullish on what it can do with Prazeres, but that isn’t a justification for giving him no opportunities to move up on the card no matter how many wins he accumulates.
No, Prazeres isn’t terribly marketable, but here’s the reality: There are lots and lots of not terribly marketable fighters on the UFC roster, and they fight every week. The whole goal of the promotion is to invest fans in the importance of fight results, which leads them to tune into the shows and order the pay-per-views. Fights need to have consequences. If it doesn’t matter whether a fighter wins or loses because he or she will just end up in the same place either way, there’s no point in watching the fight.
Prazeres is a particularly prominent example of this trend, but he is far from the only fighter in this predicament. Rustam Khabilov is below Prazeres on this card, and he has won six UFC fights in a row himself. Russian fighters in particular are more likely to end up running in place in the UFC. Even the biggest star of the bunch, Khabib Nurmagomedov, went unbeaten for six years before he received his title shot.
This is certainly not intended as an argument in favor of pure meritocracy. MMA is a business, and promotions are going to build around exciting fighters that fans want to see. Matchmaking built around tabulating win statistics rather than trying to make the fights with the most interest isn’t going to endure and thrive. However, there has to be some sort of path up the card for winning fighters in order to make fans pay attention to fight results. It’s understandable that more marketable fighters will have easier paths, receiving fights with better risk-reward ratios, but everybody has to have some sort of path forward.
With the UFC running so many shows and hiring so many fighters, the temptation is stronger for the promotion to throw certain fighters into side tracks where they don’t threaten the fighters perceived to be more marketable. That would be a mistake. The depth of the roster creates more of a need rather than less of a need to ensure that all fighters have some reason for competing. No UFC fighter should ever be in what amounts to purgatory; if that is the position in which they find themselves, they shouldn’t have been signed in the first place. Few will care if Prazeres in specific doesn’t get his shot to move up the card, but if he doesn’t, why are we even watching hundreds of other UFC fights?
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.