The Business of Fighting Styles

By Patrick Auger May 29, 2019

It was reported on May 27 that the Ultimate Fighting Championship had released a number of fighters, as it further trimmed its flyweight division to a mere 13 athletes and cut a few heavyweight prospects who never quite planned out.

One name in particular on the list of released fighters drew a significant amount of backlash from fans and pundits: Elias Theodorou. According to the official UFC rankings, Theodorou had lost to a Top 10 opponent in Derek Brunson and was ranked in the Top 15 himself. Having gone 8-3 in his UFC career, Theodorou had only been beaten by strong opposition inside the Octagon: the aforementioned Brunson, Brad Tavares and current light heavyweight title contender Thiago Santos. With that being said, “The Spartan” certainly isn’t the most exciting fighter to watch, as his last eight bouts have gone the distance; his own countrymen booed his efforts in the co-main event of UFC Fight Night 151.

His fighting style most likely being the reason for his release, Theodorou’s newfound unemployment begs a question. Should a fighter’s ability to entertain fans and matchmakers play a role in his or her continued employment? The answer depends on who you’re working for.

While Theodorou’s record speaks for itself, being let go by the UFC for lackluster performances is nothing new. In 2016, Jared Rosholt was released from the company in a similar fashion after a unanimous decision loss to Roy Nelson snapped a three-fight winning streak. Despite Rosholt going 6-2 in the promotion and being ranked at No. 12 in the official rankings, many believed his departure was due to a smothering style that offered little in the way of big knockouts or exciting striking. In 2013, the UFC famously released Jon Fitch when many believed he was still a top welterweight, and although there were several other variables at play in that decision, his style was believed to have been an important factor as to why he was sent packing.

Although many believe that a ranking or a winning record should stave off being cut by an organization, a promotion has the right to release athletes for almost any reason, including what the company perceives to be their entertainment value. Several fans and prominent media members also agree with the decision to cut fighter’s like Theodorou. Since there is no governing body or union in place to protect fighters, they are subject to the public and their employer’s whims with little recourse or ability to effect change.

So what can mixed martial artists with an unpopular fighting style do to ensure they will not be let go based on how they compete? Simple. Work somewhere that touts itself as a true meritocracy.

Enter the Professional Fighters League. Having secured a media rights deal with ESPN and sponsorships with name brands like GEICO in only its second season, the PFL is gaining the attention of fighters and valuable partners in the business with its regular season and playoff format programming. Offering a $1 million prize to the champion of each weight class, the league offers a financial incentive that is far greater than what the majority of fighters earn at rival promotions, along with a clearly defined path to earn it. Although finishing fights does give an advantage during the regular season based on the PFL’s point system, as long as a fighter makes it to the playoffs, all he or she has to do is win, no matter the style.

“In the PFL format, starting with the fighters, they know what they are fighting for. They’ve got guaranteed contracts and have an opportunity to earn the standard marketplace fee, but there’s also the performance model. It’s a meritocracy,” PFL CEO Peter Murray said in a recent interview with SportsPro. “They can fight their way through the regular season and aim to get to the championship, where the reward is a $1 million. That’s big money in this sport.”

PFL CEO Peter Murray said in a recent interview with SportsPro Technically, a fighter could not be invited back the following season if his or her fights failed to create some excitement, but the PFL seems much more intent on building the brand through its programming rather than releasing combatants who fail to wow the audience. Just ask Rosholt, a current member of the heavyweight roster.

Despite merit having long been overshadowed by entertainment in the era of the “money fight,” that time in MMA seems to be coming to an end, and it’s interesting to note that several organizations outside the UFC have begun reintroducing tournaments with a guaranteed monetary prize. Tired of bookings that either make little meritocratic sense or spurn fighters with a valid argument for a title shot, fans have begun to welcome a shift towards a more impartial system of order as superstars retire or refuse to compete in a timely fashion. Tournament formats can also lead to exciting matchups organically. Michael Page facing Douglas Lima in the Bellator MMA welterweight grand prix was a recent example of a fight that occurred that otherwise might not have been booked.

Just how much of an appetite fans have for “boring” fighters competing for championships is not yet known. While many followers of the sport hold a viewpoint that wins and losses should trump entertainment value, a majority would also prefer to watch an exciting fight over one that yields little in the way of action. With the PFL attempting to create a scenario that provides both, the UFC has made it clear that it favors entertainment as a higher priority in cases such as Theodorou. “The Spartan” will certainly land on his feet somewhere. The question: Who will be watching when he does?
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