There’s what’s best for the sport, and what’s best for business. In the wild and wacky world of mixed martial arts, sometimes, those two concepts work together. Other times, they are diametrically opposed. In the dawn of the WME-IMG era in the UFC, it seems they may be further apart than ever.
Case in point: the very public venting of Julianna Pena, who, prior to confirmation that Ronda Rousey was on her way back to the promotion at UFC 207, believed she was next in line for a bantamweight title shot. Pena has threatened to retire, echoing the sentiments of a handful of other notable fighters of late.
She has also threatened to fight for Combate Americas, a proposal that would land her in court were it to become reality. Pena is under contract to the UFC. Ergo, fighting for the competition, even in a minor promotion, is off the table.
Pena was extremely colorful in her disdain for Rousey’s return, calling the ex-champ a “spoiled brat.” The Venezuelan Vixen is clearly at odds with the UFC, and she’s not alone. Khabib Nurmagomedov has stated he’ll retire should he not be granted the next lightweight title shot. He’s absolutely fuming over the UFC allowing Conor McGregor to cut in line and face Eddie Alvarez at UFC 205 in New York next month.
From a sporting perspective, can you blame him? McGregor is yet to defend his UFC featherweight championship, and has never fought at lightweight in the promotion. He went one and one against Nate Diaz at welterweight, but as good as those fights were, do they justify a title shot?
For Nurmagomedov, it goes beyond even being bypassed for a shot; he wasn’t just a victim but a pawn, actively used by the UFC to ensure McGregor vs. Alvarez played out under their terms. Nurmagomedov was handed two contracts for a title shot against Alvarez, one for UFC 205, and one for UFC 206. He signed both; his competition signed neither, and the McGregor deal was done. The Eagle was handed a consolation prize, by way of a fight with Michael Johnson at UFC 205. Yes, he’s on the big New York card, but Johnson is 1-2 in his last three fights — not exactly what Khabib was looking for.
Then there’s the Brazilian contingent. Interim champ Jose Aldo has outright demanded his release from the UFC after a featherweight title shot against McGregor failed to materialize following UFC 200. See a common theme yet? The Irish star has changed the game. In any case, Aldo has stated he will retire, and maybe try another sport.
That actually wouldn’t generally require a release from his contract, but the sticking point seems to be on likeness rights. Aldo has stuck to his guns for weeks now, and there’s a good chance his time in the UFC is at an end.
Could this be a bargaining ploy? Certainly, but there’s no question these fighters have legitimate grievances.
Anderson Silva is also upset, saying the promotion has disrespected him. Cyborg Justino is simply livid she can’t get Ronda Rousey to face her come hell or high water. The Invicta featherweight champ has come out and called Rousey’s title shot against Amanda Nunes ridiculous.
Sure seems like there are a lot of upset fighters in the UFC these days — and each and every one has a valid complaint. That will ultimately fall on deaf ears, in the name of good business. And, as painful as it is to say it, it’s not necessarily a bad decision.
Remember the years and years fans of the sport bit their nails and pined for super fights like Lesnar vs. Emelianenko and Silva vs. GSP? Can you blame the UFC now for putting together McGregor vs. Alvarez while the iron is hot? As much as it leaves both Aldo and Nurmagomedov out in the cold, not booking the fight when the opportunity is there could mean it never happens.
Remember, the UFC was all but ready to book Aldo vs. Pettis in a superfight back in 2014 before it all fell apart. Once bitten, twice shy. If the UFC books a title defense for McGregor at featherweight now, and he loses, the champ vs. champ angle is off the table.
In short, McGregor vs. Alvarez is the right fight at the right time, and the biggest draw the UFC could put on at the moment. McGregor vs. Aldo II would do well. It would easily pass the million buy mark, but then, any McGregor fight would. The almost unheard of champion vs. champion bout? It would be almost impossible not to make it, especially with WME-IMG looking to maximize profit from their new investment.
Then there’s Rousey. UFC 207 looks like it’s being stacked like UFC 205 was, with a number of highly anticipated bouts rumored to be rounding out the card. Her return will be one of the biggest events of an already huge year in MMA, and there’s just no way it wasn’t going to be for the title. In fact, on that, Dana White and the UFC have been consistent all year long. The party line to a man has been that Rousey would get a shot at the title, so why Pena is now so upset is puzzling — unless this is simply to put herself in position to face the winner.
If so, talking about fighting for another promotion is an odd way to go about it. The UFC generally doesn’t even like to speak of the competition, and having yet another fighter talking about walking away can’t be making the front office happy.
What will make them happy is if these two massive events — UFC 205 with McGregor vs. Alvarez, and UFC 207 with Rousey vs. Nunes — go off without a hitch. The money will roll right in, more eyeballs will be on the sport than ever, and things will be, frankly, golden. Meanwhile, the likes of Pena, Aldo, Nurmagomedov, and the rest may turn out to be collateral damage in the name of business.
Yet, as sad as it would be to lose them, booking big fights when big fights are available to be made isn’t exactly a bad thing. This isn’t Chael Sonnen being granted a title shot off a loss, it’s two of the best in the sport throwing down in big fights. How much can we really complain? Would any of the aforementioned trio turn down a similar shot?
Maybe the argument of sport vs. spectacle died with the sale of the UFC to a company associated with the entertainment world. If that’s the case, there will be fallout — but on the flip side, at least we’re getting some spectacular fights.