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Throughout MMA’s short history, one object symbolized the pinnacle of the sport: an Ultimate Fighting Championship title. Having that golden strap meant you were the best, you fought the best and each outing was a key moment in the industry’s history. Yet things have changed. Currently, interim title bouts are a thing, and contenders can now earn championship opportunities through social media. See Colby Covington. No longer do winning streaks and divisional relevancy prop up championship importance. A UFC world title was once the MacGuffin that brought the very best fighters into conflict with each other. Now, it’s merely a prop used to bring legitimacy to a pay-per-view main event. What happened?
When Anderson Silva fought Vitor Belfort for the UFC middleweight title in 2011, it really meant something. Likewise for Georges St. Pierre and Carlos Condit in 2012 and for Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz in 2004. Those moments in MMA helped to make the UFC championships the highest standard of excellence in the sport. Champions earned their titles and were eventually put face to face with an individual who rightfully procured a chance to take away that prestige.
It was the beauty of the UFC. When it came to divisional titles, the matches that needed to happen did so consistently. Champions fought all -- or most of -- the legitimate pretenders to their thrones until none were left. This unique characteristic is what made the promotion stand out from promoters in boxing, where television contracts and multiple sanctioning bodies put must-see fights in the muck of years-long negotiations.
Yet the days of obvious matchups seem to be disappearing. This is not to say classic matchups don’t pop-up on occasion. They do. Tony Ferguson-Khabib Nurmagomedov and Max Holloway-Brian Ortega are examples of that. However, both bouts almost seem accidental at this point. As Conor McGregor put the light and featherweight divisions in limbo after winning their respective titles and skipping town for almost two years, these bouts amount to common sense falling into the laps of UFC matchmakers.
When not getting lucky, the promotion’s ongoing strategy centers on making superfights, as opposed to legitimate title defenses. When old-school fans hear superfight, they think of B.J. Penn moving up a division and facing St. Pierre in a battle of pound-for-pound stars with the welterweight title on the line. Another memory may be of Dan Henderson carrying his Pride Fighting Championships welterweight crown into a bout with Wanderlei Silva -- the thrashing machine who wouldn’t release his grasp on the middleweight strap.
You know, those fights where all other options for a dominant champion had been exhausted so the next best thing was a foray into an adjacent division. Fights like those took an already prestigious trophy and heightened it to legendary levels.
Yet, that isn’t the style of superfight for which the current regime aims. Instead, the UFC gave fans a lightweight title bout between Eddie Alvarez and McGregor. Both men were newly minted champions with zero title defense between them, yet they were matched up for a cross-divisional scrap. Were fans really clamoring for McGregor-Alvarez? Though in doubt now, bantamweight champ T.J. Dillashaw facing flyweight deity Demetrious Johnson is very possible. Now, a decent case can be made for this fight. However, Dillashaw just regained the bantamweight title he had lost two years ago. Would defending it at least once not be the right move, especially after Dillashaw frequently complained about being a denied a title opportunity for so long? It would be a smidge ironic for him to deny others of the same thing, when contenders like Jimmie Rivera and Marlon Moraes offer legitimate threats within the division. In these instances, the various divisions and their titles are diminished by champions either not defending their belts after winning them and/or putting them on hold to move over to other weight classes.
Yet the worst offender of all when it comes to championship denigration via superfight was the main event at UFC 217. On one side, we had a legendary welterweight coming off of a four-year sabbatical to fight in a weight class in which he had never competed previously. On the other was a middleweight champion whose lone defense was against a 46-year-old man not even ranked in the top 10 at the time. Adding to the absurdity of this title fight was the fact that it was four months after an interim title bout -- one of the five interim titles made between 2016 and 2017 -- between Robert Whittaker and Yoel Romero. Many felt that clash was the coronation of the true middleweight champion, yet it had that God-awful “interim” label tagged to it.
We’re so far removed from the time when legends like Silva, St. Pierre and Penn defended their mountaintops against worthy usurpers. Their title reigns, once beacons of greatness, have slowly devolved from their former gold to trophies in forced superfights and questionable title bouts. Beyond making superfights that are super in name only, the company has forged a title that has very little reason to exist. I’m not talking about the newly minted women’s flyweight championship. That title is long overdue and will probably extend the careers of fighters forced to cut to 115 pounds because they were too small for bantamweight. No, I’m talking about the featherweight title.
We all love Cris Cyborg. Without a doubt, she is one of the best female MMA practitioners the sport has ever seen and may very well be the best. However, for the duration of her career, she has defined the big fish in a small pond. That designation has only gotten worse -- and literal -- during her UFC run. With the promotion in pursuit of headliners for its cards and aiming to highlight having the best female featherweight of all-time on its roster, it made this title. Yet in this effort to showcase “Cyborg,” the UFC matched her three straight times with natural bantamweights: against Tonya Evinger in the division’s inaugural title bout, against former 135-pound champ Holly Holm in the Brazilian’s first title defense and most recently against the completely outgunned Yana Kunitskaya. What value does a world title have when the champion can’t find a justifiable opponent from inside the division? The answer: very little.
The unfortunate result of forced superfights for big money and going outside a division for contenders is that you may miss something special you didn’t expect. Where would the light heavyweight division’s history be if the UFC tried to get Jon Jones to fight at heavyweight in 2013 instead of engaging an underrated Alexander Gustafsson in a classic. Thank goodness UFC matchmakers didn’t look at Renan Barao’s nine-fight World Extreme Cagefighting-UFC winning streak and decide a venture into featherweight was necessary. Then we would have missed Dillashaw putting the sport on notice that he was one of the best fighters on the planet. In 2008, the promotion wasn’t in the money-fight business; it was in the fun-fight business, and the MMA world was afforded the opportunity to watch all-time underdog Forrest Griffin achieve a dream and beat Quinton Jackson for the light heavyweight title. Those moments not only displayed the importance of divisional consistency but also made those championships iconic.
Could greater prominence return to the titles that the company has diluted? Of course. Stipe Miocic and Daniel Cormier are on a collision course for a true superfight -- after championship runs that have made their respective belts two of the most appreciated trophies in the industry. With that said, change won’t come soon and certain headliners don’t really seem to appreciate the importance of titles. Ahem, we’re looking at you Mr. McGregor. However, champions like Holloway, Miocic and Whittaker counter that and seem to understand how important it is to represent the 12 pounds of gold around their waist.
We aren’t at a crisis point yet, but when a promotion devalues its own championships enough over a period time, will it make fans lose respect for them? Time will tell.