MMA was supposed to be better.
The sport in its modern form, germinated in Japan’s Shooto and Pancrase promotions before erupting into prominence via the UFC, offered a tantalizing glimpse of the true meritocracy boxing long ago hurled into a bog with a sack of pay-per-view estimates tied around its neck. The best would fight the best; there would be no victory laps, no soft reigns. The man who held the belt would be the most dangerous human being of his size on the planet.
Sure, the largest organization was under Dana White’s thumb, but at least it was just the one arrogant twit instead of boxing’s ever-changing menagerie. The sport was young enough to blossom without the corruption that squats atop boxing like some primeval weed, sapping its life but too entwined to safely remove.
The compromise was simple: individual fighter freedom would be far lower than in boxing and, as a result, more quality matchups would result. Fighters could reasonably expect that performing well would lead to greater opportunities no matter their connections.
Different organizations grew, each with their own ideas of how best to present their product. Pride leaned towards spectacle rather than a clear hierarchy; while this did allow fighters to take risks without fear of losing their jobs, it also lead to downright cruel matchups for the sake of entertainment. Bellator took the UFC’s early love for tournaments and built a promotion around it, while Strikeforce and the WEC essentially operated as the UFC in miniature before being swallowed up by the promotional juggernaut.
The UFC was always on top, though, and but for a few exception, those with the belts around their waists were the best there were. There were plenty of shenanigans, of course; just look at the ever-shafted Jon Fitch or Brock Lesnar getting a title shot on a one-fight winning streak. But Fitch did eventually fight Georges St. Pierre and Lesnar faced two terrifying men in Shane Carwin and Cain Velasquez during his title reign.
Recently, though, things are getting markedly worse. Bellator has cut a good chunk of its young talent and begun headlining cards with the likes of Ken Shamrock vs. Royce Gracie and Kimbo Slice vs. Dada 5000, the latter of which nearly resulted in Dada’s death due to being grotesquely out-of-shape.
But it’s the UFC that’s really devolving, and there is no better example than McGregor.
McGregor deserved neither of his title shots. He won them and he won them cleanly, but he jumped the line by an absurd degree. Dana White explicitly said that McGregor would return to featherweight after his rematch with Nate Diaz, but instead threw him in against Eddie Alvarez despite zero UFC victories at lightweight.
Now the man who railed at Jose Aldo saying that “Scarface” should be stripped because he was capable of defending his belt and didn’t is clogging up the most competitive division in the sport with garbage. I can think of at least five UFC lightweights with an argument for deserving a title shot and McGregor gets to watch them cull each other.
Conor’s far from alone in this, and that’s what’s so troubling. Middleweight champ Michael Bisping, despite a pair of monsters in Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza and Yoel Romero waiting for him, instead faced a 45-year-old who was 3-6 in his previous nine fights and let Robert Whittaker dispose of those two challengers. Welterweight champ Tyron Woodley, who sat on a title shot for over a year, has been whining about “big money fights” and threw shade at Robbie Lawler for taking a short break.
Honestly, though, I don’t blame them. Anybody in a position to make greater amounts of money for lesser effort would be a fool not to take it. I blame the UFC brass for turning the sport into the worst of both worlds. By showing blatant favoritism, the meritocracy that those fighters sold their freedom for disintegrates.
Boxing’s vague opportunities for advancement and MMA’s rigid structuring do not make good bedfellows.
Mayweather vs. McGregor is the culmination of this spreading rot, a fight not only noncompetitive but actively damaging to one of its sports of origin. McGregor has shown zero inclination to use his stardom and sway over Dana White to better MMA and there’s every chance this farce winds up inspiring more worthless “money fights” while genuine contenders languish.
The only question is whether this turns out to be just a symptom or a whole new carrier.