Mixed martial arts is the most exciting sport in the world. Since its mainstream inception, it has strived to answer the question: ‘Who is the best fighter in the world?’
Before the UFC, people speculated wildly. But after UFC 1, it was clear that the grappler was king. In the years following UFC 1, MMA evolved at an exponential rate. First wrestlers took hold. Then “sprawl and brawl” fighters made waves before the complete, well-rounded mixed martial artist took over. As fighters’ skills evolved, so too did the UFC—from a failing promotion to a $4 billion dollar company. Yet despite its growing success, fighter pay has remained atrociously low. Which brings us to the paradigm shift within the sport. No longer are fighters looking to prove that they are the best. Instead, they are chasing big money fights. This threatens to ruin what made MMA appealing in the first place.
At its core, every sport should strive to be a meritocracy. Part of what makes tournament-based sports appealing is the transparency on which they are based. Every four years, the Olympic games answer unequivocally who the best athlete in each discipline is. That’s what makes it so appealing to fans. An athlete’s popularity should not be the deciding factor in what opportunities they have. This phenomenon has plagued professional boxing since the 1980s. And, has ruined the legitimacy of the sport, leading to a mass exodus of fans. What brought fans to the UFC in the first place was its basis for being the ultimate proving ground. In recent months, champions have begun to disrespect the sport by overlooking number one contenders in pursuit of super fights.
Conor McGregor has revolutionized the sport and has made a lot of money while doing so. His ability to tactfully place himself in fights in multiple divisions has brought him financial stability, and it is easy to empathize with fighters who want to emulate his success. McGregor is an anomaly, though, and it’s wrong that he’s been able to refuse to defend his featherweight title (before being stripped) and pick and choose not to defend his title against Ferguson and Nurmagomedov. McGregor is a superstar. And with that status, certain liberties are expected to be granted to him—this is understandable. What isn’t acceptable is the fact that other champions seem to be following his lead.
After winning the UFC middleweight title, Michael Bisping chose to defend his belt against Dan Henderson, a fighter who was nowhere near the top of the division. Tyron Woodley decided to call out retired fighters Georges St-Pierre and Nick Diaz after he won the welterweight title. Although he was ultimately forced to defend the belt against a bonafide contender, Woodley’s disrespect to the rankings was alarming.
Amanda Nunes, too, has the pursuit of money on her mind. Instead of aiming to defend her women’s bantamweight title, Nunes is hoping to fight the winner of UFC 208’s inaugural women’s featherweight title fight. While the pursuit of money is understandable, refusing to defend your title against the number one contender serves to devalue your title.
Fighters deserve to be paid well, but chasing super fights is not the way to go about it. Conor McGregor is an anomaly, but plenty of fighters have made money by defending their belt and beating number one contenders. Georges St-Pierre, Anderson Silva, and Chuck Liddell became household names by fighting the best, and through this meritocracy, they legitimized their legacies as greats of their generations.
Up-and-coming fighters should chase titles, not dollar signs. Fighting should be about striving to be the best, not striving to be the best paid. While I believe fighters should unionize and arrange a better profit split between the UFC and its fighters, I think fighters need to focus on becoming the best in the world rather than looking for easier fights against aging stars. Mixed martial arts is on the precipice of great change, and the actions of fighters now will shape the future of the sport. Right now the sport is primarily a meritocracy, but greed and the pursuit of stardom could lead to MMA following boxing’s descent into the doldrums.