Friendships mean little in the fight game. On Sunday night, UFC legend B.J. Penn was led like a lamb to slaughter. Penn, who had not won a fight in years, was matched against a unfathomably talented prospect in Yair Rodríguez. He was dominated from the opening bell before being finished in the second round. Penn, a true pioneer of the sport of mixed martial arts, was forced to face embarrassment in what was likely his final fight. But this could have been avoided if the UFC didn’t use unethical matchmaking practices.
The UFC’s pay-per-view model is one that is based upon the ability to build stars. In the past, this process happened naturally. Athletes like Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz and B.J.Penn became stars based on their fighting abilities alone. Over the last decade, the UFC has struggled to find new stars. With the old guard retiring, there has been a trend to match up-and-comers favorably, and this is a trend that must stop. Squash matches have been a staple of Zuffa’s UFC plan to build stars. Notable examples of this include matching Rich Franklin with Ken Shamrock and Jon Jones with Stephan Bonnar. While there is a benefit to these matches, it is ethically wrong to put legends into fights that people know they will lose.
At its heart, fighting must continue to be a meritocracy. Fighters should be allocated opportunities based on their performances. They shouldn’t be forced to beat up old legends to become stars. Was seeing Rodríguez shine really worth letting a legend of the sport get concussed? Was bumping Yair worth dismantling the legacy of a legend? I don’t believe so. When this matchmaking protocol goes wrong, a potential star’s trajectory can be altered permanently. This is what we witnessed when Tito Ortiz shocked the world and submitted Ryan Bader.
The UFC had it right in their original booking for Penn. A fight with Denis Siver would have been a nice tune-up. There is a way integrate old fighters into your product, and it is something Bellator is doing well. This weekend, Tito Ortiz will face Chael Sonnen in what is an ethical use of aging talents. So-called legends matches have their place, and moreover, they do not serve to tarnish a fighter’s legacy. New fans do not remember B.J. Penn as the fighter who dominated the lightweight division; they remember him as the old guy who got dominated in his last four fights. That is a travesty.
The only positive to come from this situation is the realization of Yair Rodríguez’s potential. He finally had an audience witness his frenetic and exciting style. With McGregor moving to lightweight, the featherweight division is starved of a star. Rodriguez could fill that void. While Max Holloway is phenomenal, he lacks marketability. Meanwhile, José Aldo seems primed for a run at the lightweight division. That leaves Rodriguez, who could become a focal point for the Latin American fans. Which, in turn, could lead him to becoming the division’s biggest star. For the UFC to capitalize on his win against Penn, they must now match him with a bona fide ranked fighter. Ideally, the winner of Dennis Bermudez versus the Korean Zombie.
As I wrote before the fight, Penn must now retire. With his legacy in tatters, The Prodigy can only hope that time will provide perspective. And, that future fans of the sport will be able to measure his talents on his prime rather than his catastrophic final run.
All great fighters fall. It is the one inevitability of combat sports. But unlike many, Penn was led to the edge and pushed by a promoter that greedily wanted to capitalize on his aging abilities.