Over the next few days, the Ultimate Fighting Championship is running what it hopes will be the biggest and best weekend of fights in the history of the sport, a weekend that will determine the near future of the biggest and best promotion in mixed martial arts. The UFC has scheduled three straight fight cards, which will culminate with the long-awaited featherweight title bout between Brazilian champion José Aldo, one of the very best fighters in the sport’s short history, and Irishman Conor McGregor, perhaps the most popular man in the promotion.
There’s history here. The UFC identified McGregor as a potential star before his first UFC fight against Marcus Brimage in April 2013. McGregor knocked Brimage out spectacularly, and then beat Max Holloway in a decision a few months later. The Irishman, hobbled with a knee injury, had a poor performance against Holloway, but he talked shit through it all, and the Boston crowd ate him up. This is when UFC president Dana White, who’d already taken a liking to McGregor, started actively positioning him as one of the sport’s future superstars. The UFC carefully curated his next few fights. McGregor is a striker with a somewhat suspect ground game, and the promotion pitted him against three smaller, foolhardy or limited featherweights who could only stand and trade shots with him. He knocked them all out after leadups to the fights that cemented him as one of the brashest, most magnetic personalities in all of sports.
His rise almost perfectly coincided with the emergence of women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey as a crossover phenomenon, and the fall of Jon Jones, the great light-heavyweight champion who had his belt stripped when he was arrested following a car accident in Albuquerque, N.M. earlier in April. Suddenly, McGregor was alone at the top of men’s MMA.
McGregor, in some ways, is a perfect star. He’s an unabashed self-promoter who talks magnificent shit and does so in English. In the cage, his eerily smooth, powerful punches and kicks are virtually unique, and spellbind fight experts and casual fans alike. His two losses came before anyone was looking, and so his highlight reel finishes afford him an air of invincibility.
On sporting merits, he didn’t really deserve a title shot this summer against José Aldo, but he got one anyway. The UFC threw all its weight behind him, and spent a fortune to fly McGregor and Aldo to eight cities in five countries around the world to promote UFC 189, on July 11.
During the tour, McGregor was at his absolute best, which is to say worst. He constantly trolled the featherweight champion, and once even said of the Brazilian, “If this was a different time, I would invade his favela on horseback and kill anyone that was not fit to work.”
Anticipation rose, and then Aldo broke a rib. He pulled out of the fight; McGregor naturally called him a coward, and White claimed that Aldo only had a bruise. (Aldo’s doctor disagreed.) In place of the Brazilian champ, and two weeks before the fight, the UFC had no choice but to sub in Chad Mendes, an American wrestler who’d run through everyone he’d ever faced but Aldo, and who was precisely the type of fighter McGregor had so successfully avoided on his way to the top.
The McGregor-Mendes fight was perfect. For the majority of the first two rounds, Mendes dominated McGregor, tossing him onto the ground again and again and pinning him to the canvas. McGregor later said that he entered the fight on one good leg, which would partly explain how he couldn’t help being dragged to the ground, if not how helpless he was once he was on there. Just as it looked like Mendes had solved the McGregor problem, though, he ran out of gas. McGregor got to his feet and started picking Mendes apart, and just seconds before the second round bell, he landed a flush lead left that knocked Mendes out.
It was cinematic. He’d beaten a guy a lot of people thought he couldn’t beat, and did so by overcoming his first real adversity in the UFC while displaying vulnerability and holes in his game that made his strengths appear all the more formidable. If Mendes had six or four weeks to prepare for McGregor, the skeptics say, maybe he’d be fighting Aldo on Saturday. But he had two, and he got knocked out, and now McGregor, the interim featherweight champion and the current face of the UFC, will bet his belt against Aldo’s in UFC 194.
Conor McGregor lands a left hand on Chad Mendes’s jaw at UFC 189 (John Locher/ AP)
The UFC is corrupt. This isn’t a shock; the UFC is a sports organization, and sports organizations are businesses run by rich men to make money. Organizations across all sports are corrupt. The NFL, America’s most popular league, denies and buries studies showing the lasting havoc the sport wreaks on human bodies. FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, directly supports slavery. What makes the UFC different is that while corruption elsewhere is seen as basically aberrant, the UFC, like all fight promotions, could not exist in its current form without corruption.
The UFC controls the media by investing in publications outright or else denying access to those who would cover its flaws in an effort to hamper critical outlets from doing so while dissuading others from starting. The UFC has done sinister things like allowing fighters whose drug tests throw up red flags to compete, so long as they can generate lots of money for the organization. All of this does a lot to allow the promotion to control the sport, and even blur the distinction between the two.
Other times, the UFC’s corruption rears its head in more benign ways. Most professional sports are organized into leagues; athletes chase glory, fame, and money through league play and tournaments. The best teams and players progress to the latter stages, and almost always come out on top. Sports are generally a meritocracy.
The UFC is different. There’s a ladder in every weight class which ostensibly has some bearing on who gets title shots: you win, you move up the ladder, and fight someone better. Once you’re the no. 1 contender, you fight the champion. But these ladders themselves can be manipulated for certain fighters at the whim of UFC brass, or disregarded altogether. Most fights are selected by Joe Silva and Sean Shelby, the UFC’s matchmakers, in line with the logic above. Matchmaking at the marquee level, though, also involves UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta and White, who in addition to being the president is the organization’s top promoter.
The biggest fights with the biggest gates and most exposure, then, have little to do with the ladder at all, and more to do with what matchups White thinks would be the most lucrative. It’s just the nature of the sport. He guesses which fighters to which fans would be most drawn and helps shape their careers, shaping the UFC’s outward-facing product as he does so. This would be fine if not for the fact that White kind of sucks at his job.
This weekend starts off with tonight’s card on Fight Pass, the UFC’s online streaming service. Paige VanZant, a 21-year-old women’s strawweight prospect, is headlining against Rose Namajunas; on the undercard, 19-year-old Sage Northcutt is taking on Cody Pfister in a men’s lightweight bout.
VanZant and Northcutt are two hot prospects, and in the leadup to the fight White did an appearance on ESPN where he was asked to name the next Anderson Silva or Georges St. Pierre—the next truly great fighter. White asserted that VanZant and Northcutt were, reiterating a stance the UFC has taken since Northcutt knocked out a relative nobody a couple of months ago in his UFC debut. As Sherdog’s Jordan Breen has pointed out, these two are exciting, all-action fighters who very well could be among the best fighters in their divisions in a few years. (VanZant is the seventh-ranked contender in the division; Northcutt is unranked.) But they’re both green and largely untested, and they’re competing in two of the deeper, most competitive weight classes in MMA.
Still, the UFC is all in on “Paige and Sage,” as they’ve dubbed the two, marketing the pair on its robust YouTube channel as a package deal. There are better fighters who will reach the top of their divisions faster, but the UFC has picked these two to be the future of the promotion, for no discernible reason other than thay they’re both blond, telegenic Americans who look like animated dolls. They’ll be brought along slowly, and the organization’s top brass will curate their challengers until it’s time to cash in.
VanZant, to her credit, seems aware of it. Here she is in a UFC speaking about being accelerated up the fight ladder in a preview to her bout with Namajunas, the third-ranked contender:
In the negative space of every VanZant mention and hype video, though, lie two women. The first is Ronda Rousey, the sport’s biggest star, who was hyped as unbeatable and made a mockery of the women’s bantamweight division. At 28, Rousey is the most popular crossover MMA star ever. White’s plan, and everyone’s expectation (including ours) up until a month ago, involved her reigning until she got tired of beating people up. Then Holly Holm came along and knocked her unconscious. In sports, and especially in fighting, the unexpected happens.
The second is Joanna Jędrzejczyk, the reigning women’s strawweight champion. The Pole is undefeated and among the most exciting, dynamic, fearsome strikers in the world, but is still trying to get the attention of casual fight fans, let along mainstream sports fans. VanZant is a fine prospect who has the makings of a great fighter, but if you want to market a charismatic and dangerous woman to help ensure that women’s MMA thrives whatever Rousey does, Jędrzejczyk is right there. She is attractive, hilarious, cocky as hell, and the best interview in the promotion outside of McGregor. Still, White says VanZant alone has “that ‘it factor’ that you can’t teach.” One wonders why.
Northcutt will be brought along more slowly, simply because the men’s lightweight division is cartoonishly stacked. Terrific fighters from former champion Benson Henderson to once-hot up-and-comers like Al Iaquinta and Myles Jury are light years from a title shot. Up at the top await champion Rafael dos Anjos, Donald Cerrone, and Anthony Pettis. That puts a lot of people between Northcutt and the title, very few of whom will ever get a fraction of the support he’s getting. As an example, 14th-ranked lightweight contender Jim Miller is fighting in what’s nominally the VanZant show’s co-main event, but there’s virtually no mention of him anywhere on the UFC’s YouTube page. Meanwhile, the sixth-ranked lightweight challenger, Edson Barboza, fights on Friday on the season finale of The Ultimate Fighter, a reality show where middling prospects fight for a UFC contract that hasn’t been relevant in years. He’s an extremely entertaining fighter, and he’s getting no play from the UFC, either.
VanZant and Northcutt are just among the most recent in a long line of the UFC’s Great White Hopes. All of this targeted promotion would be fine if it were for the good of the UFC, but there’s scant evidence that that’s the case. If you look at the biggest legends and draws in the history of UFC—Royce Gracie, Matt Hughes, Chuck Liddell, BJ Penn, Randy Couture, Anderson Silva, Georges St. Pierre, Brock Lesnar, Jon Jones, Ronda Rousey—they’re as different from each other as they are from Paige and Sage. They have different backgrounds, hail from different countries, and speak different languages. But they were all beloved and/or despised, and what they all have in common is that they all could or can really fucking fight. They were, unreservedly, the best. People didn’t love to watch them because they looked like models; they loved to watch them for the same reasons they like to watch any athletes, because they fought brilliantly and passionately and proved themselves against the best competition. The audience to which White is pandering here doesn’t exist.
Great White Hope Forrest Griffin was no match for Anderson Silva (H. Rumph Jr./AP)
Conor McGregor may be a much more advanced and accomplished fighter than VanZant or Northcutt, but he’s benefitted from a similar dynamic, in which the UFC not only identifies the people it wants to market and eases their way in the world, but does so at the expense of other fighters. The best fighter on UFC 194’s main card is either José Aldo, a legend of the sport, or middleweight champion Chris Weidman, a legend in the making. The most technical clash on the card will probably be Weidman’s defense against Luke Rockhold which will feature two incredibly skilled, relatively quiet men; the most blood may be shed in the middleweight title eliminator between Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza and Yoel Romero; the best fight of the weekend may well end up taking place on Friday night on basic cable, when former lightweight champion Frankie Edgar takes on Chad Mendes with a shot at the featherweight title on the line. But none of these other fighters have gotten nearly as much shine—nearly as much opportunity to make people care about them, in a sport where in a lot of ways that matters as much as how good you are—as the challenger in Saturday’s main event.
Conor McGregor—product of miraculous timing, protective ownership, a nasty mouth, and unsettlingly clean hands—may well be everything he says he is, but Aldo is probably the better, more complete fighter right now. Though just 29, he’s taken out nearly every featherweight worth mentioning over the course of a win streak dating back to 2006, and he’s learned a lot fighting the best for so long. His striking is brutal and precise; between his narrow stance, efficient counters, and sophisticated grappling game, he offers up layer after layer of defense; and he will not crack. He’s not just great on his own terms, he’s great in ways that creates serious and specific problems for a high-volume pressure striker like McGregor and for the promoters who want to ride him to millions in profits. This is a reckoning. McGregor is good enough to stand with the only featherweight champion in the history of the UFC, or he isn’t.
The strange thing is that in the end, while it may hurt certain fighters, the kind of corruption that’s wired into this sport—that puts a fighter in a title bout he never quite earned—doesn’t do too much to hurt it as a spectacle. Because eventually, everyone fights. Jon Jones and Georges St-Pierre had to prove they were who they were purported to be. Some day, Paige VanZant and Sage Northcutt will have a chance to do so themselves. For Conor McGregor, that day is here. He either is who he and Dana White claim he is, or he isn’t.
Photo Credit: AP Images