All the old knocks still apply. The Ultimate Fighting Championship is a corrupt, exploitative brand in a corrupt, exploitative sport. It functions in large part to enrich the egos and bank accounts of people lacking for neither, and it does so belligerently. At the moment it’s a business that may or may not be for sale for an unfathomable amount of money, the vast majority of which will not go to the people risking their bodies to make the sport so valuable.
The UFC is awful, and yet, the UFC might be better than it has ever been.
The fights are great right now. The list of sitting champions is fantastic and previously unthinkable: Michael Bisping, Robbie Lawler, and Dominick Cruz hold belts years after their primes were assumed to be over; Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Demetrious Johnson are operating at unheard-of technical levels; the heavyweight champ is a nondescript guy from Cleveland named Stipe Miocic. On Thursday night Eddie Alvarez, longtime face of Dream, Bellator, and an ugly contract dispute, mauled champion Rafael dos Anjos to finally capture a UFC title.
The biggest stars and storylines are becoming recognizable to people who have never been to a BW3 and don’t know who Stemm is. Media outside the MMA bubble are increasingly taking notice. Even without its original headliner, Nate Diaz vs Conor McGregor II, the milestone UFC 200 was set to legitimately be among the company’s biggest events.
At least, it was when I originally wrote this introduction. That was before it was announced, late Wednesday night, that Jon Jones has been pulled from UFC 200 for failing a drug test. I had made the mistake of underestimating the UFC’s capacity for shooting itself in the dick. I should have known better.
With Jones’s replacement first being reported by Combate, vigorously denied by Dana White, and then finally confirmed late on Thursday, this is on the whole a weird and unnecessary turn of events. That is, except for the fact that it will keep the proceedings star-studded and get Daniel Cormier paid. Training camps are not cheap, and due to the volume of pay-per-view sales that this show is likely to do, anyone with a percentage cut in their contract is still going to bring home a relatively sizable paycheck. Options were limited, and this is as conservative move as possible in terms of the title situation.
Cormier is still a joy to watch, and Anderson Silva is still a legend, even though he is an aged, tarnished, and finally-revealed-as-human legend, who is probably about to be given a wrestling clinic followed by a bludgeoning. Maybe these two violence geniuses will provide everyone with a pleasant surprise, but it’s unclear if Silva is even in fighting shape, and this shows every sign of being less than uplifting.
If you are comfortable with the fact that this fight is even happening—Mark Hunt, 42, has absorbed a train wreck’s worth of damage, especially since 2013, and Brock Lesnar, 38, was plagued by two serious bouts of diverticulitis, pummeled in his last two fights, and hasn’t fought since 2011 because he was busy being retired and wrestling in WWE instead—this is a great fight. With the evaporation of Diaz/McGregor, and then Cormier/Jones, this temporarily became the third planned main event...until it was rightfully replaced by Tate vs. Nunes, the only true title fight left on the card.
Lesnar, an enormous pile of functional muscle and misanthropy, and Hunt, a storyboard from an untitled Guillermo del Toro barfight project, are two of the sport’s most fascinating stories.
Lesnar was a D1 wrestling heavyweight champion, fringe NFL player, and pro wrestling superstar before transitioning to MMA and doing the impossible. He won a title in his fourth professional fight. The fans that he brought with him, combined with his prodigious success, fueled massive ticket and pay-per-view sales that helped drive the UFC’s current Fox broadcast deal.
He has achieved a level of autonomy and clout that’s almost unheard of among MMA fighters. The WWE has given him respite from his contract for a “one-off opportunity,” the UFC granted an “exemption” from their post-retirement, four-month USADA drug testing window, and assuredly he’s getting paid for this. As happens with the handful of other stars that manage to negotiate more than leftover crumbs of revenue or a looser contractual leash, the byproduct is a nudge to the baseline expectations of everyone else. Every negotiation for a Lesnar, Jones, McGregor, or Ronda Rousey makes other fighters aspire for more.
Hunt is an unlikely K-1 kickboxing champion turned even-more-unlikely UFC contender. At one point, between 2006 and 2010, he lost six straight fights, and may have been on his way out of the sport when the UFC acquired Pride Fighting Championships. The UFC tried to buy Hunt out of his remaining fights; he refused. That led to a late-career resurgence and a series of highlight-reel knockouts.
Conventional wisdom says a rusty Lesnar, who has never responded all that well to getting hit, eventually gets hit—and Hunt punches harder than just about anyone. It wouldn’t be terribly shocking, though, if Lesnar got it to the floor and and exerted some of his terrifying top control dominance. A win could theoretically position either fighter for one last title run.
Brock Lesnar’s return to the cage is big news. It’s the type of high-profile event that is almost impossible to keep under wraps. Not unlike trade rumors or draft preferences or tournament seedings in other sports, there were plenty of journalists interested in reporting on it. MMAFighting.com’s Ariel Helwani did just that, writing about negotiations with Lesnar before the official announcement at UFC 199. Helwani is a popular reporter whose work tends toward the anodyne and company-friendly. This didn’t spare him from the UFC’s wrath.
Because they are obsessed with maintaining ironclad control of the narrative at all times, the UFC for this grievous crime threw Helwani—along with his astronomically talented colleagues photographer Esther Lin and videographer E. Casey Leydon—out of UFC 199 mid-event and banned them for life. Encouragingly, “life” ended up being only a few days, as the ban was reversed after a quick and loud public outcry.
This was not an isolated incident. Blackballing media, hurling ultimatums, and manipulating the truth has been the UFC’s modus operandi for over a decade, but most of the abuses and petty vendettas, even against well-known targets, have passed with much less uproar. Currently it’s vaguely threatening legal action against Flo Combat’s Jeremy Botter for reporting on bids for the UFC’s sale. The company is aggressively allergic to transparency, and does not appear to understand the different between public relations and journalism. When ESPN’s Outside the Lines did a story on the sad state of fighter pay, an irate Dana White called it “The piece of trash, one sided… you know, the typical stuff that I knew it would be,” said “ESPN hates the sport,” and added “they’re dirty, they lie, and they never really give you all the facts.” He then responded with his own propaganda video.
This has had the intended effect of chilling media interested in telling true, interesting stories the UFC might consider even mildly inconvenient. All the while, they’ve found collusive and ethically rank ways to shape the news cycle. In the fallout from the ban, Helwani revealed that he had been taking checks signed directly by the UFC while in his previous position at Fox Sports.
This paranoid opacity is deeply engrained in the organization and is not likely to change under current ownership. The UFC values despotic-level control over goodwill and sometimes even its own best interests. But if there’s a silver lining to all this, it’s that it is being discussed at all, and on some fairly visible platforms. As the spotlight on the UFC brightens, it’s increasingly difficult for Dana White to maniacally run the show the way he’d like.
A year ago, crossover supernova Ronda Rousey was knocking out Bethe Correia in just 34 seconds for her sixth straight title defense. She looked unbeatable, and bantamweight looked like a one-woman division. Then Holly Holm stunned everyone by flattening Rousey with a flush headkick, opening a window for Miesha Tate, who in turn strangled Holm in their March meeting to become the division’s new champion. Now Rousey has withdrawn to an indefinite hiatus, working on income sources involving less physical abuse and thinking about whatever it is you think about when you’ve assumed you’re invincible but then someone beats you bloody and unconscious. The division is wide open and exciting, and will wait eagerly to see if and when she returns.
This is a great fight, and now the main event. Amanda Nunes is a viciously fast starter, possesses technically superior striking, and can rain down damage from above on the mat. Maintaining her pace deep into a fight, however, has not been a strength, and this bodes well for the champion. Tate isn’t extraordinary in any one area, but her wrestling and submission grappling are both dangerous tools, and she usually comes prepared with a gas tank to use them for the duration of a five-round championship fight. Her finish against Holm didn’t come until well into the final round, and the length of this fight may very well indicate its winner.
Outside of the Tate/Holm/Rousey triangle, there are more predators waiting in line behind Nunes. Zingano, Pena, and Shevchenko are all hovering in contention with big fights booked and it’s possible even Invicta Bantamweight Champion Tonya Evinger, no big fan of the UFC’s labor practices, could be in line for a title shot. The future is bright for the entire division, and especially bright for whoever walks out with the belt on Saturday.
MMA is a sport that’s all too often a tragedy. On a Saturday night this last April in Dublin, Ireland, at an event under the Total Extreme Fighting banner, a 28-year-old named João Carvalho absorbed nine straight punches to the head. It was a brutal ending to a fight, but by MMA standards not all that unusual. Two days later Carvalho died. By Tuesday there was a fund to help his family cover his funeral costs, because João Carvalho did not get rich doing this job. This is a reality of professional fighting.
Conor McGregor, a man who also makes his money prizefighting and a man who is now conspicuously absent from the UFC 200 roster, was in attendance for Carvalho’s final fight. He shortly thereafter refused to travel from Iceland for some promotional appearances, opting to focus on training, then was pulled from UFC 200 for not fulfilling his press obligations.
The UFC—and specifically the Zuffa era, overseen by billionaire inheritors of an anti-labor gambling empire and their aggro friend from high school—has never been about the fighters. The UFC is, intensely and almost exclusively, about the UFC. It’s a corporate sports brand apotheosis. It’s idolized by fans who’ve been fooled into thinking that the league is their local team and the minority owner/president is their drinking buddy, and lauded by the kind of market ghouls eager to ingratiate themselves with robber barons.
The company categorizes its fighters as independent contractors to take advantage of the loopholes that label provides, yet locks them into oppressive contracts along with mandatory marketing deals they have no say in negotiating. It encourages a specific, destructive, defense-free style of fighting with arbitrary uncontracted bonuses. (Tellingly, its figurehead once informed Stanford business school students that it’s important your fighters don’t make too much money or they’ll be boring and try to avoid getting hit.) It actively opposes unionization, brags that it is “the safest sport in the world” while downplaying the risk of head injuries, and has aggressively swallowed up the majority of its competitors.
Recent events have provided some hope that this is changing. Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz—empowered by their obvious drawing power and notable lack of filters—loudly and publicly feuding with the UFC for better treatment is a step in the right direction. At the moment, Diaz—who is not shy about wanting everyone to stop undercutting each other and get “paid the fuck out”—and McGregor—who has at times not had a care about anyone’s bank account but his own but may end up accidentally dragging everyone else with him anyway—are in an ideal position to make strides. Names as high-profile as Jon Jones and the possibly returning George St. Pierre are saying encouraging things about everyone getting a larger slice of the pie. Likely or not, efforts at labor organization continue, and while it may have serious flaws when applied to mixed martial arts, there’s a renewed push to institute the Ali Act for MMA.
Even without Diaz/McGregor or Cormier/Jones, this card’s depth is an embarrassment of riches. José Aldo was the sport’s first truly great featherweight, unbeaten in his first 15 WEC and UFC fights until running square into a Conor McGregor counter. Frankie Edgar is a former lightweight champion, and multiple weight class dynamo. The two of them will fight for a chance at McGregor’s belt, if and when McGregor finally meets Diaz again (after much wrangling and hopefully stacks of cash, currently slated for UFC 202) and then returns to 145 pounds. Of course this is a great fight. You know what, almost all of these are great fights.
Cain Velasquez vs Travis Browne: Great fight. Gegard Mousasi vs Thiago Santos: Great fight. T.J. Dillashaw vs Raphael Assuncao II: God, that’s a great fight. Zingano/Pena. Hendricks/Gastelum. Everyone from Takanori Gomi to Sage Northcutt is on this card.
No event—not even the original idealized version of UFC 200—is going to solve the sport’s deep-rooted problems or lessen the guilt anyone might logically have over being entertained by people getting hit in the head. But it does represent the best of what MMA has to offer in 2016, which is quite good, and is maybe a glimpse of something better. At the very least, we can hope a card like this will become the norm and not the exception.
Josh Tucker sometimes writes words. He mostly enjoys watching humans fight professionally, but is pretty conflicted about it. He’s on Twitter @HugeMantis.