Photo: John Locher (AP)

Okay, so, according to a report from ESPN’s Ariel Helwani, the UFC and up-and-coming Singaporean MMA organization ONE Championship are “on the verge” of an unprecedented “trade” that would see UFC title-defense record holder Demetrious Johnson leave for ONE in exchange for undefeated ONE welterweight champion Ben Askren finally coming to the UFC. All of this is extremely weird for reasons that involve MMA being a bizarre parody of a sport at the institutional level, as well as for straight sports reasons.

As to the former: This isn’t a trade, as anyone who watches team sports would understand the term! The proposed deal would involve the UFC releasing Johnson, ONE releasing Askren, and then each fighter signing new deals with their new organizations. Helwani repeatedly refers to the release-and-sign agreements as a trade—so does Bellator MMA honcho Scott Coker—when, really, it’s just sort of a four-way deal that involves two nominally independent contractors who independently contract for different entities being allowed to nominally independently contract for different ones. That’s not like some baseball teams swapping players on terms codified under a union contract; it sounds more like some kind of weird, collusive activity between shady firms.

Advertisement

As to the latter: Demetrius Johnson has a legit case for GOAT status, and even if he lost to Henry Cejudo earlier this year, he’s one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the UFC. Of course, the UFC has utterly failed to promote the flyweight division or Johnson for a very long time, and he had to call Dana White out over it last year. Johnson’s talked in the recent past about wanting to win the flyweight belt at other MMA organizations, and since the UFC has floated axing the 125-pound division, it makes some sense on his end to want to head east. Still, the UFC is the biggest and best MMA organization, and it’s a bummer to even think about Johnson leaving the majors after his first loss in years. His desire to skip town, of course, might also have to do with the fact that his coach Matt Hume is an executive at ONE. (If this doesn’t sound like weird insider dealing, it doesn’t not sound that way.)

For the UFC, this deal would represent a comical failure to develop the flyweight division. Demetrious Johnson is Conor McGregor’s opposite, personality-wise, but good lord, they had a historically great fighter leading the division, and they seem ready to pack it all in as soon as he loses. In exchange, they’ll get one of the best fighters never to fight in the UFC octagon in Ben Askren, but they’ll get him when he’s 34, a year into a fake retirement, and shortly after he talked some wild (and righteous) shit about Dana White. Askren is a worthwhile contender at welterweight, and even if he hasn’t fought that many elite opponents, he deserves to test his smothering game against UFC competition. UFC welterweight champ Tyron Woodley would potentially be in line to fight Askren at some point soon, and as such, he has as much to gain from this deal as anyone, which is ironic, given how poorly Dana White has treated him recently. Still, when it comes down to it, he’s good in a boring way and, unlike MMA genius Johnson, not a GOAT candidate in his prime. Leaving aside anything else, why you’d want him and not Johnson is a question to which there’s no good answer.

That anything else is a lot, though. MMA fighters are independent contractors who sign agreements with promotions, usually for a set amount of fights, and Askren and Johnson aren’t to be technically be traded for each other. (Standard UFC contracts used to include a clause that allowed the company to “transfer” contracts, though it doesn’t appear that it’ll need to be invoked here.) That these contracts give so much power to promoters—and, more to the point, that two fighters who aren’t exactly employed by the promoters they work for wanting to work elsewhere is something the promoters have to come to an an agreement about—it is, if nothing else, a good case for why fighters need a union. (So does wherever you work if you don’t have one!)

Advertisement

Anyway, ONE now has two former UFC champions, and I really hope they find a way to get Johnson to fight RIZIN flyweight champ Kyoji Horiguchi, another fantastic 125-pounder the UFC was too dumb to turn into anything.