I couldn’t believe it when I heard Matt Mitrione turned down the fight. Even after hearing his excuse, I thought he was looking at it all wrong.
Mitrione turned down a chance to step in for the injured Frank Mir to face Daniel Cormier on Strikeforce’s since-canceled Nov. 3 event. He said he didn’t want the fight because he couldn’t handle Cormier’s wrestling.
I thought he was missing an opportunity. The man known as “Meathead” is a middle-of-the-pack fighter and is already 34 years old. He isn’t likely to get a title shot before retiring if he stays on his current course, especially if he angers UFC President Dana White. Cormier is a top-five heavyweight and a quickly rising name in the sport. If Mitrione did win, he would only be a fight away from his shot at the title. And if he lost, no one would be surprised and he would have been owed a favor from White—a win-win situation for sure.
And then came the news that DaMarques Johnson was cut.
Johnson had been with the UFC since finishing as a runner-up on The Ultimate Fighter season nine. He was simply an average fighter at best with a 4-4 record in the UFC heading into UFC on Fox 4. After losing by knockout to Mike Swick on the Fox 4 card, he did the UFC a favor. He stepped in for the injured Pascal Krauss to face highly-regarded prospect Gunner Nelson a little over a month later. Johnson lost, as was expected. And then he was cut! A fighter who stepped up to the plate on short notice lost his contract with the UFC because of a loss in that fight.
The UFC has changed, and somehow I missed it. Once upon a time, the UFC took care of those guys who helped the promotion out. Fighters regularly took on short-notice fights, not just because they were fighters and were ready to go, but also because it showed they were willing to do anything to help the UFC grow. Being a company man for the UFC had some benefits with the brass. But the rules have changed. Suddenly, despite Dana White’s public chiding, Mitrione’s decision was never the win-win situation I thought it was.
Mitrione saw something I didn’t. The UFC has changed.
Muddying the waters a little is the fact that Johnson didn’t make weight for the fight. This has given White and matchmaker Joe Silva something to blame, other than Johnson’s loss. Silva went so far as to blame Johnson, saying he had plenty of fighters he could have called for the fight, so Johnson should have turned it down if he couldn’t make weight. However, this statement goes against the fact that Rich Attonito did turn down the fight because he didn’t think he could make weight on short notice and was subsequently cut from the UFC.
So did Johnson really have an option?
Apparently the UFC is establishing a class system. High-value fighters like Jon Jones and Mitrione are able to turn down fights and only expect some public insulting from Dana White. Chael Sonnen can jump into a title fight in a division he hasn’t competed in for years simply because he was willing to fight on short notice. On the other hand, undercard or low-level fighters can be cut for turning down short-notice fights and also for losing in one. For middle-of-the-road fighters, this will add to confusion about which side they are actually on.
The UFC needs fighters to be willing to take short-notice fights to ensure events happen. However, the promotion is sending mixed messages. Once upon a time, Zuffa treated fighters that took short-notice fights like kings for a day. They never would have been cut for losing in a such a scenario and were guaranteed at least one more shot.
Today, those benefits do not exist. As a fan, I want fighters to step up and deliver an event for me to watch, but I can no longer blindly blame them for turning a fight down. Fighters must weigh the benefits and risks differently today and manage their careers under the new rules Zuffa is creating.
Photo: DaMarques Johnson falls victim to a rear-naked choke at the hands of Gunnar Nelson (James Law/Heavy MMA)