It goes without saying that the UFC is unquestionably the top promotion in MMA. When fighters battle their way onto the roster of the world’s premier fighting brand, they’ve more or less “made it,” especially if they’re able to put together a few victories inside the Octagon.

In most cases, however, fighters must first put together a series of wins over less regarded opponents under one of the ever-expanding number of local and regional banners. Typically, they’ll start close to their training base and eventually work their way up to a mid-level promotion, fighting opponents of varying caliber along the way. If they’re good, they’ll soon find themselves under the bright lights of the UFC, on the verge of being able to make a real living as a professional fighter.

Unfortunately for these up-and-coming fighters, things don’t always go so smoothly, and many times the troubles these athletes experience have very little to do with their abilities in the cage.

In 2012, the UFC has had more than a few cards altered with little notice to the fighters due to injuries. We don’t need to rehash the list here, but certainly the most significant of these alterations was the cancellation of UFC 151 after Dan Henderson’s knee left him unfit to answer the bell. And this is the UFC we’re talking about here. If the world’s most well organized, well financed promotion isn’t immune to the sorts of unfortunate circumstances that leave 20-some fighters wondering when their next paycheck will arrive, the sport’s lesser promotions must experience these things tenfold.

Smaller-time fight promoters are usually operating on a shoestring budget, putting together fights because they love the sport as much as the fans to whom they cater. They’re usually working alone or with a very small staff and can likely expect to break even at best. They have to find venues for the fights and the weigh-ins, they have to secure sponsors, they have to book high-quality matchups, they have to ensure all the licenses and paperwork and permits are in order and then they have to promote the show. When all these elements are in place, they cross their fingers and hope everything stays on track.

And then a sponsor pulls out. And then a permit needs to be re-submitted. And then three of the night’s fighters withdraw from their fights with two weeks left.

Naturally, this sort of uncertainty leaves fight promoters in a tizzy, to say nothing of what it does to the fighters who are putting their bodies on the line. Even under ideal circumstances, professional fighters have extraordinarily stress-inducing jobs, especially as fight night draws nearer. The last thing these guys (or ladies) need when they’re trying to advance their careers is a last-minute change in opponents or having to deal with a promoter who, for one reason or another, no longer has his affairs in order.

It is for this reason that a true UFC minor league system might be a valuable way to groom these less experienced fighters before opening the Octagon doors to them.

It would be a system not dissimilar to the WWE’s developmental arrangement. When the WWE sees a young wrestler that the company thinks has what it takes to make it on the big stage, it sign him to a developmental contract. At that point, those wrestlers compete in NXT (formerly Florida Championship Wrestling), refining their skills on the mat and the mic before being “called up,” so to speak, to the WWE’s main roster.

For the UFC’s version, the promotion would still likely require that fighters have a few wins under their belts from smaller shows, but then it would bring them under the Zuffa banner where the fighters would be guaranteed high-level competition and a foot in the UFC’s door. Using the UFC’s existing brand power, these minor league fights could be shown on Fuel TV or on FX to grow interest not only in the sport as a whole, but in these rising stars as well.

Strikeforce had a similar system in place with its Challengers series. These cards were broadcast on Showtime and featured lesser-known fighters on the Strikeforce roster looking to make a name for themselves and possibly wind up on the next big Strikeforce card. Now that Strikeforce’s entire operation is in question—speaking of cancelled events—wouldn’t it make sense to have that promotion serve as the de facto minor leagues for the UFC?

Ever since Zuffa purchased Strikeforce, there’s been this bizarre attempt by the folks in charge to keep it and the UFC on equal footing. While there have been some on the Strikeforce roster who were moved to the UFC—Nick Diaz and Cung Le, to name a few—others languish in decreasing relevance as the promotion trudges ever closer to extinction. Why not just move Gilbert Melendez, Daniel Cormier and the rest of the top Strikeforce fighters to the UFC once and for all and then re-brand the promotion as the UFC’s NXT? It’s still going to be the best opportunity up-and-coming fighters have at stardom, and it’s not like Strikeforce is currently dropping any jaws with its actual product.

That sure would be great for talented, less experienced fighters who want to truly follow the path to the Octagon. From a relatively early point in their careers, they’d be part of perhaps the one company in American MMA that has any chance of long-term survival (sorry, Bellator fans) and if they continue their winning ways, they’ll earn the chance to prove themselves against the best fighters in the world. The added stresses that come from fighting in less well organized, less prominent, less lucrative promotions would no longer be a part of so many of these fighters’ lives. What a system!

Unfortunately, the UFC will never do something like this because it’s too expensive and the UFC doesn’t have to.

Like any business, the UFC wants to spend absolutely as little money as it possibly can and get the largest possible return on its investments. Yes, it has spent money on things like fighter health insurance programs and backstage, under-the-table bonuses that have improved the lives of many of its employees, but these are critically needed expenses in order for the UFC to establish any credibility as a legitimate sporting organization. The NFL covers its players’ medical bills and, in without a doubt the most disputed part of the current collective bargaining agreement, pays them a rate commensurate to what the league and its owners take in. The UFC must follow suit, lest it seem like it was being run by money-hungry promoters profiting hugely off the literal blood of their fighters.

A minor league system, while it would be nice for fighters looking to find a way to the UFC, is absolutely not a needed expenditure for the UFC, largely because of all the other, smaller promotions out there. Why should the UFC invest millions of dollars in the sort of infrastructure needed to create and maintain an equally well organized but far less lucrative minor league system when it has dozens of other promoters basically doing the job for them? If the UFC can watch a lightweight prospect in Tachi Palace Fighting Championships or ONE FC, it can assess whether to sign him to a contract without having spent a single penny developing or promoting that fighter. As it currently stands, the UFC only pays the world’s best fighters. Why would it want to spend more money on lesser fighters?

As the UFC continues to grow, perhaps one day it will be making the sort of money where its brass will want to create such a developmental, minor-league promotion for up-and-coming fighters. If the country’s appetite for the sport grows along with it, it would be great to fill in some mid-winter Sundays with some MMA on FX, even if the fighters aren’t as well known.

For now, grab some tickets to the next MMA show in your area. Who knows…maybe the guys you see at the expo hall in 2012 will be on a UFC pay-per-view in 2013.

Photo: The world-famous Octagon (Phil Lambert/The MMA Corner)

About The Author

Eric Reinert
Staff Writer

Eric Reinert has been writing about mixed martial arts since 2010. Outside the world of caged combat, Eric has spent time as a news reporter, speechwriter, campaign strategist, tech support manager, landscaper and janitor. He lives in Madison, Wis.