For decades, the term “gatekeeper” has had a bit of a negative connotation in combat sports. As you might guess, the term refers to fighters who stand between the elite fighters of their division, and everyone else. They themselves might not be in the title hunt, but other up-and-coming fighters in their weight classes must first get through them to be considered for a championship opportunity. The reason for the word’s derogatory nature stems from the fact that fighters carrying the label are often themselves considered outside their divisions’ best, even though they’re definitely among the best 30 percent or so.

Before his retirement (and brief migration to featherweight just before it) Kenny Florian served as the gatekeeper to the UFC’s lightweight title, defeating the likes of Roger Huerta, Clay Guida and others to dash their hopes of a shot at that belt. Gray Maynard was undefeated with seven UFC victories, but it was only after he bested Florian in August 2010 that he received his first title shot. Florian wore the gatekeeper sign well, letting his fellow lightweights know that they must be at least as good as he was in order to be looked at as a top fighter.

Despite his role among 155-pounders, Florian was looked at for the majority of his career as one of the UFC’s best fighters. In other words, his role as a gatekeeper actually served to enhance his career, and rather than relegating Florian to also-ran status, it likely resulted in higher paychecks and more television exposure. In this way, the term has shed much of its negativity and, to me anyway, represents fighters whose status as upper-level competitors has been well established, and although they might not be considered for a championship contest, gatekeeper fighters are among the most respected in the sport.

In the last year, a new fighter has emerged as the gatekeeper for the UFC’s welterweight division, and he did so after the most unlikely of ascents. Matt Brown’s life before MMA has been well documented, and his career in the cage has not been a cakewalk either. He was a mere 7-6 before getting a major boost through his participation on The Ultimate Fighter‘s seventh season, but went just 5-5 in his UFC fights following its completion. Despite his fan-friendly style (four of his first five UFC wins came via stoppage), few people would have tabbed Brown to be more than a moderately successful mixed martial artist who spent a few unremarkable years in the UFC.

In February 2012, Brown defeated Chris Cope by TKO in the second round. Perhaps it just seemed like another victory at the time, but the result would be the beginning of a five-fight winning streak for “The Immortal.” The fourth of those victories—a knockout over the favored Mike Swick—put Brown on the map as a forced to be reckoned with in the welterweight division, especially because it took place on national television, but it was his most recent victory that truly put Brown’s toughness on display.

Fighting once again on a UFC on Fox event, Brown faced late-replacement Jordan Mein last Saturday to kick off the night’s main card. (Brown was originally slated to face fellow fan-favorite Dan Hardy, and Mein stepped in when Hardy was injured in late March.) Both fighters held the advantage in the fight’s opening round, but things looked like they might be over for Brown after Mein landed a series of brutal body shots. Brown was ultimately saved by the horn (as well as some intelligent positioning on the ground), but had taken the sort of damage that would have finished lesser competitors.

Where other fighters in Brown’s position might have attempted to turn the bout into a grappling match to avoid taking any more strikes, Brown’s solution was to try to finish Mein standing as quickly as possible. He swarmed the younger fighter as soon as the second round began, and ended up securing a TKO after just one minute. It was one of the most memorable comebacks from a body shot since Scott Smith put Pete Sell away in 2006, and no doubt upped Brown’s stock among welterweights.

Before his fight with Brown, Mein was definitely looked at as one of the division’s rising stars. His first UFC victory was over promotional veteran Dan Miller, and Mein’s performance turned more than a few heads. A follow-up fight with Brown made a lot of sense, then, not only because the UFC needed a replacement for Hardy in a nationally televised fight, but also because it put him against another fighter who had a strong reputation among fans thanks to his win over Swick. Things didn’t really go as planned for Mein, whereas Brown’s stock rose considerably.

For Brown, his win over Mein cements his status as the welterweight division’s latest gatekeeper. Mein was probably a better opponent for Brown, career-wise, than Hardy, since Hardy is generally acknowledged to be on the downside of his career. While the fight would undoubtedly have been very exciting, a win over Hardy wouldn’t have necessarily done a lot to advance Brown’s career. Instead, he faced and defeated a fighter in Mein who was generally considered to be one of the division’s more talented prospects, thereby maintaining his relevance among 170-pounders.

Expect Brown’s next fight to be against another of the welterweight division’s rising stars, as the UFC could best use Brown to test those fighters who have yet to face truly elite competition. Brown might never get a welterweight title shot himself (although after two or three more wins, it might be hard to argue against one), but he’ll be able to continue earning money in the world’s premier MMA promotion thanks to his exciting performances and willingness to take on all comers. Should Brown become a new UFC gatekeeper, he’ll do the same positive things for the word that Florian did a few years ago, and fans will get to see him compete on national television for years to come.

Photo: Matt Brown (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

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.