The MMA world has changed. Up until now the UFC, especially under Zuffa ownership, has always faced tough competition. Other organizations were always around that seemed to pose a significant threat to the UFC’s dominance.

Zuffa purchased the UFC in early 2001 and faced financial problems almost immediately. While the UFC was struggling, Pride Fighting Championships was flourishing in Japan. Pride was able to sign away top UFC competitors while also creating its own stars. Many fans would argue Pride was in fact the No. 1 promotion in the world for the next five years. However, Japan’s interest began to wane in the sport at the same time that the UFC found a new audience through The Ultimate Fighter reality television show. Eventually, the Yakuza scandal killed Pride, and, when the UFC purchased the remnants, it appeared as if the competition for dominance in the MMA world was over. But fighter’s contracts did not transfer with the sale, leaving many fighters to sign with other promotions.

While some fighters signed with new Japanese promotions, the crown jewel of Pride, heavyweight champion Fedor Emelianenko, chose to sign with upstart promotion Affliction. Affliction also signed the services of top-ranked heavyweight Josh Barnett and former UFC champions Tim Sylvia and Andre Arlovski to compile arguably the best heavyweight division in the sport at the time. Affliction also signed stars in other weight classes to round out cards. However, Affliction signed ridiculously large contracts with these fighters, and it seemed the promotion would only be able to last for a short period of time.

The other organization that was gaining steam during this time was EliteXC. The promotion had a working arrangement to share talent with West Coast regional outfit Strikeforce. In addition, it signed contracts to air its fights on both Showtime and CBS. Through these delivery channels, EliteXC was able to make household names out of Gina Carano and Kimbo Slice.

When both promotions eventually failed, it was Strikeforce that benefited. Strikeforce purchased the assets of EliteXC, thus adding depth and stars to its own ranks. But perhaps even more importantly, it gained the television contracts with both CBS and Showtime. Strikeforce also signed Emelianenko and other fighters from Affliction to add even more depth and capture arguably the best fighter in the world at the time. With the addition of all of these assets, Strikeforce became the new challenger to the UFC’s reign as the top promotion.

However, despite and maybe in part due to that tough competition, the UFC flourished. The UFC made smart moves and differentiated itself from the competition. As other promotions made fun fights, the UFC focused on putting the best fighters against the best.

While its rival promotions tended to be more flash than substance, the UFC made sure its events featured the top fighters facing off. While other promotions focused on freakshow match-ups or placing their stars in meaningless fights that could raise a quick buck, the UFC focused on treating MMA as a sport and top contender spots were earned. In the end, the fans supported the model the UFC built, and the competition faded away.

However, once all the competition was gone, the UFC changed its strategy. Even though the UFC purchased Strikeforce some time ago, it ran it as a separate promotion featured on Showtime. It wasn’t until the Showtime contracts end was in sight that the UFC seemed to feel confident enough to alter its successful strategy.

Since the last of its competition crumbled, the UFC has stopped focusing on putting on fights between the best fighters. Several divisions have been placed on hold while the promotion chases fights between more marketable fighters, rather than those that earned the shots.

The light heavyweight division has recently had a bit of resurgence. Currently, Lyoto Machida, Glover Teixeira and Alexander Gustafsson all potentially deserve a title shot. A little over a week ago, Dan Henderson may have even deserved the shot the most of all. However, the UFC elected to not only give the title shot but to also give the coveted coaching slot on The Ultimate Fighter reality show to Chael Sonnen. Sonnen is coming off a loss at middleweight and has not competed in the 205-pound division in over five years. However, he is the master of the interview and great at building interest in a fight.

At lightweight, Frankie Edgar lost back-to-back fights to champion Benson Henderson, so he dropped down a weight class to featherweight and was given an immediate title shot rather than being asked to earn the championship bid. Now, it is set that Anthony Pettis will also drop down a weight class and get the next shot at Jose Aldo. In the meantime, Ricardo Lamas, who has beaten back-to-back top-10 opponents in the weight class, is being asked to fight another and risk the chance at the title that he actually earned. Both Edgar and Pettis are bigger names, so the UFC gave them a shot.

The most glaring example of this new strategy comes in the welterweight division. Johny Hendricks has defeated three fighters in a row ranked in the top-six, yet he was passed over for a title shot that he earned. Instead, the UFC gave the shot to Nick Diaz, who is 1-1 in the UFC, is coming off a yearlong suspension, and has not beat a top-10 opponent in the UFC. On the same card where Diaz will get his shot at the belt, Hendricks will face his fourth top-six opponent and risk losing the shot that could make him a household name.

In addition to this new approach to making title contenders, the UFC also cut Jon Fitch. There is a lot of history between the UFC and Fitch, but he was ranked No. 9 in the UFC’s official rankings. Fitch does not have style that many fans appreciate, but there is no doubt that he is one of the best fighters in the world. When the UFC had stiff competition, it never cut a top fighter. The promotion was focused on ensuring that it had all the top fighters on its roster.

Although some fans will not see a problem with the UFC’s new direction and may be excited for the UFC’s new philosophy in granting title shots, the change in strategy is worth noting. I personally worry about the long-term viability of this new approach. Many of the more marketable fighters the UFC is sticking in these big fights are older. What happens as they retire and the promotion has not put the time in to build up other options? Also, there are a limited number of marketable fighters. There will come a time when this approach no longer can work.

Another concern is that as the UFC grew, more athletes began to see MMA as a viable option. However, if the opportunity to advance to the top is no longer based on athletic accomplishments and is determined by outside factors, I question if the sport will continue to be appealing.

At the end of the day, the UFC is no longer facing competition. There is little chance of the promotion losing its position as the top MMA promotion in the world, so it can take more risks. However, it seems questionable to abandon a strategy that helped the UFC eliminate all of its competition and instead adopt the same strategy some of those now deceased promotions utilized.

Photo: Dana White (Rob Tatum/The MMA Corner)

About The Author

Richard Wilcoxon
Staff Writer

An East Coast native, Richard Wilcoxon grew up a die hard fan of traditional team sports. In the early 1990's, he stumbled onto the sport of MMA and has been hooked ever since. He started writing about the sport on his Sporting News member blog in 2005 where he worked to spread his passion for the sport. He eventually became an official staff writer for Sporting News' "The Rumble" MMA/boxing blog before joining The MMA Corner.

  • steve

    I think while it could look like they are changing strategies that there are some fluke things that led up to the examples you gave and the UFC has nothing to worry about.

    1) Edgar should have won a few decisions that did not go his way, But the UFC isn’t going to dis its current champion in Henderson when it was a relatively close fight. So how do they make it up to Edgar? They can’t justify giving him a third fight against Benson and it wouldn’t sell either. So they gave him a shot in a different division. Had Edgar clearly lost to Benson I doubt he gets the Aldo fight. Sonnon is being rewarded (and probably Jones equally being punished) when Sonnon was the only one willing to step up and fight Jones to try to salvage a PPV event. And GSP wanted the Diaz fight so bad he said at one point he would give up the belt to do so and according to White, GSP has never asked for anything. Without a bad judges decision, a cancelled UFC event, and one of its superstars asking for a favor this probably doesn’t happen

    2) It makes it easier to reward loyalty or to show loyalty when it also happens to be matchups the fans want to see. I believe UFC fans do normally want to see the number 1 contender get the shot. But few people are going to complain given the circumstances and when they want to see the fight.. It could eventually cost them fans if they keep doing it but I don’t think that is going to happen. Normally the guy that earns the shot will get it

    3) They don’t have to worry about it affecting MMA fighters wanting to come to the UFC. TUF shows badly guys want to make it in and nobody just trying to make it is going to worry that he might get unfairly passed over for a title-shot. Maybe an established fighter might leave out of frustration but to go where? The money and exposure alone makes the UFC the dream job for any MMA fighter.

    If they were going in a new direction White wouldn’t have conceded Hendrix earned the spot. My guess is the UFC will be back doing it based on ranking across the board when these fights are all over. Which is partly why you don’t keep a guy like Fitch. He will grind out his “W”s and force the UFC to headline him or give him another Title-shot at some point and a lot of fans don’t enjoy watching him fight. I don’t think even if there was better MMA productions to compete with that the UFC still wouldn’t be worried about losing boring fighters. They want to go by rank and have exciting fights.

  • Richard

    Steve – Obviously I see things a little differently. When the UFC by-passes rightful title challengers repeatedly in a short period of time (between January and April of this year 3 title fights will have been given to unworthy contenders who are bigger draws and a 4th event has been announced) it is not just an aberration any more. It is a plan.

    Champions should not be calling out undeserving fighters and be rewarded with that. It creates the impression rather true or not that the champions are avoiding the rightful contenders and in some cases taking less dangerous fights. It makes the titles worthless. Also, to reward fighter for being willing to step up on short notice for the biggest opportunity of the career is a strange concept. Sonnen was willing to step up to a short notice title fight in a different division because it would be a big payday and a huge opportunity, especially coming off a loss. And don’t let the media hype twist the reality. Sonnen wasn’t the only one willing to step up. Weidman also volunteered. Why isn’t he getting the same push? Because Sonnen is more marketable.

    When I was mentioning athletes entering the sport, I wasn’t refering to those on the regional circuit. They have already made the choice. But, for example, Olympic caliber wrestlers may be looking for new sports soon with wrestling being cut from the Olympics. Many could possibly turn to MMA because it is a contact sport that uses their wrestling skill as a base, but when they now see they could be the most dominant fighter in the sport and still not earn a title shot, I wondering if they will still look to MMA as an option.

    Finally, no sport should ever cut one of the best simply because people/fans don’t like the style. The NFL won’t cut a team for being dominatant on defense instead of offense. I know comparing MMA to a teamsport is not a smooth comparision but you get more point I hope

  • steve

    Well by the time Weidman heard about it and offered, Jones had already pulled out so I think rewarding the only guy that offered in time is fine as neither him or Weidman earned the shot. I think the UFC wants to get back at Jones by making him fight Sonnen when they have the power to do it now and see a chance to make big bucks in the process and the fans want to see it. There really is nobody it is skipping over IMO at 205 that is so deserving anyway. And I think Edgar deserved the shot after getting robbed by the judges at least once and maybe twice.

    But bottom line this is a business. Of course Sonnen offered to fight him and even give up his payday because he knows the money he would make from being champ would exceed it. And of course the UFC is going to go with the most marketable and profitable match-up if it has a credible excuse to break from the rankings and it knows the fans want to see it. But it takes the perfect storm for that to happen because most the time the matchup the fans want to see is the top 2 guys fighting for the title. It just so happens in these instances there were not only unique circumstances but it actually created a more marketable fight. But most of the time the best sell will be the best fight

    I feel bad for Hendrix. If a superfight comes after GSP/Diaz then it could be a long time before he gets his shot. I do know the UFC has paid people to essentially step aside before but don’t know if they have to. But GSP did offer to give up his belt to take the fight and Diaz called him out. GSP talked about how he was bullied bad growing up when he coached TUF and Koscheck was messing with him. I think Diaz woke up some old demons in GSP. But the guy is champ and has been a great ambassador for the sport and never asks for anything. So if the UFC can accommodate him and make big bucks AND the fans really want to see it, well yeah they will do it. But again, most of the time the fight the fans want to see it the best matchup. How many undeserving guys can you think of that fans would rather see fighting for the title?

    As far as wrestlers or anybody else thinking about MMA, yeah maybe if all things were equal and there were a bunch of different places they could go then they probably go where someone sticks to the ranking. But Im pretty sure if you told any of them that not only they will make it in the UFC but the will be the number one contender for the title but might unfairly have to wait for their shot that they would still be all over it. What else can a wrestler do if he wants the potential of making some huge bucks in a job where he is getting paid for his wrestling ability?

    So I think it will be business as usual. The UFC will have no choice most of the time than to pit the top two against each other. And now that they are weeding out the fighters that just lay on guys for 3-5 rounds it is even more likely the fans will want to see the two best fighting for the title. Yeah the UFC has one goal and that is to make money and it will take advantage of a situation if it can do so but most of the time fans will want the number 1 contender so that is what the UFC will have to give

    • Richard

      Steve, I think we have to agree to disagree on this. If it was going to be business as usual moving forward, Pettis would not be getting the shot at Aldo. You wouldn’t be saying you feel bad for Hendricks.

      In addition, some how Dana has brainwashed his fans into believing he has to make certain decisions “because this is a business” as you say and then turn around and argue it is a sport. The UFC has chosen a path now that their competition has faded that they are not a sport…or they are as much of a sport as pro-wrestling. And if that is what they want to become, that is clearly their choice…I will just be disappointed. I prefer a sport where the best fighters, regardless of style, will face off to determine the best….I personally hate to see 2 great BJJ aces or outstanding catch wrestlers stand toe-to-toe using sloppy kickboxing that is closer to brawling than showing any technique. But it seems that is what the UFC wants now…funny Jorge Gurgel could have stayed with the promotion forever if that was their philosophy a few years ago.

      MMA was founded on the idea of finding out whose style is best. So this whole idea of “weeding wrestlers who want lay on opponents” is just weak and goes against what MMA is. If a fighter doesn’t have the technique or strategy to overcome that style, why should the UFC clear the path for weaker fighters? It makes no sense to me. You are basically rewarding weaker fighters.

      • GOT RID OF FITCH (finally)

        PLEASE!!!!!! Gorgy Gurgel gets tapped by Purpel belts on a daily basis and only reason he tried to kickbox was to save him the embarrassment of getting tapped out in front of EVERYONE by purple belts. GORGY is one of the most OVERRATED (mostly only in his own mind) bjj practitioners around.