Opinions. We've all got one. Whether it be that Japanese mixed martial arts isn't dead yet, Fedor Emelianenko is the greatest of all-time, or Don Frye has the best mustache ever. Opinions fuel debate and discussions among the legions of fans across the landscape of the sport. Without them, sports wouldn't be as interesting. One opinion, in particular, has been spoken as gospel by many MMA fans since July 11, 2009. On that day, UFC welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre defended his title for the third time, defeating Thiago Alves via unanimous decision at UFC 100 and securing the thought in fans' minds that he was unstoppable, invincible, and arguably the greatest champion the sport has ever seen.
The debate over whether stagnation exists has been a consistent one among fans. Anderson Silva, B.J. Penn, and Georges St. Pierre have all been at the head of the discussion. Silva's thirteen-fight winning streak under the UFC banner, which includes 8 consecutive title defenses, is record-breaking and the most dominant in all of mixed martial arts. Penn's reign atop the UFC's lightweight division lasted a little over two years before being stopped by current champion Frankie Edgar, and St. Pierre's run of five consecutive title defenses over the course of the last three years has led many fans to believe the UFC welterweight division will remain on lockdown in the future.
The notion that any division will remain stagnant for any lengthy period of time has been proven time and time again to be only in theory. The UFC's ability to infuse divisions with legitimate, high-level talent as well as develop talent at the basement level has consistently added to the growing number of upper echelon fighters that each division possesses. The acquisition of Strikeforce was the icing on the cake, gaining a number of credible fighters that could be injected into the UFC as immediate title contenders. It is an impressive business move that allows the UFC to move forward rather than play a waiting game while talent develops, which is always a good strategy for business.
Look no further than the UFC's welterweight division as a prime example of the progressive measures the UFC has taken to ensure the division's continued interest among fans. Once St. Pierre regained the title at UFC 83 in April of 2008, Jon Fitch was the clear cut #1 contender. Four months later, he was just another victim of St. Pierre's dominance, dropping an unanimous decision to the champion in a Fight of the Night performance at UFC 87. The UFC, realizing that they had no clear challengers for St. Pierre at the moment, threw B.J. Penn at St. Pierre five months later, driving interest from their previous encounters and statuses as best in the world in their respective weight classes. The move paid off, exploding into over 1 million pay-per-view buys at UFC 94.
St. Pierre moved on to run a takedown clinic on Thiago Alves at UFC 100, furthering the idea that his skill-set was nearly unbeatable by any challenger left in the division. The call for a super fight with Anderson Silva became a real possibility for fans. Subsequent victories over Dan Hardy and Josh Koscheck were dominant and expected, boring some fans into believing the division had once again hit a roadblock.
Enter Jake Shields. The UFC's solution to the lack of challengers to St. Pierre's crown. The idea of an Anderson Silva vs. Georges St. Pierre super fight continues to sit on the horizon, but in the meantime -- St. Pierre needs legitimate contenders, not only to continue to test his skills, but to draw interest. Fighting Jon Fitch for a second time isn't going to help the bottom line, thus the UFC successfully acquired Shields and gave him the opportunity to gain a contender spot against Martin Kampmann. It was an ugly win, but Shields edged Kampmann on the scorecards.
With St. Pierre's odds of winning on April 30th set at roughly 4-to-1, some fans still don't see the efforts of the UFC as helping the division. A few fans believe St. Pierre is ready to transition to a new weight class. Others feel he should simply take super fights until credible challengers surface. The fact of the matter is that St. Pierre's lack of competition is a promotional problem, not just a divisional problem. St. Pierre will, after all, need another challenger after Shields, just like Anderson Silva, Jon Jones, Frankie Edgar, and Cain Velasquez will all need contenders.
Solution? Buy Strikeforce. The shocking news was conveyed as business as usual, a move that should pay off greatly in the future for the UFC. As we saw this past weekend at Strikeforce: Diaz vs. Daley, Nick Diaz has already solidified himself as another potential challenger to St. Pierre's crown in the future as well as a possible drawing power in the division. Gilbert Melendez is easily the #1 contender in the UFC's lightweight division after crushing Tatsuya Kawajiri. The heavyweight talents that Strikeforce houses will make a nice addition to the UFC's heavyweight division, which includes Strikeforce heavyweight champion Alistair Overeem. Overeem may be the single fighter on the entire Strikeforce roster who could have a major impact on the popularity of the sport in the future.
Even if most of these names never attains contender status, the injection of talent adds to the development process. Fighters like Mike Pierce, Rick Story, Dong Hyun Kim, and Anthony Johnson have more challengers in the mix, and more chances to prove themselves as potential contenders. Even if St. Pierre isn't involved in a credible title match-up, it's difficult to believe that Nick Diaz fighting any upper-echelon talent in the division wouldn't be interesting to fans. His personality alone would cause some fans to buy the card.
I don't buy into the idea that the UFC bought Strikeforce because they wanted their large roster of fighters to eventually fulfill the idea of running multiple events in one weekend. I can buy into the idea that it will allow the UFC to solve major problems specific to each weight class however. Every single division gains upper-echelon talent. The heavyweight division gains significant depth. Champions like Georges St. Pierre and Anderson Silva have a few new names to worry about, and the divisions as a whole have more intriguing fights that fans can enjoy.
The UFC's progressive tactics to solve the woes of stagnation within the ranks of their weight classes has been amazing to watch. At every perceived obstacle that we believe is insurmountable, the UFC finds a way to break through it and cure the problem quickly. The depth of the heavyweight division and the lack of challengers to St. Pierre and Anderson Silva are problems that were solved this year, and I find it hard to believe the UFC won't be able to solve these problems again in the future. Division stagnation? It's a theory of the past.