Challengers waiting on champions: The reason to wait for UFC title shots

Esther Lin

UFC Heavyweight Fabricio Werdum is the latest title challenger who wants to wait for an incapacitated champion to recover rather than fight in the interim. Despite fan and promotional protestation, financially it's the right thing to do.

Dana White, the ever vocal president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, often likes to remark on the small window of time fighters have to make their mark and earn their fortune in the sport of Mixed Martial Arts. For this reason he often advises number #1 contenders to stay active in the fight game rather than sit out several months waiting for a champion to return to action. If you're not fighting, you're not making money, right?

So it likely frustrates White when fighters, such as Fabricio Werdum and a host of contenders before him in other weight divisions -- perhaps most notoriously Rashad Evans waiting for his Light Heavyweight title shot only to become injured and unavailable -- play the waiting game and opt only to fight the champion on his or her return.

Often White's challenge to such fighters is along the lines of if a fighter is good enough to be champion, they should have no issue beating anyone that stands across the cage from them, and if they were champion these are the opponents they'd be fighting anyway. Just recently in the case of Werdum, White has stated the Brazilian will fight the winner of Barnett vs Browne after they met the other day, and that 'Waiting is ridiculous' because of the long absence Werdum has had from fighting. Whether this actually ends up being the case remains to be seen.

Many fans have begun to parrot these points since they're made often enough by the influential UFC figurehead, an attempt at using psychology that plays against a fighter's ego with the intention of goading them into conveniently doing exactly what the promotion wants.

However the issue of accepting or declining fights can't be simplified by an individual fighter's competitive concerns, even if those concerns are often nothing more than carefully orchestrated audience perception. If as White says fighters have a small window of time to earn the most money they can, then each fight has to be maximized when it comes to those earnings.

When you stop and ask abstract questions like 'How much would Fabricio Werdum earn by fighting Josh Barnett or Travis Browne versus what he could earn taking those fights as UFC Heavyweight Champion?' the reason for declining to fight and waiting for a title shot becomes clearer. It is because of the belief a fighter must have in himself to be champion that he waits for the title shot, because in a fighter who has the mind of a champion he likely believes he ought to be paid like a champion. In Cain Velasquez's absence, the winner of a Werdum vs Barnett / Browne fight isn't getting an interim title (often devalued by the very word 'interim'), nor will they earn the money of a champion. Werdum isn't a marquee attraction like some champions and even former champions are, and the much coveted Pay Per View percentage is often reserved exclusively for this class of fighter.

Werdum vs Barnett or Browne is a pay day. Werdum vs Barnett or Browne is not the pay day, or the pay day that can be commanded collectively in purses, bonuses and sponsorships that comes from appearing in future title fights as the champion.

Some fans might find such pay concerns unseemly and against the spirit of sporting competition, maybe certain key entities in MMA promotions feel the same way, yet few expect or demand a sport free of financial reward or imbursement. This is not an amateur sport, and fighters are professional athletes.

Promotional marketing and exposure especially for the UFC's heavier weight champions, as well as top billing for their fights on any card they're on, means at least for the contenders title shots are worth the wait.

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