On Fabio Maldonado, Action Fighters, and the Future of the UFC

Jason Silva-USA TODAY Sports

Patrick Wyman takes a look at the emerging breed of action fighters populating the UFC's roster and discusses the long-term implications.

A little over a week ago, Fabio Maldonado absolutely pasted Gian Villante. After a rough first round in which he was taken down multiple times and mostly controlled on the ground - Fabio landed all of one significant strike - Maldonado's cardio and pace took over, and by the end of the second round he was shucking off takedowns and starting to land some serious volume. By the third, Villante was badly gassed, hurt to the body, and eating shots as he tried desperately to survive to the final bell. If it was a familiar sight - Maldonado's opponent clutching his torso and struggling to breathe as the pudgy Brazilian unleashed punch after punch - it certainly wasn't an unwelcome one. Maldonado is the epitome of an action fighter, the kind of guy who guarantees entertainment and no small amount of violence in every outing.

Action fighters aren't exactly a new development in the history of MMA. The dearly departed Strikeforce promotion, after all, largely built its reputation on putting two of these guys together and letting them throw down, in such ridiculous brawls as Cyborg-Diaz and Lawler-Smith. In the UFC, however, the first dedicated action fighter was probably the immortal Chris Lytle, who picked up a grand total of ten fight-night bonuses during his eight years with the organization.

Before we continue, let me be clear about my definition of "action fighter." For the most part, we're speaking here about guys who hang around the middle of their divisions for a period of years. That's not their defining characteristic, though: they may be relatively low-level gatekeepers, they may bar the way into the divisional top ten, they may be real contenders, and they may even hold a title. Divisional position isn't their defining characteristic; instead, it's a combination of pace, volume, and finishing ability. In other words, the ability to consistently put on an exciting fight is dependent upon producing large amounts of offense. Some defensive ability, a measure of athleticism, or a touch of power are nice accoutrements - they're usually what separate relatively low-level, gatekeeping action fighters from contenders - but they're in no way a requirement.

When we talk about action fighters, what names come to mind? There's Maldonado, obviously, and Lytle, but it's a broad and growing category. Here are a few guys who fit the bill in the UFC:

Heavyweight: Junior dos Santos, Mark Hunt, Roy Nelson

Light Heavyweight: Maldonado; Joey Beltran was the quintessential action fighter, but he's been released.

Middleweight: Chris Camozzi, Nick Ring, Luke Barnatt, Yoel Romero, the retired Chris Leben

Welterweight: Court McGee, Matt Brown, Nick Diaz, Carlos Condit, Robbie Lawler

Lightweight: Ross Pearson, Edson Barboza, Evan Dunham, Donald Cerrone, Nate Diaz, Diego Sanchez

Featherweight: Max Holloway, Dennis Bermudez, Dennis Siver, Chan Sung Jung, and the released Leonard Garcia

Bantamweight: Nam Phan, Takeya Mizugaki, Eddie Wineland

Flyweight: John Lineker, Brad Pickett

This isn't an exhaustive list, but rather a brief survey of fighters who can be reliably counted on to deliver exciting fights and stunning violence. All of them land strikes, takedowns, or both at rates well above the average for the division, push a blistering pace, and tend to get stronger as the fight goes on.

Leaving aside the contenders and champions for a moment, let's focus on the guys in the middle of the pack, the Fabio Maldonados and Court McGees of the world. These guys are almost certainly never going to win titles or even contend for them; you may call that pessimistic, and lament the jaded, cynical eye of the MMA media, but it's a basic statement of fact. Champions are a rare breed, and even contenders don't grow on trees. While it's possible that a stereotypically exciting combatant might rise above his limitations and make it to the top of the heap, it's simply not likely. Sorry, Matt Brown.

There's nothing wrong with being an action fighter. The UFC isn't exactly in the business of handing out big checks to everybody on the roster, and making the conscious decision to engage in high-paced, exciting fights - as Chris Lytle famously did after his stint on the Ultimate Fighter - is a logical response to a payscale that massively incentivizes all-out wars through performance bonuses and elevated base salaries for fighters who have proven to be exciting, such as Chris Leben. For guys who aren't likely to contend or become a champion, being an action fighter is the only real way to make a good living out of being a fighter. No matter how you feel about the issue of pay in MMA, this is a simple truth.

As the UFC roster has ballooned first to 400 and now to 500 fighters to keep up with the drastic expansion in the number of cards, we're beginning to see openings for fighters to occupy clearly defined roles within the organization. We have low-level gatekeepers like the recently released Will Campuzano, high-level gatekeepers like the venerable Gleison Tibau and Mike Pyle, and most importantly, we have the increasingly ubiquitous action fighters. Free cards on FS1 and especially Fox, along with the profusion of preliminary bouts preceding PPVs, all require exciting fights to hook audience interest or to convince viewers to purchase expensive content. Action fighters are a walking, brawling, bleeding advertisement for the quality and value of the product as a whole, and as such they occupy an increasingly valuable niche within the UFC's emerging roster ecosystem.

Being an action fighter obviously carries with it potentially lucrative financial opportunities to go along with the adoration of fans who love a good, old-fashioned brawl. But engaging in these kinds of bouts repeatedly takes a drastic toll on their participants: just look at the sad last phase of Chris Leben's career, the string of knockouts that ended Chuck Liddell's time in the UFC, or the walking, slurring concussion lawsuit that Diego Sanchez is in the process of becoming. Empirically speaking, guys who get hit a a great deal over a significant number of fights tend to have below-average career longevity compared to their peers. It's not good to get hit in the head on a regular basis, and it's even worse in the long term to get hit in the fashion that being a reliable action fighter essentially demands.

As the roster continues to grow and the UFC evolves into its new configuration, we're going to see more and more fighters occupying more-or-less defined roles within the organization, and many of them will be action fighters of the type described here. Fabio Maldonado is a warrior with a penchant for body destruction, but he's also a representative of an emerging trend: even more bloody, ridiculous, sad, awesome, and amazing violence is going to be upon us soon.

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