In the past, the UFC never guaranteed title shots before a bout. I always imagined Dana White and Joe Silva bunkered down in a war room deep in the Las Vegas desert. A mug shot of the champion pinned to the top of a large slab of cork board with multiple lines of contenders' portraits hanging below acting as tracks toward the title. White and Silva sitting at a large, ivory table, passing scraps of paper with hastily penciled top ten lists to each other. They emerge after going days without food and minimal amounts of fluids to announce their next title bout.
Things have changed. The UFC promised Cain Velasquez a shot at the title if he shotgunned "Zombie" Nogueira in Australia. Dana White raised the stakes of the UFC 114 grudge match between Rashad Evans and Quinton Jackson with a future meeting with "Shogun" Rua for the light heavyweight strap. Junior dos Santos and Roy Nelson had a real whopper on their hands in their UFC 117 clash.
Someone else was promised a title shot at UFC 117: Jon Fitch. Dana opened the pre-fight press conference for the event talking about Fitch's fight with Thiago Alves:
Thiago Alves and Jon Fitch, two of the best welterweights in the world, these guys are gonna face off. The winner of this fight will fight against the winner of Koscheck versus Georges St-Pierre for the title.
Alves ended up grossly missing weight. Fitch battered him anyway. Fitch probably expected an enthusiastic commitment from White after dominating the number three fighter in the weight class. White, however, was anything but committal while chatting with Ariel Helwani after the event:
Well, here's the thing with that situation. You've got GSP and Koscheck [who] have their season of the Ultimate Fighter and then they're going to fight each other. You've got Shields who's going to fight. Now we've got Jon Fitch who's in the mix. There's a lot going on right now. We've got to see how this whole thing shakes out and we'll see who's next. Fitch is in the mix. Shields is possibly in the mix. Kampmann is in the mix. We'll see what happens.
This, with all due apologies to England's neighbors, is what the gambling world calls "Welshing on a bet." There was no ambiguity in the original announcement. Dana White promised Jon Fitch a title shot if he beat Thiago Alves. And less than 72 hours later, he reneged on his word.
Fast-forward two months later. With Jake Shields sitting in between UFC monoliths Brock Lesnar and Tito Ortiz at the UFC 121 press conference, Dana White tells the media that Shields probably should have fought GSP right off the bat:
He beat Dan Henderson. He should actually get the shot just for that, but ... [with his] timing and coming into the UFC? It is what it is.
We'll find out how that turned out in the full entry.
Shields ended up beating Martin Kampmann by split decision, doing little to ingratiate himself with UFC fans in the process. Dana White, and only Dana White, still believed Shields looked impressive:
Yeah, listen, how could you not be impressed with his performance? He had a tough guy in Martin Kampmann. Martin Kampmann's no joke.
And then White coyly confirmed Shields' title shot, kind of:
Yeah, Jake's in the mix. I don't think any less of Jake Shields today than I did yesterday.
He may not think any less of Jake Shields, but that comment reeks of a stinky hedge. Shields told Sherdog he's not counting his proverbial unhatched chickens:
"I'm still, at this point, not 100-percent sure," Shields said of getting the shot during an episode of "The Savage Dog Show" on the Sherdog Radio Network. "I know Dana's made it sound like it's a good chance it's still happening, but I don't know until it's signed. Right now I'm just back to the gym, doing my thing. If they want me to fight for the title, I'll happily do that. If not, I'll fight whoever they want me to fight."
Amid the scent of breaded cod and fried potatoes a week before UFC 121, Fitch clued ESPN UK in on how he would handle the situation:
"I would like to fight the winner of that [Shields v Kampmann] fight," he told ESPN. "The next title shot is going to be four-to-six months after the Koscheck vs. GSP fight in December. That's a long time for the top guys not to be fighting. "I myself like to stay busy, so I'd like to fight the winner of that fight. It makes a lot of sense, the fans get to see an extra fight, it's win-win."
We won't see Fitch fight Shields in the interim. Fitch won't fight Josh Koscheck. The UFC can't afford to gamble with the idea that Koscheck upsets St-Pierre for the title, and then have Fitch outbore Shields for fifteen minutes.
I suspect that Dana White will give Jake Shields the next title shot. He's good looking. He's a fresh face. He beat Dan Henderson on national TV (and let's just ignore the extracurriculars).
I'd feel sorry for Fitch, but I'm starting to wonder that he's developed a fetish for UFC sadism. Fitch had to dispatch eight consecutive UFC opponents before earning his chance at UFC gold. Dana White fired him for a day when he questioned the UFC's request for his name and likeness. He then found himself fighting in the untelevised prelims in his first fight following the loss to GSP.
And now he finds an explicitly promised title shot all but taken away.