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Bloody Elbow roundtable: The UFC's awarding of title shots (part 1)

The Bloody Elbow roundtable is back to discuss the noticeable shift in the way the UFC awards title shots, and whether this will be more frequent in the long-term. This is the first of two parts, with the conclusion scheduled for publish tomorrow.

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Mookie Alexander: Today it was confirmed by the UFC that featherweight champion Jose Aldo would be fighting lightweight Anthony Pettis for Aldo's FW belt. Not only has Pettis never competed at featherweight, but this is now the 3rd time in 4 fights that Aldo is facing a 155er. Kenny Florian was given 1 fight at FW and then an immediate title shot. Edgar wasn't supposed to get an immediate title shot after dropping down, but he ended up getting one anyway. Pettis was flat-out given a title shot, seemingly without the UFC even pondering at least 1 non-title fight at 145 for him.

This has been a trend in UFC title matchmaking recently. Jon Jones is fighting Chael Sonnen, who is coming off of a loss and hasn't fought at LHW in 7 years nor has he ever factored in the division. Georges St. Pierre is fighting Nick Diaz even though Diaz lost the interim title fight and failed the drug test anyway. Anderson Silva could've fought light-heavyweight Rashad Evans at 185 had Evans not completely crapped the bed against Antonio Rogerio Nogueira.

All of this comes at the expense of the likes of Ricardo Lamas, Johny Hendricks, nearly Chris Weidman, and other title contenders who ultimately end up waiting on the sidelines despite consistently defeating the best fighters in their weight class.

So I pose this question to everyone in this edition of the Roundtable - Have we reached a new era in UFC matchmaking, where title shots are awarded based on marketability over merit?

Fraser Coffeen: Have we reached a new era? Oh, most definitely. The title booking these days is odd to say the least. You have guys jumping weight and getting immediate title shots, like you pointed out. At the same time, you have undeserving challengers seemingly there just to give the champ a win at times (sorry, but that's Liz Carmouche, Vitor Belfort, and Erik Koch, though the Koch fight fell through thankfully). The idea of winning your way to a title shot is firmly out the window at this point. Best evidence is at Welterweight - there's really no possible reason for anyone other than Hendricks being the #1 contender if you're looking at things from a pure sporting perspective. Which the UFC clearly is not doing at this point.

To me the bigger question is this - what will be the ultimate repercussions of this new era? That's a tougher one to pin down. On the one hand, I wish the deserving challengers would get the shot they deserve, and I love the idea of knowing who was earned a shot. That's one of the things I love about K-1 and kickboxing, and it's a huge appeal of Bellator as well.

On the other hand, I have to admit - I was a lot more excited about Aldo vs. Edgar than I was Aldo vs. Koch. And, sorry to say, I'm way more intrigued by Aldo vs. Pettis than Aldo vs. Lamas. Yes Lamas deserves the shot more, and so the sports fan in me wants to see that. But Aldo vs. Pettis just sounds cool. The UFC is banking that the "sounds cool" factor will translate into better long term success than the "real sports" factor. And if I'm being totally honest, I'm not sure that they're wrong.

KJ Gould: Of course that's what they're for. UFC titles mean little outside of a bigger paycheck for the champion, and a marketing point for a Pay Per View or Fox card. The only thing shocking is that this treatment of championships didn't happen sooner.

It's the pro wrestling model, where titles are used to get guys over, only it applies to those getting title shots too. UFC knows Edgar can be in entertaining fights, UFC knows Pettis is an exciting fighter, UFC knows Sonnen is entertaining as a character and has shown he can put up a good fight, as well as lose spectacularly. The guys who have 'earned' the fights don't fit this model.

As long as titles and title shots are awarded by promoters, instead of independent bodies, they will continue to only have a promotional purpose, instead of being a recognition of sporting achievement. A UFC title might as well be the equivolent of a Don King title or a Bob Arum title in boxing.

Mookie: It's funny how often Dana White decries how boxing is being ruined with shoddy matchmaking and not setting up "the best to fight the best", and here is the UFC bypassing established title contenders like they're nothing.

And you know what? They can get away with it. MMA casuals are none the wiser and the UFC wants them to stay that way. Why do you think they package even Facebook fights like we're watching title contenders? Why else do they just sweep losses under the rug like they did for Dan Hardy and Brandon Vera? So as long as the UFC gives casual fans familiar names and stick them against each other without any context or reasoning other than "It's a fight the fans want to see", they can continue this formula until the end of time.

Casual fans know Anthony Pettis if only for the showtime kick. Give them Ricardo Lamas and they'll scratch their heads. And the UFC really doesn't attempt -- and they really never have other than TUF -- to build fighters over brand. I absolutely do not like how the UFC is essentially doing away with the "sport" side of earning a title shot, but is it all that surprising? The only question remains is how far will they push the envelope with this matchmaking?

T.P Grant: I think there is a shift in the marketing of the UFC. While they always wanted to build stars, their marketing was brand focused. It was about the letters "U-F-C" and slightly less about who was head lining the card. But the dynamics have changed for the UFC, they no longer do 10 events a year, each of them being stacked with fights, they in some cases do 4 or 5 events in a single month. Cards are becoming much more about who is in the main event and how that sells to crowds. It is becoming much more about the individual athletes, and we are seeing that now in match making.

Anderson Silva and Jon Jones turning down is a sign of these times, as is this kind of cherry picking match making. In past and even in certain cases currently MMA fans have had to root for certain outcomes to get the match ups they wanted. Take Alistair Overeem's match with Bigfoot Silva, many wanted to see Overeem get a title shot and it was derailed. Now the UFC is eroding old barriers that kept the some marketable fighters from getting in the cage with champions when the iron was hot. Fighters are jumping around in weight far more than they had in the past.

In the end it is devaluing the idea of champions fight the best, but if the UFC makes it a "every so often" exception and not the norm I don't think it will damage their champions. In fact if Pride demonstrated anything it can build the champions to near mythic status. Fans want highlight reel moments out of their Champions and as the recent past of the UFC has shown those can be hard to come by when Champions are given elite fighter after elite fighter. MMA fans are totally against the idea of "tune up matches" like in boxing, but they seem far more open to "showcase matches" in which an elite fighter is paired with an inferior fighter to help build their highlight reel and their stardom.

I think this could be good for the sport in terms of visibility moving forward, as it gives a challenger more time to build up his stardom before he steps into the spotlight. A fighter like Chris Weidman might be ready to fight Anderson Silva on a competitive level but in terms of fan recognition he is now where near the level that the UFC needs to sell a fighter that competitive. They would have to sell it as The Anderson Silva Show because they have gone to the "it is the toughest test Champion X has faced" well too many times and then hope Silva pulls it out.

Kid Nate: The UFC painted itself into this corner a long time ago by failing to develop a vehicle that can reliably develop new fighters into fan favorites. The Ultimate Fighter reality show should have been that vehicle. In its early seasons it was, just ask Forrest Griffin, Diego Sanchez, Chris Leben, Kenny Florian, Rashad Evans, Melvin Guillard, Michael Bisping, Nate Diaz, Gray Maynard, Joe Lauzon and many others. But by the seventh season the returns were clearly diminishing and instead of changing their approach they insisted on sticking with it.

A couple of factors prevented TUF from building more stars for the organization once fighters realized there were easier and better paying ways into the UFC. First, the blind insistence that the contestants on TUF should be locked into the lowest paying contracts the organization offers meant that the really talented fighters would just wait to be called up rather than potentially losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in payouts during their first years in the organization.

Secondly, Spike TV's (and now FX's) influence on the casting of the show with an eye toward cheap ratings meant lots of Junie Brownings and not many Forrest Griffins in the recent seasons. That may help keep the show on the air but it does nothing to build the PPV audience for the promotion.

Now that they have damaged the brand's credibility to the point that you can no longer sell 300,000 PPV buys just by having "UFC" at the beginning of an event's name, they are desperate for "big" matches. Now the answer is to create "big" matches at the cost of their sporting integrity. This is a short term solution that only further erodes their brand value in the long run and ironically plays right into Bellator's "where title shots are earned" marketing.

Tim Burke: I really don't see Aldo/Pettis in the same league as Jones/Sonnen or GSP/Diaz. Or even when Randy Couture got the shot against Tim Sylvia back in the day. The light heavyweight and welterweight titles are firmly established as draws, and there's no need for the crazy matchmaking there. There is absolutely no reason to give Chael Sonnen a title shot at light heavyweight. None. And the only reason Nick Diaz is getting one is because GSP asked for the fight. But featherweight is a different story.

The belt is not a draw yet. To establish it as a draw, I can understand why the UFC deviates a little bit from traditional booking. Like it or not, Aldo/Lamas can't sell a PPV. Aldo/Pettis won't sell a lot either, but it's still going to get more people to watch. They've already had to go the free direction with the every other belt below 170. The 155, 135, and 125 title fights are all on TV. If they want to establish Aldo as a PPV draw, he needs to meet the most popular options possible. And if that means them coming down from 155, so be it.

Overall, I don't have much of a problem with it. In two years I might. But you can't treat every division the same, because they're not.


Okay, this is part 1 for a reason. This roundtable brought forth such a large discussion that if we put in everything in full you'd be scrolling down for two months. Part 2 will go up tomorrow. Thanks to everyone who chipped in their thoughts on this very hot topic. And of course, we want to hear your thoughts on the original question posed.

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