In the hiatus between UFC events, there's some time to time to take stock of where the organization as a whole finds itself, and several lenses to look at it through. Why not the most elemental one, namely the fighters?
So, this article will ask how each of the UFC's divisions are doing, via a variety of different metrics, including the popularity of their champions and the long-term health of the divisions.
Without further ado:
How good is the champ?: A brief overview. This is relative, and largely defined by the division which they find themselves in.
Saleability: Aside from how good they are at fighting, how much does the champ connect with the fanbase? How much can they provide a bump over and above the baseline UFC brand?
Conveyor belt: How much is the division doing what it's supposed to, i.e. providing a fairly consistent stream of worthy challengers to the belt?
Long-term divisional health: How sustainable is the division in the long term, from those already in the division to the regional pools outside it?
Total score: Self-explanatory
Each area has a score out of ten. These scores are, it barely needs to be said, objectively correct(1).
Champion: Stipe Miocic
How good is the champ?: Somewhat hard to tell? A decent outside striker with power, pace and wrestling. It's tough to parse how much his last wins were meltdowns from Overeem and Werdum, and how much he made them melt down? 6/10
Saleability: A fireman and amusing twitter follow, Miocic suffers from being the generic guy in a division of freaks. People want heavies to be weird monstrosities and he is not one, nor was he promoted much on the way up. Still, a blue-collar, relatively charming heavyweight automatically has a basement of appeal. 5/10
Conveyor belt: Junior dos Santos is challenging next weekend, while Fabricio Werdum and what's left of Cain Velasquez are waiting in the wings. So, it's moving, but the idea that all these men have held gold at least once before is hard to shake. Time is a flat circle. 6/10
Long-term divisional health: Surprisingly reasonable, with upper tier talents like Blaydes and Ngannou, and lower tier prospects like Tybura and Ledet. Heavyweight's greatest long-term advantage is that it is awful but people don't care much. Thus, tubby men can train Tae Bo in order to lose weight, then roll out of bed one day to inexplicably find themselves ranked in the top 15 and on a main card. Tae Bo Big Men will forever be a relatively inexhaustible supply of fighting blubber(2). 6/10
Total score: 23/40
Champion: Daniel Cormier
How good is the champ?: Cormier has quietly assembled one of the best resumes around. His age and tendency to soak up damage will likely catch up to him at some point, and Jon Jones remains a rough style matchup. 7/10
Saleability: Despite being a thoughtful and gritty champ with an inspiring personal story, the Dadbod Emperor suffers from the Miocic genericism problem, as well as toiling in the shadow of Jones, and generally not fitting into profitable black stereotypes(1). 5/10
Conveyor belt: Stalled but looking like movement is imminent. The current debate is whether Jon Jones comes back straight to a title shot or whether Jimi Manuwa gets next. Following that there's the Gustafsson-Glover winner, with three failed title challenges between them. 4/10
Long-term divisional health: Dismal. The advance of weight cutting means that yesteryear's 205ers have fled to middleweight. In the arid and crumbling wasteland of this division, the UFC allowed one of their few prospects in Nikita Krylov to leave, as well as top 5 talents Ryan Bader and Phil Davis. 2/10
Total score: 18/40
Champion: Michael Bisping
How good is the champ?: A high-pace, low-power veteran striker who has shifted slightly towards emphasizing power in recent years as he's gotten older. Unlikely to beat any of the top 5 of his own division. 4/10.
Saleability: A long career of being the UFC's go-to heel who brings reliable out-of-the-box drama has left Bisping as a Marmite(3) champion: people love or hate him, but always have an opinion. 7/10
Conveyor belt: Virtually destroyed. Bisping having a comedy fight with Dan Henderson followed by another comedy fight with GSP many months in the future has slammed upward mobility. Potential title challengers are compelled to accept take-busy fights. Jacare was the first casualty. There will likely be more to come by the time all this has sorted itself out, by which point only Whittaker, Jotko and a porky Gastelum will stand puzzlingly astride the wreckage. 2/10
Long-term divisional health: Average. The stealing of light heavyweights and the Strikeforce injection have kept it ticking over. In addition, welterweights tend to be comically over-sized, and can occasionally make their way into the heavier division in order to bully the slower and less skilled men there(4). 6/10
Total score: 19/40
Champion: Tyron Woodley
How good is the champ?: Woodley has an outdated style of right hand and double leg, supercharged by incredible athleticism. Matchup-dependent, but he probably has a run of winnable fights ahead of him. 6/10
Saleability: The volume of people proclaiming angrily that no-one cares about Woodley is a good sign. Fans seem to find him particularly annoying, and that's generally a good thing for the promotional bottom line. Not that good though. 6/10
Conveyor belt: Wobbly. The two dreadful Woodley-Thompson fights left Demian Maia's title shot in doubt due to the amount of time elapsed, and the UFC is now trying to knock him off by using Masvidal as a spoiler. No-one else has built much momentum, as Lawler, Condit and MacDonald's absences made a sizable hole in the upper end of the division. Are the UFC trying to tempt McGregor back for a third belt? Waiting for GSP-Bisping? Woodley says he's likely fighting in July. Who knows? 3/10
Long-term divisional health: Pretty good. The top 15 is aging out, but there are enough talented young prospects to be able to make up the difference (Edwards, Usman, etc). The turnover point may cause some chaos when it happens. 8/10
Total score: 23/40
Champion: Conor McGregor
How good is the champ? A devastating puncher on offense or the counter, he's had some issues when he's not the bigger man, and his grappling is still a bit of a question mark. 7/10
Saleability: The biggest star in UFC history. 10/10
Conveyor belt: Badly damaged. It's not starting to back into itself like middleweight, but it's getting close. Upwards mobility isn't just stalled by McGregor. Nurmagomedov and Diaz are inactive and Ferguson did a good job of mopping everyone else up. Little movement at the top, and not even an interim title, for whatever that's worth. 3/10
Long-term divisional health: Since the Strikeforce and WEC mergers, easily the strongest division in the UFC. Eventually it will get overtaken by featherweight and bantamweight, but will still be fantastic. 9/10
Total score: 29/40
Champion: Jose Aldo
How good is the champ? One of the most consistent and battle-tested champions on roster. Defensively near-uncrackable and a brilliant athlete. 8/10
Saleability: Pretty good for a Brazilian. Got some rub from McGregor despite the humiliating loss. Is popular in his home country. 6/10
Conveyor belt: Now that everyone has accepted that McGregor is never coming back, the featherweight division reveals itself to be in rude health. Max Holloway is next for Aldo in one of the best available fights in the sport. Following that, there's potentially Yair. However, Lamas, Swanson and Edgar combine to make a tough old block for new and exciting challengers to jump over. 8/10
Long-term divisional health: Probably only second to bantamweight in the quality of high-end prospects which populate the regional scene. Some UFC prospects have taken steps back of late (Choi, Bektic) but remain high-quality . 9/10
Total score: 31/40
Champion: Cody Garbrandt
How good is the champ?: An astonishing physical talent, one able to make Dominick Cruz look like he was moving in treacle. Reasonably untested otherwise. 6/10
Saleability: Young in his career, but it seems like there's something there. Walking the line between being a handsome young man who fights the good fight for cancer survivors and a Perry-esque dunderhead probably works fairly well(5). 6/10
Conveyor belt: TJ Dillashaw is fighting Garbrandt next. Following this, there's Dominick Cruz, Jimmie Rivera etc. All chugging along nicely, despite the horror of putting a TUF season in the middle of this. 8/10
Long-term divisional health: The regional pool of bantamweights is superb, and the UFC increasingly picks up dynamic, thrilling prospects, including Duquesnoy and Moraes, among others. The best division in the sport within 5 years at the very most, book it. 10/10.
Total score: 33/40
Champion: Demetrious Johnson
How good is the champ? He's Demetrious Johnson. 10/10.
Saleability: DJ has been creeping incrementally towards a little more capital with the fans, but the essential structure of the division means that fighters get streaks on the prelims, then fight him. No-one knows who they are; he wins; most people shrug; seculo seculorum, 4/10
Conveyor belt: Functioning but very weak. Hurt by a few key fighters (Dodson, Lineker, Scoggins) eating their way out of the division, by Ian McCall's gypsy curse, and Horiguchi's departure. However, Borg and Moreno have been making some waves. 4/10
Long-term divisional health: Flyweight has a strong regional source of fighters to call on, but the UFC is utterly ruthless about cutting anyone who loses a few fights, and in refusing to re-sign talents like Horiguchi, so it's difficult to establish storylines which aren't "DJ is really good", or secondary / tertiary benchmarks in the division. 5/10
Total score: 21/40
Champion: Germaine de Randamie
How good is the champ?: A big, technical striker and former kickboxing champ. Beat former 135 belt-holder Holly Holm but has no worthwhile wins other than that. It's hard to tell how much her grappling defense has improved. 3/10
Saleability: De Randamie is virtually unknown, aside from beating Holm. 2/10
Conveyor belt: "Where's Cyborg?" is the only question which matters, and the answer is "not booked to fight for the belt." 1/10
Long-term divisional health: The future looks dire for this gimmick of a division: built for a single fighter in Cyborg, then re-purposed into a failed attempt at a Holly Holm star vehicle. Not only does the UFC have almost no featherweights, there are barely any in the wider population outside the UFC. Megan Anderson? 1/10
Total score: 7/40
Champion: Amanda Nunes
How good is the champ?: A distance power striker with a higher pace version of Aldo's style. Has a brutal top game and great killer instinct, but her cardio remains an open question. 6/10
Saleability: Most of the "beat the champ" shine for defeating Rousey was taken by Holm, as there's little buzz around Nunes. She's violent, but that doesn't translate to popularity. 4/10
Conveyor belt: No booking yet, but Shevchenko is almost certainly fighting Nunes next at UFC 213 in a bout which is probably the most technically skilled title fight we've seen in this division. Following that there's Pena and Pennington. Perhaps not the most intriguing matchups, but solid. 5/10
Long-term divisional health: WBW is still a pretty aged division, and signs new fighters at a relatively slow rate. The ‘Rousey Effect’ in elevating MMA into the place for women's combat sport athletes will likely continue to draw fighters into the division, even as it undoubtedly becomes less of a main card / PPV presence. 5/10
Total score: 20/40
Champion: Joanna Jedrzejczyk
How good is the champ?: A vicious and highly functional volume striker, although her athleticism and raw power isn't top shelf. At the moment she's able to out-technique everyone, but this is a fast-developing division. 7/10
Saleability: Seems to catch on pretty well with people wherever she goes; is well-liked and projects a compelling mixture of cuteness and ruthless killer instinct. 7/10
Conveyor belt: JJ is fighting Andrade next week, following that Thug Rose likely has next, and there are a number of other fighters waiting in the wings. All exciting stuff. 9/10
Long-term divisional health: Excellent. Similar to the lighter men's classes, there's a strong well of regional talent and a number of prospects in the division. 8/10
Total score: 31/40
Aside from the unsurprising conclusion that the healthier divisions tend to be in the mid-ranges, the phrase "victim of its own success" comes to mind when looking at the 2017 iteration of the UFC. Every division where there is or was money to be made is in stasis. The slight exception is heavyweight, but the drawing power of the division is overstated.
With profit targets to meet, the ownership has been pulled in pursuit of several money fights, while managing to book a grand total of none. The mooted McGregor-Mayweather bout is the most obvious example. Dana White appears more optimistic of getting it booked than he might have done in the past, when he was more obviously protective. This sunny outlook seems naive(5), given how the comparatively straightforward Pacquiao-Mayweather fight took years to get booked, and was tripped at late hurdles more than once.
The shift in strategy towards money fights is likely at least partially driven by the WME-IMG purchase, but has combined with factors out of the organization's control (Rousey getting beaten; Jones being Jones; Khabib) and more obvious blunders(7). 2017 has represented a definite downturn thus far.
It's perhaps too easy to criticize missteps. The approach of fishing a pool of fighters for the ones which make money is a genuinely tricky thing to reconcile with a basic, reliable sporting meritocracy of fighters fighting better opposition until they get to a belt.
This is also part of the disconnect between being a TV company and being a PPV one. PPVs are about singular moments, while TV requires consistent storylines. The UFC's TV deals require a lot of content, which in turn requires a lot of fighters... but it's difficult to follow stories in a roster which is literally hundreds strong. Meaningful rankings and functioning conveyor belts help here.
Leverage available to fighters has changed, which also looks to be contributing. Relative moneymakers seem more aware of their clout in a squeezed UFC; those who aren't part of the elect are disposable. So, someone campaigning for a big fight can hold up a division, while anyone below a certain cut-off point who sticks up is likely to get hammered back down, or fired. This obviously leaves a gap- the higher the fighter, the more significant the hole. This is how it's always been, but the emphasis looks to have shifted further upwards of late, with fighters like Rory MacDonald and Ryan Bader slipping below the cut-off.
The solution to a two-speed UFC has historically been to have de facto TV and PPV divisions. The lighter weight, populous weight classes are used to fill up the TV cards, and move relatively quickly, while the bigger men (and women) fight on the numbered cards. It might seem like a great problem to have when a TV division becomes a PPV one, as with lightweight, but suddenly the whole thing can start to jam, with close to a hundred fighters starting to pack up behind a recalcitrant star or two.
It's difficult to see what the solutions are. It's too easy to castigate the UFC for not putting on "fun fights" one day, then badger them for messing up divisional functionality the next. Recently, the UFC has come to the table with a bunch of gambles, and none of them paid off in the right way (Sage; Paige; W145; Grasso). Like any gamble, failure defines them(8). So, it's at least partially just a run of bad luck.
Luck is honestly and truly a big part of the operating model. This is a consistently profitable business resting on a number of hardcores who will buy anything UFC, and with a small number of fighters who can generate profits above that level. Who these fighters will be, and how successful they are, is more down to chance than anything else. So, taking gambles makes sense.
But, there have also been unforced errors. The bedrock of fans supporting the sport is historically durable- it goes through churn, but not significant decline. Obsessives will grind their way through six to eight hour events, and still tune into the next fight. However, house money isn't unlimited. Too much gambling; too much flailing around looking for a new belt, or a new star, or a big payday; too many holes knocked towards the upper ends of divisions, and the organization risks eroding that invaluable base.
UFC 211 should be a salve for the hardcores. While unlikely to sell a lot, it's an objectively great card from top to bottom. Two of its functional divisions are in play in heavyweight and strawweight, and it should provide some clarity on both welterweight and featherweight. It's an opportunity for reintroduction. After a disappointing start to new ownership, it's important to prove that the UFC machinery is still functioning.
- Comment section below to vent your rage.
- Like... it's how we got JDS, more or less?
- For non-UK people, Marmite is a delicious spread made of salt and axle grease.
- See also: light heavyweight to heavyweight, where trans-divisional success has almost entirely come from the smaller fighters cynically beating up on the bigger ones. Like Fedor used to!(1)
- Or not? I don't know what young people like.
- Or dishonest! White may have no intention of booking the fight, and is merely protecting himself from looking as though he's against it.
- Like Holly Holm being booked against dangerous nonentities (twice!), in an almost perfectly poorly judged marriage between boring legitimacy and short-term moneymaking.
- For example, agreeing to book McGregor-Mendes was far more risky than any of these, yet worked out fine.