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Anthony Smith, Kamaru Usman, and the argument for top contenders

UFC 235 hearkens back to a time when it felt much more likely that being the right guy in the right place at the right time would get a fighter a chance at UFC gold.

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I don’t want to go so far into some revisionist narrative as to say that UFC title shots used to be earned, not given. But, as often as not, they were at least the direct result of a combination of timing and success. When Yushin Okami fought Anderson Silva, he was on a three-fight win streak, his last loss coming to former title challenger Chael Sonnen. He was the man at the top of his division, in the right place at the right time.

The same could be said of Dan Hardy, who hit the UFC with four straight wins to get a shot at Georges St-Pierre. Or Mark Hominick’s four fight run that ended in a fight with Jose Aldo. This all being at a point when the UFC was also small enough that winning four fights in a row really did mean something.

UFC 111: St-Pierre v Hardy Weigh-In Photo by Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images

But today, in a promotion bursting at the gills with a near-600 fighter roster – and pushing for every ounce of extra meaning that can be delivered into every possible headlining opportunity – it feels surprising that those kinds of title challengers can even exist. Vicente Luque’s four-fight run has got him a share of the bottom of the welterweight rankings table. If he’s lucky it’ll keep him off the prelims next time out too. Rustam Khabilov just saw his six-fight win streak snapped... in the early prelims of a regional Fight Night card against a relatively unknown opponent. The same could happen to Alejandro Perez’s win streak this weekend at UFC 235. Raphael Assuncao saw seven and four-fight win streaks snapped in non-title affairs.

That isn’t to say that Assuncao, Perez, and Khabilov’s success would have got them a shot at a belt back in 2009. Their styles aren’t exactly thrilling. But, getting passed over feels much more the norm now that even exciting wins don’t mean much if fighters don’t have some extra force propelling them. Kamaru Usman had to go 9-0 in the UFC to get his chance at the belt. Covington, for all the controversy he’s created along the way, put together a six fight win streak just to lose out on a chance at the welterweight belt. Tony Ferguson is unbeaten in his last eleven UFC fights.

UFC Fight Night Cejudo v Dillashaw: Press Conference Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Instead, fights like Dillashaw vs. Cejudo, Hollaway vs. Poirier, and Bisping vs. GSP, have become the MMA zeitgeist. All good, interesting contests. All more likely to create buzz from an increasingly silent fanbase. But altogether, they represent a shift away from the legacy that the UFC and its best fighters used to build.

The ability for a champion to become a dominant champion – to face all comers and create a lasting impression of greatness – wasn’t just a talking point for GOAT debates. It was also something that gave the fighters in their divisions an idea of a goal. A narrative to follow that seemed like it could lead to success. Win these fights, be this good, and you will get the opportunity for greatness. You will get a chance at immortality.

The story was something of a lie. Belts have always been promotional tools, less about determining true ability than leveraging potential value. And one of the principal reasons that the narrative for success was so focused was that the UFC kept their talent under much tighter control at the time, through the threat of cutting wayward talent from the roster. In an era of Reebok and USADA, fighters are more likely than ever to stay in the promotion for as long as their contract allows. They’re just also less likely to make significant moves toward stardom along the way.

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But eventually, in fighting, even lies are important. As Ben Fowlkes recent interviews with Rashad Evans and Julie Kedzie spelled out so well, there’s a lot of self-deception that goes into the maintenance of being a pro fighter. Fighters have to believe they’re capable of beating up anyone and everyone on the right day. And, in a sport where the monetary returns are often incredibly slim, they have to believe that the hard work and pain that they pour into mixed martial arts is going to be rewarded coming out of it.

Where title fight chicanery erodes that belief, title fight opportunities like those earned by Usman and Smith reinforce it. Win these fights, be this good, work this hard for this long, and the opportunities will be there. It doesn’t have to be true all the time, but it should probably be true at least some of the time.

Champions need challengers, even dominant ones; new contenders that can enter the title picture and compete. Fresh canvas on which to paint the picture of their success. Not all of these will be the most notable or the most talented competition that a champion has ever faced — and the more dominant a champ, the less likely a new contender is to have an impressive resume. But, there’s a lot of value in the opportunities earned by those fighters. There’s the promise that hard work pays off.

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