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UFC Minneapolis: The UFC is caught in an awkward flux

Following UFC Minneapolis, Jordan Breen looks at the state of the UFC and just how much control (or lack thereof) it has over its athletes.

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Never mind the ESPN deal and how profoundly it has perplexed and pissed off viewers and would-be viewers. We can all argue for the reasons for this, but to no doubt, Saturday night’s UFC on ESPN 3 card with Francis N’Gannou clubbing Junior dos Santos in just 71 seconds, among other happenings on the card, really brings this to the forefront.

Undoubtedly, the Ultimate Fighting Championship is still the leading mixed martial arts promoter in the world. No one can argue this. That said, the promotion just put on a card, on “The Worldwide Leader in Sports,” where its main event ended in barely a minute, won by a man who just had a woeful bout with Derrick Lewis, and its co-main event was contested in a division that the company is actively trying to erase. It’s all a headache.

MMA: UFC Fight Night-Minneapolis-Ngannou vs Dos Santos David Berding-USA TODAY Sports

On the surface, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with N’Gannou clubbing Dos Santos. At the same time, he’s still a fairly one-dimensional fighter who lost an absolutely agonizing fight less than a year ago to Derrick Lewis, another one-dimensional fighter who was humiliated and blown out of the water by the current UFC heavyweight champ Daniel Cormier. And in turn, Cormier has been twice exploited by current light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, a recalcitrant steroid cheat, who is about to fight his second straight middleweight step-up. Like, what’s happening here?

It gets no better as you go down the line, as part of this entire process is that the UFC put all its eggs in a few select baskets, so we end up with Conor McGregor out of his mind climbing trees intoxicated with two titles, forfeiting them, then we wind up we beneficiary of a genocidal warlord like Ramzan Kadyrov grooming him in Khabib Nurmagomedov, while at the same time, we have an interim champion in Dustin Poirier. This is to say nothing of Tony Ferguson, who won an interim title – one of the banes of the company – only to have his title stripped after a freak accident, and just returned this month after a well-documented and obvious case of mental illness. The UFC Performance Institute can foster the training of fighters and its partner, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, is willing to kill anyone’s career for trace amounts of ostarine, but we can’t examine athletes who get punched in the head for a living for possible cognitive disabilities? This is a good policy?

The fact is, the UFC has lost control of its athletes; you can view that however you want. MMA stars clearly have more agency over their own careers now, which is a positive. However, it’s not because of the company’s willing. We’re long gone from the days of Joe Silva terrifying fighters over the phone with fight deals. Now, the UFC has given too much flex to their top earners, circled in on social media and other extraneously elements that fighters know what Conor McGregor earns, and feel free to decline fights. I’ve talked to UFC matchmakers and their biggest annoyance now is people turning down fights. We’re a long way from Matt Hughes defending his welterweight title after doing roofing for a summer.

No doubt, there are positives to the current UFC model. The stoking of the fire for fights like Robert Whittaker-Israel Adesanya or Kamaru Usman-Colby Covington is valuable. But, at the same time, they’re only made more valuable by the UFC’s insistence on pushing garbage interim titles and having college grads push their fighters to engage in trash talk without understanding the industry. But, for those of us who can see behind the curtain, it’s transparent and absurd. The UFC created its own monster by using titles and interim titles as bonus chips, and created a monster by encouraging these people to become social media monsters. That’s why Colby Covington can be in the Oval Office and, then posting pictures with him cruising in a convertible with a woman her breasts out, and that’s why it constitutes a “call out.”

MMA: UFC Fight Night-Minneapolis-Formiga vs Benavidez David Berding-USA TODAY Sports

On this same UFC card, Joseph Benavidez whopped Jussier da Silva, whom he knocked out almost six years ago. He’s the last person to best two-division champion Henry Cejudo. Yet, he competed in a division the promotion is actively seeking to eliminate. What’s the point? It’s just animals hopping through flaming rings. It’s cruel and it’s stupid. Does anyone really expect a Cejudo-Benavidez rematch? This is just a circus game.

When it comes to the UFC, there’s so little thoughtful promotional oversight and so much given to pure earning and brand deals, you can just fight, make sure you have someone in mind to call out if you win, then take your gloves off. It doesn’t even matter any more. It’s rote, formulaic and frankly, anarchic. Paradoxically, while fighting off unionization and imposing ridiculous impositions on fighters, the company is so bent on hand selecting stars and then relying on those stars, individual athletes can stunt on the promotion and hold them hostage.

The UFC will remain the biggest show in town. But the state of things, when it comes to promotion and competition, is simply bizarre, caught in a weird coming of age where no one – not the UFC itself, fighters, media or fans – seem to really know what the company truly wants to be. It’s unnerving and exhausting. The sickest part of all is that because it possesses the bulk of the best talent in cagefighting, we’re all going to watch to fuel this schizophrenic fire.

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