An Olympic gold medalist and two-division champion squaring off with one of the greatest fighters – and the greatest featherweight – in MMA history? Sounds like a historic, can’t miss kind of fight that that would titillate any fight fan. Of course, the architecture of marquee fights is profoundly informed by context and timing, so it don’t think it surprises anyone that most of the MMA populace hasn’t embraced the idea of a Henry Cejudo-Jose Aldo showdown. After all, Aldo is 0-1 as a bantamweight, coming off a contentious split decision loss in his divisional debut to Marlon Moraes.
But honestly, should the very fact the fight was even made be a surprise? Certainly not, and contrary to some popular thought, while Cejudo-Aldo is a lousy booking, this hardly represents a recent change in the UFC’s promotional mentality.
On Monday, the UFC made official a bantamweight title showdown between the champion Cejudo and the 145-pound icon Aldo as the UFC 250 headliner, scheduled for May 9 in Sao Paulo. More often than not, when the UFC anoints a title challenger and announces a forthcoming title fight, there is divergence of opinion among fans and media, with different folks and factions either agreeing, or stumping for a different contender they view as a more worthy candidate. What is most important here, however, is that Cejudo-Aldo was confirmed just two weeks before UFC 248, headlined by Israel Adesanya’s middleweight title defense against Yoel Romero, loser of two in a row and 1-3 in his last four bouts. This has led to a prevailing narrative in the MMA world that the UFC’s promotional mentality is increasingly dodgy, giving endless marquee opportunities to floundering fighters, while stymying deserved athletes.
I’m sympathetic to the notion that it’s unjust, annoying and in some cases, potentially ruinous to the product. That said, for all the changes in promotional decision making exhibited in the UFC in recent years, especially since Endeavor took over ownership, this particular issue is nothing new. If anything, it’s a longstanding MMA tradition, especially in the UFC, predating Endeavor, even predating Zuffa’s ownership.
If the reported rematch between UFC featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski and Max Holloway headlines UFC 251 this June in Perth, Australia pushes through expected, it would mean that four of the first six UFC pay-per-views in 2020 would feature main events with a fighter coming off a loss, two of them being title fights. In a climate like that, I can understand where the invective comes from. That said, with the sheer volume of UFC cards, the nature of injuries and many star fighters more willing than ever to play hardball with the promotion and wait for preferential opportunities, it’s only logical we’d see more instances in fighters coming off losses thrust into headliners. However, as I mentioned earlier, context is key.
Romero getting another shot at the UFC middleweight crown is less than ideal. But with obvious No. 1 contender Paulo Henrique Costa injured, and given the close, competitive nature of Costa’s own win over Romero, there is some level of forgiveness and acceptance. The rancor around Cejudo-Aldo is catalyzed by the fact that there are other clear, more competent options than a fighter who is 0-1 at bantamweight in the UFC: Aljamain Sterling has impressively won four in a row and is 6-1 in his last seven, while red-hot Russian Petr Yan is 6-0 in the Octagon and has won nine straight. Anyone with a sense of sporting legitimacy would prefer either to Aldo, even given Aldo’s undeniable legacy in the sport, but conversely, if there were no legitimate bantamweight challengers in this moment, current critics would likely be far more tolerant.
Regardless of whether such fights are born of desperation or, in this case, financial preference owing to Aldo’s greater name value and the ability to sell the card in Brazil, this is old hat for the UFC in all eras. Going back to the days of Semaphore Entertainment Group owning the promotion, we had Tank Abbott fight Maurice Smith for the UFC heavyweight title, coming off of two decisive losses, just because he was Tank Abbott. Jorge “Macaco” Patino got to face Pat Miletich for the 170-pound crown coming off two grisly losses in his back-to-back vale tudo classics with Jose “Pele” Landi-Jons. More legitimate options were certainly available, even in the late 1990’s.
This tactic certainly didn’t disappear in the Zuffa era. Almost immediately, Carlos Newton, fresh off a loss to Dave Menne in the infamous Shidokan Jitsu Warriors tournament finals in Dubai, was brought in to challenge Pat Miletich, and wound up winning the UFC welterweight title. In years following, the 170-pound division would also see BJ Penn and Nick Diaz, both coming off defeats, granted title shots against Matt Hughes and Georges St. Pierre respectively, almost entirely owing to their star quality and appeal, despite more recently successful fighters in their midst.
When Cat Zingano was injured after defeating Miesha Tate in 2013, the promotion wasted zero time and debate before inserting Tate into a rivalry-laden rematch with Ronda Rousey. Speaking of Aldo, one of his greatest featherweight title defenses came against Frankie Edgar in 2013, after the former UFC lightweight champion lost two in a row to Benson Henderson, then decided to drop to 145 pounds. And, let’s not forget Chael Sonnen, who hadn’t fought at 205 pounds in nearly eight years, rebounding from a second championship defeat against Anderson Silva into a light heavyweight title fight with Jon Jones after his former teammate Dan Henderson was injured, as if almost any 205-pounder with a single recent win wouldn’t have been a more legitimate option.
All that is even excluding failed title bookings like Brock Lesnar vs Daniel Cormier, or the plethora of immediate title rematches in the promotion’s history, which is a whole other column entirely.
Again, context matters and title fights featuring fighters coming off losses – and whatever outrage might envelop them – exist on a spectrum. Fans and media are willing to grin and bear them under extraordinary circumstances, such as injury or when an outstanding champion has effectively cleaned out their division. Still, history shows us that nothing has ever stopped the UFC from simply booking a less worthy fighter into a title fight if it is promotionally and financially preferable and profitable, even if it antagonizes its own fans and fighters. Aljamain Sterling has charisma in spades and is a great talker, and Petr Yan is a thrilling dynamo in the cage, but they’re not Jose Aldo – even a faded incarnation – and especially not if you’ve got tickets to move and media to mobilize in Brazil.
This is just a reality of the fight business, emphasis on “business.” I’ve seen some on Twitter pine for the UFC to take its own rankings more seriously, and regardless of wins and losses, simply connect title shots more earnestly to those lists. Firstly, this is a terrible idea on the most rudimentary level, given the fact the UFC rankings are a running joke and voted on by a dubious panel of writers virtually unknown in the MMA space, and it shows. Secondly, in shallow weight classes, it serves to stagnate those divisions and their champions further. More than that, while many sardonically love to point out that MMA, especially the UFC’s product, is more about “entertainment” than “sport,” in the prizefighting game, there is actually a danger to a promotion being a little too sporting.
Look at the world of professional Shooto. For decades now, Shooto promoters have held fast to the International Shooto Commission’s global rankings and only rubber stamp title fights when a top No. 1 or 2 contender is available to fight a champion. For 20 years now, it has created unnerving situations where incumbent champions take non-title bouts because their opponents aren’t highly ranked enough, then lose, creating the most embarrassing sort of promotional quagmire.
The most famous example is probably that of long-time 143-pound champion Alexandre Franca “Pequeno” Nogueira, who lost two non-title fights during his nearly seven-year reign. While Nogueira won both rematches against Tetsuo Katsuya and Hiroyuki Abe in actual title fights, both those rematches came under ugly, foolish circumstances that only existed because of a dogmatic preoccupation with Shooto’s rankings and being “sporting” above all else, ironically achieving exactly the opposite.
Cejudo-Aldo is a dumb idea, but not because its symptomatic of the UFC greedily embracing a new ethos that oppresses worthy talent; fighters coming off losses have long been given plum opportunities, including championship opportunities, and it’s not going to change any time soon. No, the context and timing is why Cejudo-Aldo is misguided. The UFC could easily put together a different main event with a Brazilian for UFC 250 in Sao Paulo, and Cejudo against Sterling or Yan would be just fine as a pay-per-view co-feature or an ESPN main event. If Cejudo beats Aldo, his accomplishment will be minimized for having beat a shopworn incarnation of a legend. If Aldo wins, we then have to deal with an aging, oft-injured champion and the potential dreaded spectre of an immediate rematch, which leaves the likes of Sterling, Yan or even upstart Cory Sandhagen, even deeper in limbo.
By all means, hate on Cejudo-Aldo – it’s a lame construct – but hate it for the right reasons. Hate it because it handcuffs and imposes hardship on successful fighters deserving of a day in championship court in favor of what will likely be only slightly marginally better financial return. Don’t base your anger and distaste around an incorrect notion that the fight represents some new, lamentable frontier in the UFC’s promotion. Fighters challenging for titles coming off a loss? An MMA tale as old as time. There’s a time and a place, but May 9 in Sao Paulo just isn’t it.