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Editorial: UFC titles have become another way to control fighters

The threat to strip a UFC champion can be effective into forcing them to take a fight

The UFC has created an interim heavyweight title because Francis Ngannou could not fight in August
The UFC has created an interim heavyweight title because Francis Ngannou could not fight in August
Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC

On June 23, Ariel Helwani reported the UFC heavyweight title fight between champion Francis Ngannou and challenger, Derrick Lewis would not happen at UFC 265. Instead, the former ESPN reporter said, UFC 266 was the card they targeted the bout for.

Five days later, it was reported that the UFC was going with an interim heavyweight title fight between Ciryl Gane and Derrick Lewis for UFC 265.

Ngannou, who won the heavyweight title in March of this year, was “shocked” according to ESPN. He should have been. The idea of an interim title being created three months after Ngannou gained possession of the belt was nonsensical at best.

Not long after ESPN broke the news on the interim title fight, Helwani was back on social media with some information about how the UFC brass tries to control and influence fighters behind the scenes.

While Helwani’s revelation isn’t exactly earth shattering to those familiar with the UFC’s strong-arm tactics, it was a bit of a surprise to know the UFC employed the threat of stripping a freshly crowned champion.

The reason the interim title is not an extraordinary surprise is because since the UFC inked its deal with ESPN, the promotion has been more focused on delivering the network title fights without consideration of fighter availability or readiness. The open pay-per-view date on the calendar has become the focus of the UFC, not the quality of the fight or the fitness of the fighters involved.

The UFC title was once the pinnacle of MMA. It was the belt that fighters who cared about championships more than money were after. That’s no longer the case.

Today, the UFC title is a way for the promotion to control the best fighters on the promotion’s roster.

Few UFC fighters will ever see a paycheck as big as a UFC champion’s. The title opens doors for fighters to make a good — by UFC standards — base pay and also pay-per-view points (depending on the fighter’s deal). If the fighter gets stripped of that title, their base pay plummets and the ability to make additional pay-per-view money will disappear.

As an example, Tyron Woodley earned a disclosed $500,000 when he put his UFC welterweight title on the line against Kamaru Usman. Usman won that contest. In his next fight, Woodley’s disclosed pay was $200,000. The threat to strip a champion might not sound like a big deal, but the difference can be more than $300,000 in pay for a single fight. That reduction in pay becomes even more painful when a fighter’s contract automatically extends when they win the UFC title via the champion’s clause.

The UFC might not be actively trying to alienate Ngannou, who is one of the most promotable fighters on the roster, but it is creating an environment of distrust for every fighter on the roster. If the promotion will threaten to strip the UFC heavyweight champion on a whim, it makes one wonder what it would be willing to do to a fighter without a strong fanbase.