The UFC needs to let their freak fight fly
Remember when there seemed to be some genuine desire to match up Luke Rockhold with Fabricio Werdum – and it didn’t sound like a completely terrible idea? Given a moment to sit down and think it through, there was a lot to like. Their clash of styles cloaked in the massive size difference actually had a huge appeal.
In light of the announcement that Daniel Cormier will be challenging Stipe Miocic for the heavyweight strap, this dynamic is rearing its head again. Cormier is smallish for a heavyweight - and shortish for a light heavyweight - but proved that his quickness made all the difference at the UFC's biggest division.
The UFC moved into this current era of money fights a long time go. The time when that transition may have faltered has come and gone. We crossed the Rubicon. The UFC is now in the business of making fights that sell first. With a fundamental change like this, it was inevitable the ripples would lap out further than the lilypads fight fans have sat on for so long. Fights between divisions became a natural extension. GSP v. Michael Bisping was inevitable under the money fights edict. Cormier v. Stipe is even more of a logical inevitability, because Cormier has actually fought and been successful at heavyweight.
So screw it. Depending on how it goes down this July, maybe the UFC should think about making this kind of matchup a regularity – all over its roster. If the UFC is taking the cynical, transparent approach of making money fights to get our money, then embrace money fights to the strictest degree. Why not go all in? Make money fights not only between big names but between any two dudes that are willing to scrap within a reasonable size discrepancy. Catchweight fights should become the norm.
The reality is, the UFC's fan base is not primarily made up of people who practice MMA. The majority may not even be people who pay attention to the sport on a regular basis. The money is in the casual fan, the kind of fan who knows just enough to be wooed by the spectacle. The casual fan has no care for 'even matchups' insofar as the UFC can convince them of it. Other than a fight between big stars, what is the one MMA discussion that hardcore fans and casuals can always engage in? Does size matter.
The main sticking point is that fights between say, a welterweight and a featherweight would be too dangerous for the smaller man. But we are way off into the weeds to ethically make that argument anymore. If the UFC can convince Nevada State Athletic Commission to let Brock Lesnar fight on a month's notice - and fans still come flocking - where is the ethic line anymore?
The trick is to avoid the impression one fighter is at serious risk of being maimed. That's where matchmakers come in! Pitting Max Holloway versus Tyrone Woodley isn't exactly fair - but Max Holloway versus Jorge Masvidal? That could work! If you let Robbie Lawler jump up to fight someone fringe top-ten middleweight like Urijah Hall or Derek Brunson, that isn't as far a jump in logic as CM Punk versus anybody.
Speaking of Phil Brooks, that is why money catchweight fights can be truly interesting. The UFC has already allowed themselves to taste the forbidden fruit of a freak fight. If CM Punk is going to come back for another crack at it, how exciting would it be to put him in there against Cody Garbrandt? There is little doubt Garbrandt is the more skilled fighter, but he’d be at such a size disadvantage that the eternal argument of size vs skill would become a massive selling point for the fight. Hell, you could even play the fantasy game one step further and give Punk to Demetrious Johnson.
Another way to capitalize on money catchweight freak fights is to utilize the aging veterans like Lyoto Machida or Rashad Evans. They’re so used up in their traditional divisions - even in the divisions they hoped would be their salvation - the next step is to give them to the elites of smaller divisions and see what happens! Lyoto v. Stephen Thompson? Sign me up. Rashad Evans v. Rafael Dos Anjos? Why not?
For those hardcore fans out there, the ones most prone to believing in the ethics of sport, what's more intriguing than some of the stylist mashups that can be made? The aerial tricks between Anthony Pettis and John Dodson would be more exciting than Space Jam! The awe of Khabib Nurmagamedov trying to grapple with Uriah Hall? Or what about Michael Chiesa and Brian Ortega searching to grab eachother by the neck for 15 minutes?
Freaky deaky catchweight money cha-ching fights would also allow fighters another outlet in which to get paid and stay relevant. One of the issues with the UFC model during its meritocracy era was how vicious it could be to those upper echelon fighters who failed in their bids at the belt (a issue that doesn't apply as much today because it's hard to even get your shot in the first place). For example, after Rafael Dos Anjos lost the Lightweight belt to Eddie Alvarez, he subsequently lost to Tony Ferguson and was all but put out of the conversation at Lightweight. But by jumping up to Welterweight, he was the hunter again. Two wins later was in a title eliminator. Had he stayed at Lightweight, those two wins may have only kept his place in line against a host of ascending fighters – Nurmagamedov, McGregor, Gaethje, Barboza, Kevin Lee – who all slid in line ahead of him. A landscape chock-full of catchweights would allow fighters like Dos Anjos to take a ‘challenge’ fight up a division or two against another name and lose very little.
Even if the UFC experimented with a few of these fights and they proved to be less than stellar, there is no doubt it would get people talking. As the UFC undoubtedly believes, no bad press is bad press.
Rhys Dowbiggin @Rdowb
Rhys is the host of The Hurt Take on Not The Public Broadcaster