UFC fighters torn between pleasing bosses and winning at all costs
The UFC roster cuts are under way, with four fighters released after UFC 125
Guys who'd rather play it safe are forced to take chances to make exciting fights
There may be a shift in focus to just winning even at the expense of entertaining
These are tough times to be a UFC fighter, and they're only getting tougher.
Don't think so? Here's a stat for you: Of the 10 losing fighters at UFC 125 last Saturday, four were released from their UFC contracts this week. That's a full 40 percent of one weekend's losers, and a little over 18 percent of all the fighters who competed on that one card.
People in other industries can talk about theirs being a dog-eat-dog world, but the dogs in the UFC have to gobble each other up in the most entertaining fashion possible or else get tossed into the incinerator.
Not that all the cuts were surprising. Light heavyweight Brandon Vera, who has long been an overpaid underperformer, was released after a thoroughly uninspired performance resulted in a decision loss. MMA veteran Phil Baroni lost his second straight fight in the Octagon and appears to be on the down-slope of a career that produced more light than heat.
Those make sense, at least. Even Marcus Davis, whose debut at lightweight was going extremely well right up until a right hand from Jeremy Stephens put him to sleep in the third round, lost his fourth fight in five tries, so it's not as if he can claim that he never got a fair shake.
But then there's Antonio McKee, who at 40 lost a split decision in his UFC debut. It was his first defeat in almost eight years, and it came in a close, though not terribly thrilling three-rounder against Jacob Volkmann, who's now riding a three-fight win streak at lightweight.
In the past, McKee's been a bit of a decision machine. He had no problem combining his superior wrestling with a risk-averse mentality and riding an opponent into the mat for three rounds. Usually the crowd fell asleep or headed for another round of nachos by the time he finally got his hand raised, and that was just fine with McKee.
But this time, God love him, McKee actually tried to stand up and bang it out. This time it was his opponent who avoided striking exchanges and tried to slow things down on the floor. It worked, but just barely.
Seeing a fighter like McKee get cut after a fight like that is troubling for a couple of reasons. For one, the fight easily could have gone the other way. A takedown here or a judge more attuned to the value of a good body kick there, and McKee certainly could have ended the night with a win. Since the UFC isn't in the habit of cutting winners, it suggests that perhaps a little too much is resting on the stroke of a judge's pen, especially when you consider how often the judges seem to get it very wrong in this sport.
But it's more than just that. You see, McKee openly acknowledged that he went into the cage trying to fight a certain kind of fight because he thought that's what the UFC wanted to see. It didn't necessarily favor his strengths, but he felt like he had to make the bosses happy or else risk getting on their bad side, even in victory. The end result was McKee getting away from what he does best, losing a split decision, and getting cut anyway.
So much for trying to please the bosses.
What's troubling here is that, if we want to see the best every fighter has to offer every time he hits the cage, it's possible that imbuing him with a constant fear of unemployment isn't the best way to motivate him. Not only does it threaten to remake the sport in the UFC's image by fostering only a particular type of fighter, it also, indirectly, encourages fighters to play it safe, which is the last thing the UFC wants.
Think about it from Volkmann's perspective for a moment. He's been in the UFC for a couple years now and has managed to go from a loser to winner after a drop in weight. He's riding a two-fight win streak when in comes McKee for his first UFC fight.
If Volkmann thinks he can win by playing it safe, why wouldn't he? A loss puts him on the slippery slope towards Cutsville, and anyway it's McKee who has to prove something. If he can exploit McKee's aggression and use it to slow things down to a pace more to his liking, isn't that the smartest thing he can do, at least for the sake of his short-term employment?
Whether the UFC realizes it or not, there's a certain hypocrisy inherent in asking fighters to take chances and put on exciting performances while simultaneously communicating to them that they may be fighting for their jobs every time they strap on the gloves. As much as Dana White insists that he doesn't want fighters who play it safe, at times he seems to be unconsciously encouraging it.
It's fine for fighters like Leonard Garcia or Carlos Condit to go out and get into brawls every time, since that's the kind of fight that favors their particular skills in the first place. The financial incentives only further encourage them to stand in the middle of the cage and throw until someone falls down.
But for the considerable number of fighters who know that they won't earn a Knockout of the Night bonus unless they're allowed to bring a sack of nickels into the cage with them, playing it safe is smart. The greatest way for the Volkmanns of the MMA world to keep the money coming in is to keep winning by any means necessary, even if those means aren't much fun for the fans.
The UFC might not think it's encouraging that approach, but as long as it attempts to inspire with fear via regular roster purges, it is. With the incoming WEC fighters crowding out some existing lightweights and making the race for post-fight bonus money more competitive than ever, don't be surprised to see more UFC vets decide that the best way to keep their job is to stop taking chances and focus on winning even at the expense of entertaining.
The UFC brass might not like the look of that brave new world once they've got it, but they can't blame anyone but themselves. If you create an environment that makes everyone terrified of losing, don't be surprised when they'll do anything to win.
SI Now Live Friday December 20, 2013
SI Now: Olympians on Liberty Mutual, gearing up for Sochi