If you’ve paid attention to mixed martial arts over the last two years, you probably noticed what I noticed.
Title fights are not the draw that they used to be. Super fights are the new title fight.
Some of you may be wondering what I mean by “Super Fight”. A super fight is when a match up is made between two competitors that clearly has no dependence on their division ranking, or even if they are in the same division. It’s what the fans want to see and it’s what will sell.
When did title fights stop being a draw?
I can pin point the exact moment that super fights took over MMA, and more specifically the UFC. It was this day in mixed martial arts history. That was the start of a beautiful rivalry that we didn’t even know we needed.
I remember when Rafael Dos Anjos withdrew from UFC 196 just two weeks out due to injury. As an avid Diaz brother fan, I was ecstatic to hear Nate was a possible replacement. Once it was official, but at 170 pounds, I was confused. This was still the main event? I was furious! How disrespectful to former Women’s Bantamweight champions Holly Holm and Miesha Tate who were the co-main event, fighting for the championship. I would argue with anyone who would try and tell me this is how it should be, “because they were the draw”.
“It’s not even for a BELT! How do you put THIS ahead of a championship?! Is it cause they’re women?” Oh yeah, I went there. My friends would laugh at me but stick to their guns. It was because this rivalry, this chemistry, this hype was what will sell more than any belt will. I wasn’t convinced.
Then UFC 196 happened.
This changed the game completely. The fans didn’t want to see the top in each division as much as they wanted to see two charismatic personalities, who could also throw down, meet in the cage. We didn’t know we loved this, but now we do.
This happened again at UFC 204: Bisping vs. Henderson 2.
At UFC 199 in June of 2016, Michael Bisping defeated former Middleweight champion Luke Rockhold on just two-weeks notice. (Actually, maybe we just like short notice fights. Kidding.)
The top 5 of the division at the time was basically considered murders row. Yoel Romero, Jacare Souza, Chris Weidman…the list goes on. So, who should the new champ defend his belt against first? Well, none of them.
You’ve seen it probably a million times or so. The historical, brutal knockout of Bisping at UFC 100 by Dan Henderson. Henderson delivered his signature knockout, the “H-Bomb”, 3:20 in the second round and the fans never forgot it.
Instantly, the MMA community rallied together to make this sequel happen. Keep in mind, Henderson was ranked #15 in the Middleweight division at the time. That didn’t matter though, this was the money fight. This was what the fans wanted and the UFC listened. In October, we saw these two meet again, six-years later. Bisping won via unanimous decision. but really this was a knockout win for the fans.
Will it change back?
I’m not trying to say that mixed martial arts fans don’t respect the ranking system or titles. We do, we just need to have some fun too. We’re at a turning point where some of the top dogs in each division are retiring or are injured. Then we also have MMA legends who are coming out of retirement to get back in the octagon.
Former welterweight champion George St-Pierre is the most recent example we have of this. Talks of GSP coming out of retirement ignited like wildfire mid-2016. Regardless of his legendary status, he hasn’t fought since November of 2013. Aside from the four-year lay off, the sport has changed a lot. We got introduced to USADA testing, new unified rules, the infamous Reebok deal and most of all, a lot of new guys at the top.
When GSP’s name gets thrown into fight talk, he cuts in line. He doesn’t apologize, he doesn’t ask first. He just does it. Granted he did retire as the 170-pound champion and one of the greatest of all time. Still.
On Saturday at UFC 214, we saw current welterweight champion Tyron Woodley defend his belt to Damian Maia. A match up that UFC President Dana White stated would result in the winner facing GSP in his highly-anticipated return fight. Chaaa-ching.
Well, didn’t exactly work out that way.
The championship co-main event was one of the most boring in history. Five rounds of nothing to be blunt. Woodley retained his belt by doing what he needed to do to keep his title, regardless of how much more the fans would hate him after it. I doubt he expected White to react worse than the fans though.
White told the media in the post-fight press conference that due to Woodley’s performance, GSP would now face Bisping for the Middleweight championship.
Since his professional MMA debut in 2002, GSP has been a welterweight. Going up from 170- to 185-pounds is a massive jump, why is he doing it though? This is the fight the fans want.
I’m still holding out on that one, but we’d definitely rather see that than a fight with Woodley.
Titles still hold their prestige in divisions like the Women’s Strawweight and Men’s Bantamweight. They will never completely be eliminated from our hearts. But as long as the new UFC owners, WME-IMG have a $4 billion dollar loan to pay off, the fans will be dictating what draws and what doesn’t.