Occupy The Throne – Edition #42

In this edition of Occupy The Throne, Samer Kadi and I look at the decision to give Nick Diaz a title shot and business vs. sport.

Jeremy Lambert: Last week the UFC once again reminded us that, like it or not, business comes first. Despite losing his last fight and being forced to sit out a year due to another failed drug test for marijuana, Nick Diaz will get the next crack at Georges St. Pierre and the welterweight title.

Meanwhile, Johny Hendricks, who has won four straight fights against some of the top welterweights in the sport, will have to fight again, against a very tough opponent in Jake Ellenberger and risk losing his title shot. Hendricks previously said that he would sit out and wait for his title shot, but money talks to all fighters and it clearly spoke to Hendricks.

It’s not like precedent wasn’t set earlier this year when Chael Sonnen “earned” a title shot by losing and then talking a lot, but it’s still unfortunate to see fighters work hard and win fights, only to be passed over because another guy is more recognizable and talks a big game.

Samer Kadi: The announcement of Georges St-Pierre’s upcoming title defense against Nick Diaz should only surprise those who are unfamiliar with the UFC’s history. It truly seems redundant to revisit the business vs. sport argument once again, and that only highlights Zuffa’s business-influenced match-making throughout the years. Four years ago, Brock Lesnar and his 1-1 UFC record were awarded a heavyweight title shot against one of the sport’s all-time greats. A year later, Youtube “sensation” and glorified street brawler Kevin “Kimbo Slice” Ferguson set foot inside the UFC Octagon, and despite an abysmal – but somehow winning – performance, he later competed on PPV.

By comparison, Nick Diaz getting a title shot on the heels of a loss to Carlos Condit and a failed drug test seems slightly more acceptable, though that hardly says much. Likewise, compared to Chael Sonnen’s title shot against Jon Jones in a division in which he’s never won a single fight inside the UFC, Diaz’s undeserved crack at St-Pierre could be given a pass. Doing so however, is merely indicative of the UFC’s previous match-making practices, and hardly makes sense of a highly questionable decision from a pure “sport’s perspective.”

The real justification, to the shock of no one, ultimately boils down to making money. To the UFC’s credit, they have, in the grand scheme of things, done a fine job of balancing business with sport. Deserving contenders generally receive their title shots at one point or another, despite occasionally being bypassed by more marketable fighters. Following another disappointing PPV year however, the UFC is intent on maximizing PPV buys in 2013. Hence the aforementioned title fights, and their growing fascination with super-fights.

Jeremy Lambert: The company’s fascination with super-fights actually makes me chuckle seeing as they’re likely never going to come to fruition. Following Manny Pacquiao’s loss to Juan Manuel Marquez, Lorenzo Fertitta railed against boxing for not booking the big Floyd Mayweather vs Pacquiao when they had the chance. The UFC has the chance to book super-fights themselves, and even went as far as hyping Georges St. Pierre vs. Anderson Silva prior to UFC 154, but have yet to be able to make it happen.

With super-fights growing less likely, the UFC is forced to turn to the biggest fights they can make in the division. That’s why Nick Diaz and Chael Sonnen are getting undeserved title shots over the likes of Jonhy Hendricks and Dan Henderson. It’s also why Frankie Edgar is getting a title shot at featherweight despite two straight losses at lightweight. Granted the majority of fans thought he beat Ben Henderson in the rematch, but officially he’s lost back-to-back fights. Even though Edgar isn’t necessarily a draw, he’s more recognizable than Erik Koch or anyone else you can name at 145.

These fights might be more accepted if the head of the company didn’t change his tune every week on what fight he wants to book. Frankie Edgar needed to win a fight at 145 before getting a title shot, Chael Sonnen wouldn’t talk his way into a title fight, Nick Diaz can’t be trusted and needed to beat a top guy upon returning. It’s also possible that the champions are picking their challengers as they want to maximize their earning.

Those two points highlight that MMA is more business than sport. Figureheads and champions don’t get to pick the next opponent based on who can bring them each the most money and ratings in sports.

Samer Kadi: Any time a “business first” fight is announced, it is met with predictably mixed reactions. It seems like as fans, we can’t seem to make up our minds about what is the acceptable criteria for acceptable money fights.

For instance, BJ Penn’s baffling welterweight title shot in 2009 was met with great enthusiasm and very little criticism, despite two divisions being put on hold and the fact that the Hawaiian hadn’t done anything of note at welterweight in a while, and at that point, had yet to have a dominant lightweight title run. Conversely, Lesnar’s shot at Couture had people far more divided. The same can be said for Jones vs. Sonnen, which had some being up in arms about the match-making while others were drooling over the prospect of experiencing another two months of Chael Sonnen’s shtick. Meanwhile, Frankie Edgar’s bout with Jose Aldo was well-received due to the mouthwatering stylistic match-up – meritocracy be damned.

The fact is, circumstances vary on a fight-to-fight basis, and from one division to the other. At times, putting business first seems appropriate — Edgar and Aldo is a fitting example, as the featherweight division is yet to be fully established, and is in dire need of a high profile contest. When deserving contenders get neglected however, the situation becomes even more complicated. Light heavyweight contenders publicly expressed their displeasure at Sonnen’s title shot, while Johny Hendricks was equally vocal his criticism of the St-Pierre/Diaz fight announcement.

Unfortunate as it is, it might be time to accept that this is the way the UFC handles business. They will arbitrarily justify every iffy piece of match-making, and people will take sides accordingly. Some saw sense in Dana White’s reasoning behind Sonnen’s title shot, which referred back to the now infamous events leading up to the UFC 151 show that never was. Meanwhile, many, including Hendricks himself, pointed the finger at Georges St-Pierre for his role in Diaz’s title shot. While bringing up St-Pierre’s claims about the “integrity” of the sport is valid, it would be wise to keep in mind that as a fighter, his job is to win fights and make money.

If someone has to worry about the integrity of the sport, it should be St-Pierre’s employer. Unfortunately, they too, happen to be in the business of making money. Thus, questionable fights of different variety — from the embarrassment of Toney-Couture to the awesomeness of Aldo-Edgar — will continue to happen, for better or worse.

Jeremy Lambert: The concern a lot of fans seem to be having is that the UFC is slowly turning into boxing, where the stars get to pick their fights and the promoter is perfectly fine with this. While boxing isn’t as dead as some people like to claim, there’s no doubt that the sport is very limited in its appeal nowadays.

For right now, Dana White is getting away with allowing fighters to take bigger fights as fighters are turning on each other instead of him. Fighters like Johny Hendricks and Chris Weidman are calling Georges St. Pierre and Anderson Silva cowards for wanting bigger named opponents (which is extremely laughable) while making no mention of White actually making these fights happen when he’s the only one with the power to stop it. Granted it’s tough to blame Dana as he has to do what he can to keep his top draws happy while also making the most money possible.

Nick Diaz getting a title shot shouldn’t come as a surprise. And when another fighter loses but has a personality that surpasses his most recent outing, landing him a big fight, that shouldn’t come as a surprise. The UFC is a business and they’re not making as much money being a sport.


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