It’s human nature for a person to have their thoughts on a subject be determined by the extent to which it benefits them. It’s called bias. Bias has taken the fight game into one of the biggest hypocrisies that fighters are currently perpetuating, maybe the biggest one in the history of the sport: the big-money fight.
The big-money fight hypocrisy is centered around whether the fight game is a sport or entertainment. What does it really exist for and what should be honored? Ultimately, how should fights be booked? Is it based on who is most deserving or who is most appealing to fans? Those two lists are very rarely the same. Just ask Demian Maia and Max Holloway. But we’ll get there. The real question is why this is now an issue when it is seemingly a concept that is not new. Why does this matter, and what role do fighters play in all of this? Are fighters complicit in this or merely at the mercy of the promotions?
The short answer to this question is the same as the answer to most questions in MMA right now: Conor McGregor.
For years, the media has focused on pay-per-view buys. This was the metric by which a fighter’s relevance was measured. McGregor put some of the focus on the gate as well. This meant that McGregor was making more money for the UFC. He was putting eyes on screens and asses in very expensive seats.
The byproduct of this is the power the Irishman has gained. He did what most people in society are unwilling to admit is the true path to wealth. He made money by making someone else money. He became what is known in the fight business as a draw. He became the sole reason why someone buys a pay-per-view or goes to a fight.
Everyone wants the big money, but do they deserve it? Are the champions even true draws? Former middleweight kingpin Luke Rockhold, while appearing on UFC Tonight, said this is not the WWE, it’s fighting. His contention is that fights like Michael Bisping’s anticipated battle with the returning Georges St-Pierre are destroying the sport. Rockhold was interviewed by Kenny Florian and Tyron Woodley. Woodley is the poster child for this hypocrisy. He played the most deserving of a title-shot card to get the belt and then promptly started talking about money fights once the strap was secured around his waist.
Here’s the financial reality for all fighters: if you aren’t a draw, what you have is provided by those who are. Do you fill out a fight card? Of course. Do you give a roster depth? Without question. Are you the reason the UFC was sold for 4 billion dollars? Probably not. Your existence in the UFC and the existence of the UFC is probably due to about 15 or so people, with the short list consisting of former owners Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta, UFC President Dana White, the aforementioned McGregor and St-Pierre, and fellow superstars Ronda Rousey, Brock Lesnar, Tito Ortiz, Randy Couture, Chuck Liddell, Chael Sonnen and Anderson Silva. These are the money sources. They have historically had the negotiating power.
Take a quick look at the weight classes and you can see what White and WME_IMG co-CEOs Ari Emanuel and Patrick Whitesell would want, versus what the purists of the sport would like.
Sport Fight: Demetrious Johnson vs. Wilson Reis
Money Fight: Demetrious Johnson vs. Dominick Cruz
Johnson has mostly cleaned out the 125-pound division. Reis is the third-ranked fighter and next in line for a title shot. The most compelling money-drawing fight, however, is a rematch between the champ Johnson and former bantamweight champion Cruz. These two fought at 135 pounds before there was a flyweight division, and Cruz won the fight. This fight would draw some pay-per-view dollars, but it would probably have to be contended at a catchweight of 130 pounds. It makes the cut easier on Cruz and doesn’t hurt either fighter’s stock in their division.
Sport Fight: Cody Garbrandt vs. T.J. Dillashaw
Money Fight: Cody Garbrandt vs. T.J. Dillashaw
This is the only division where the sport fight and the money fight are one and the same. Garbrandt looked so quick against Cruz that his next fight has to come against a younger fighter with good movement. Dillashaw checks a lot of boxes for the UFC here on both fronts. He’s a former champ with the skill set to defeat Garbrandt. The two fighters have history, too. They are former teammates who are not crazy about each other. This fight will be compelling in and out of the cage.
Sport Fight: José Aldo vs. Max Holloway
Money Fight: José Aldo vs. Anthony Pettis
The question at 145 pounds has been, for sometime now, how many fights Holloway has to win before he gets a shot at the belt. The number was apparently 10. Think about that. He last lost to McGregor before McGregor was the center of the MMA universe. Speaking of the Irishman, his desire to not defend belts put it back around Aldo’s waist. Holloway holds the interim. It’s a good fight and makes sense for the division. It just won’t sell. Despite how dynamic Aldo is, he has always needed a good foil, like McGregor or Urijah Faber, in order to sell. Pettis could do the job. These two men were supposed to fight years ago. They would make one hell of a promo video, too.
Sport Fight: Conor McGregor vs. Tony Ferguson
Money Fight: Conor McGregor vs. Nate Diaz 3
It’s time for “El Cucuy.” Ferguson has had his hand raised against everyone not named Michael Johnson over the past eight years. He’s had three potential fights scrapped against top contender Khabib Nurmagomedov. He’s paid his dues. A fight between Ferguson and McGregor would do some money, because all McGregor fights make money and Ferguson can talk a little. However, it doesn’t quite have the juice of a trilogy fight with Diaz where the belt is on the line. The McGregor-Diaz trilogy fight is probably second only to Floyd Mayweather, Jr., and maybe a fight with GSP as the fights that make McGregor the most money. It will come, it’s just a matter of when and at what weight.
Sport Fight: Tyron Woodley vs. Demian Maia
Money Fight: Tyron Woodley vs. Georges St-Pierre
Maia could join the aforementioned Ferguson and Holloway to start an underappreciated-fighter club. They have all been wreaking havoc on their divisions and yet they don’t have much to show for it. Maia deserves the shot at welterweight and looks to be the next in line. The only thing that could throw a wrench in this is the interest of either GSP or McGregor in fighting Woodley. Woodley knocks people dead, so both star fighters would just as soon let someone else take the ass-whipping and hope that maybe someone outpoints him to take the throne. Then, McGregor or GSP could face that person instead. This is the mountain top for McGregor and a comfort zone for St-Pierre, so they will conduct their careers forever mindful of the division. They are both huge draws and could carry Woodley to a payday despite his hit-or-miss ability to market himself.
Sport Fight: Michael Bisping vs. Yoel Romero or Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza
Money Fight: Anderson Silva vs. Georges St-Pierre
Romero and Jacare have done plenty to earn their shot. Romero is on an eight-fight winning streak. Jacare is on only a two-fight winning streak, but his last loss was to Romero. He had previously only lost to Luke Rockhold and Gegard Mousasi. The fight scheduled right now for the belt pits Bisping against GSP. St-Pierre used his legacy to leapfrog the whole division and get the shot. Bisping is viewed as a vulnerable champion, which makes this a chance to get St-Pierre a belt and line up potential fights with Silva and McGregor. Speaking of Silva, despite the fact that he was on a four-fight skid before he squeaked past Derek Brunson, he’s still got a name. All four of his losses were to studs. Silva has what it takes to hang with studs, and a pairing of Silva and GSP is MMA’s version of Mayweather against Manny Pacquiao. No matter the fight history of either man, fans will always want to see this fight. It will be even later in arriving than Mayweather/Pac, but it will still make money.
Sport Fight: Daniel Cormier vs. Anthony “Rumble” Johnson
Money Fight: Daniel Cormier vs. Jon Jones
Cormier and Rumble had a good first fight. Johnson rocked Cormier, but Cormier showed some resolve to come back and win. This is a legit title fight that can make some of its own money, but the bigger fight will forever be Cormier against Jones. The press-conference fight, their disdain for each other and the fact that we lost the UFC 200 fight only add to the legend. This fight will do serious dollars once one of them accepts the black hat and stops trying to make the other guy look like the bad guy.
Sport Fight: Stipe Miocic vs. Fabricio Werdum
Money Fight: Stipe Miocic vs. Cain Velasquez
A case has been made several times over that Werdum may be the greatest heavyweight fighter of all time. He’s still on a great run, with his only loss in recent memory coming to Miocic. Miocic is booked with Junior dos Santos for a rematch of a fight that Miocic lost the first time around. Meanwhile, Werdum is booked against Alistair Overeem for a rematch of their Strikeforce fight, which Overeem won. By the end of July, we’ll know which of these men is the best fighter in the heavyweight division. Velasquez gets interesting because, when healthy, he has always been perceived as the best the heavyweight division has ever seen. He still carries a name, too. You could make a case for Brock Lesnar or Jon Jones being bigger money fights for Miocic, but then you are giving a truly undeserving person a title shot. Of course, it wouldn’t be the first time that has happened.
Sport Fight: Joanna Jędrzejczyk vs. Jessica Andrade
Money Fight: Joanna Jędrzejczyk vs. Paige VanZant
Jędrzejczyk is one of the more dominant champions, but the rest of the division is closing in on her. They’re still not close, but they are closer. Claudia Gadelha and Karolina Kowalkiewicz have both given the champ good rounds. Next up is Jessica Andrade. Andrade’s resume isn’t perfect, but her losses came in the bantamweight division, 20 pounds heavier than where she now resides. She is on a three-fight winning streak with finishes of Jessica Penne and Joanne Calderwood and a decision over Angela Hill in a great fight, so she can absolutely hang at this level. However, the money fight for Jędrzejczyk would probably be the highly popular and highly visible VanZant. In fact, the fan interest in VanZant’s career publicly, particularly on social media, would probably benefit Jędrzejczyk. Of course, VanZant isn’t exactly fighting at a championship level right now. If she gets to that point, it only makes the fight more marketable.
Sport Fight: Amanda Nunes vs. Valentina Shevchenko
Money Fight: Amanda Nunes vs. Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino or Holly Holm
Nunes is putting the bantamweight division on notice. The message? She will knock your head off. Miesha Tate and Ronda Rousey both slept on her and paid dearly. Their careers may be done. Shevchenko showed she can hang at this level. She fought Holm to a decision win and then submitted Julianna Peña. She also went the distance with Nunes in their first fight. As far as making money on a fight, Cyborg is the one woman who is believed to be the biggest challenge to any fellow female fighter. She has talked in the past about an inability to make 135 pounds in a healthy way. Now that there is a featherweight division, she may stop trying. If she does, then the fight for Nunes may be with Holm. Both ladies knocked out Rousey and, despite Holm’s struggles, the former elite boxer can always be marketed on the strength of her win over the formerly unstoppable Rousey.