Last weekend, Jon Fitch, an Octagon veteran of almost 20 UFC fights, won his first world title. On the same World Series of Fighting card, another former UFC fighter, David Branch, defended one of the two championship belts he currently holds, a feat that’s rarely been accomplished in MMA in any promotion, let alone one of the major ones. Yet, even though these were landmark moments in the careers of two of the best fighters currently competing outside of the UFC, it seemed like the majority of the MMA community barely noticed.
Whether you’re a former title challenger or a young fighter with the misfortune to drop your first few fights in the Octagon, nothing is more devastating to an MMA career than a UFC pink slip. After spending a career scratching and clawing your way to the highest level of the sport, it doesn’t matter whether you’ve fought in the Octagon twice or 20 times, losing a spot on that roster is as close to an absolute dream killer as you can get in our sport. If you’re a UFC veteran, especially a recognizable one, and end up on top of another organization, things are even more difficult.
Due to the UFC’s stranglehold on most of the top talent in MMA, it usually takes something special for the champions and top-tier fighters in other promotions to get any sort of attention. Unless it’s a hot up-and-coming prospect like the WSOF’s Justin Gaethje or someone who runs through opponents like a hot knife through butter, a la ONE Championship’s Ben Askren, a fighter is likely not going to get much in terms of fanfare when the cage door closes, and those are guys who have never tasted Octagon success. Part of what makes people pay attention to a guy like Gaethje or Askren is the mystery as to what would happen if they someday found themselves in the Octagon. When a fighter has already been there and competed with the best, the MMA community seems to have decided that the fighter has already peaked.
While most fighters that end up receiving their walking papers are rightfully written off for a bit after they are cut, sometimes the UFC decides that popularity and fighting styles mean more than actual success inside the cage. The company ends up releasing fighters that still possess high-level talent. These are the fighters that companies like Bellator and the WSOF thrive on signing. They provide legitimate names and talent to their respective divisions. But there’s also a major downside to signing a former UFC title contender, especially if they end up having success in their new organization.
For some reason, fight fans seem to immediately write off a division once former UFC fighters start stringing wins together. No matter how well they perform or whom they defeat, it’s almost impossible for an ex-UFC contender to gain any sort of momentum while competing outside of the company. After a couple of vintage performances last weekend, Branch and Fitch are perfect examples of guys who have turned their UFC release into a positive but seem to get little respect for it.
Branch went a mediocre 2-2 inside the Octagon, so it’s understandable that fans may have dismissed him following his release. However, the 34-year-old has gone on a run since then that can’t be ignored. He has gone on to win 10 of his next 11 fights, which includes his current eight-fight winning streak. He holds both the middleweight and light heavyweight belts for the WSOF. While he hasn’t fought elite competition, he’s beaten a number of established fighters during his run. Even the lone blemish on his resume during his current stretch is forgivable since it came at the hands of top UFC contender Anthony “Rumble” Johnson.
And despite the uproar when Fitch was first released, all it took was a loss in his first WSOF bout for the former UFC title challenger to be booted from his spot as one of the best welterweights in the world. Fitch stumbled out of the gate in his WSOF debut against Josh Burkman, getting tapped out in the second round, but since that night he’s gone 4-1 and just won his first title. While Fitch might not be as dominant as he once was, we’ve seen some vintage Fitch performances recently. Still, it seems that fans are reluctant to place him back among the elite in the sport.
Both Branch and Fitch have performed exceptionally well in their recent outings, but their respective stock isn’t likely to grow. While Fitch’s talent may have never left and Branch has really come into his own since leaving the Octagon, fight fans aren’t usually willing to believe in a fighter unless they’re competing on the biggest stage. Unless the WSOF can make a serious push and fill its roster out with top-level fighters to challenge these guys, that’s not going to change. Until something dramatic changes in the MMA game, almost anyone outside of the UFC is going to struggle to be mentioned amongst the best. For guys like Fitch and Branch, that means settling into their roles as the best of the rest.
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