Demetrious Johnson (Jeff Vulgamore/Combat Press)

The Fight Game: Categories and Types

Today, we are going to take a look into the finer points of combat sports overall. Usually the focus in articles written are often dealing with the more obvious and more interesting (to some) aspect of mixed martial arts, which would be the fights and the fighters. Countless hours are spent to explain to fans of the sport, both hardcore and casual, what they need to look for in a fight, what they should expect from a fighter, how a fight should go, why it would go that way, and who will win. There are varying degrees of success, and various levels of nuance, subtlety, perspective and depth. Today, though, we’re not focusing on the fighters, the match-up or the result. The focus of this article is going to be not the fight between two particular fighters, but the actual fights being made. We’ll look at the types of fights there are, why they are made, who is involved, and how these fights impact the fans, camps, fighters and organizations.

The first thing to discuss is the two categories of fights. Though many people will try to argue this point, the fact of the matter is there really are only two categories of fights in any combat sport. Fights may fall into various types under these categories, but it still doesn’t change the fact that there are really only two categories, especially as it pertains to the big leagues of combat sports — mixed martial arts, boxing and kickboxing in the paid ranks. In the smaller leagues, it’s a bit harder to determine the categories, as often the placement of the fight depends on how the fighter’s career moves as they get into the big leagues and face the top-end talent.

A good fight tells you something about the participants. It either reaffirms or disproves what was previously thought of a fighter or, in the best cases, it answers questions that previous fights hadn’t asked. The best fights often have a combination of the two categories we’ll look at, but there is no guarantee a fun fight ends up having any real impact on the direction of a division or a fighter’s long-term career, just like there is no guarantee that important fights present the excitement, drama, pace and action that one would expect as a fan of combat sports.


The Categories

First, there are the important fights. This category usually shapes the rankings of fighters, divisions and organizations.

These fights aren’t always the best match-ups in regards to excitement or odds, but they are the kind of fights that shape divisions, develop title challengers and establish champions. These fights matter because they establish a pecking order among the fighters. It doesn’t just determine their rank as it pertains to championship aspirations, but also plays a large part in the financial and professional opportunities made available to a fighter (and, by proxy, their camps).

Higher-ranked fighters have more opportunities for sponsorships. They are placed higher on cards. They are given better opposition and land on the better cards. The quality or, better yet, the importance of a fight can have a myriad of effects on a fighter’s career, both long- and short- term.

Second, there are the fun fights. These contests aren’t so much about shaping a division or building a champion or contender. Instead, these fights are about getting the bang for the consumer’s buck.

Regardless of the skill level or win/loss record of the talent involved, these fights are made because they are generally considered locks to deliver the type of fight that will create new fans, bring back the casual fans and reward the hardcore ones. There doesn’t have to be a rhyme or a reason to the fight as far as rankings, name value or quality. The only thing these fights require is two fighters who have styles that create action, meaning they have the approach, strengths and weaknesses that will provide dramatic swings in momentum, sustained action or dynamic wins.

Now that we have established and explained the categories, let’s take a look at the different types/subcategories of fights and which category they fall under in the MMA lexicon.

Types (Subcategories)

The first category, important fights, can be divided into five subtypes that fall beneath the umbrella.

First, there are championship fights. These are contests that either determine an inaugural or new champion. In the case of the titleist retaining the belt, it builds upon the brand and establishes a dominance of the defending champion. The goal for most fighters is to hold the belt, as that best determines a legacy and more times than not ensures the best opportunities for fame, crossover success and paydays. They don’t have to be competitive or necessarily exciting, because the championship implications are usually enough to draw the attention of fans, media and fighters. Examples of these would be Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson’s recent title defense against Tim Elliott and the clash between featherweight champion José Aldo and the man who dethroned him, Conor McGregor.

Second, we have the title-eliminator and interim title fights. These affairs determine the next title challenge. In some cases, two highly ranked people are jockeying to get the next opportunity at a belt. In other instances, a champion is injured or unable to compete, so the promotion awards an interim championship to crown the next title challenger and often drum up interest in the future title fight because of the champion-vs.-champion tagline. These fights are the gateway to championship fights. A recent example is Robert Whittaker’s interim middleweight title win over Yoel Romero.

Third, there are the “step up” fights. In these fights, a fighter, whether it be a prospect or an established veteran, steps up to face a higher level of opponent after performing well versus a certain level of opposition. These outings are important because they determine the direction a fighter takes and how much of a push they will receive. It also determines how many opportunities are made available to the fighter regarding financial gains and branding. Cynthia Calvillo’s recent victory over Joanne Calderwood is an excellent example of this variety of an important fight.

The, there are the prospect fights. Two young, unproven fighters with potential clash in an attempt to establish which man or woman is the most prepared to move to the next stage of competition. A few good examples include Paige VanZant’s battle with Kailin Curran, Sage Northcutt’s fight against Mickey Gall, and James Gallagher’s recent clash with Chinzo Machida.

Finally, there’s the ranked fight. These contests pair two fighters who land in the same general ranking level. They are essentially jockeying for position to move up the ladder. Once again, these fights determine better paydays, placement on cards and potential championship opportunities. The aforementioned Whittaker’s fight against Derek Brunson would fall into this subtype.

Now, let’s move to the subtype of the fun fight. These fights cover a bit more of a broader description with less specificity, because the key factor is that the fight produces fireworks.

First, there are the expired fights. These affairs feature two popular fighters who were at one point top-tier competitors and huge figures in the game of combat sports. The fight should have happened years ago, but it is happening now because of their cache. This subtype encompasses such long-overdue clashes as Chuck Liddell against Wanderlei Silva and Anderson Silva against Nick Diaz.

Then there are the plateau fights. In these bouts, a former prospect who won more than they lost but never went to the next level faces a fighter who may no longer be world-class but is still capable of performing at a competent and competitive level. Each fighter’s place in the division or promotion is clearly stated. Some recent examples include Gian Villante’s fight with Mauricio “Shogun” Rua and Sergei Kharitonov’s clash with Chase Gormley.

Finally, there are the showcase fights. Sometimes, there will be a highly ranked or championship fighter who is trying to stay busy and the promotion puts them in with a person who is a game and exciting fighter, but one clearly a level or two below the “house” fighter. It’s made to provide the “house” guy with an opportunity to showcase his athleticism, skill and dominance. These are fights like Michael Chandler’s clash with David Rickels and Holly Holm’s outing against Bethe Correia.