In which Chris discusses how best to impart meaning to MMA championships.
Championships in Mixed Martial Arts are strange, almost ethereal things. Most have relatively brief lineages, especially when considered against more established sports and have no set way of deciding challengers.
Even the most popular and established MMA organisation in the West, the UFC is only on it’s thirteenth heavyweight champion, over seventeen reigns and a little over sixteen years.
Compare that to the US Masters which has been won by 47 golfers, from ten nations over it’s 75 years or the English Football League championship, won by 23 teams over 113 competitions since 1889 (with breaks for both world wars.)
Of course, these annual tournaments aren’t quite a fair comparison to MMA but a glance across the gym to the boxing hall of fame shows a list of champions as long as your arm and dating back (depending how you choose to mark ‘legitimate’ world champions) as far as 1885.
Boxing shares a problem with MMA in that each organisation crowns it’s own world champion, with only six ‘undisputed’ reigns since the 1960s and there is rarely a set method of becoming the next contender, with politicking between governing bodies and fighter management leading there to be a great deal of confusion and argument about who is THE champion in a given division or who the next challenger should be.
In any case, in terms of becoming established, MMA is playing catchup, and doubly so for those more recent promotions who’s titles are of an even younger vintage.
So, how do you go about making your title MEAN something, rather than just being a rather gaudy trophy dished out by a promoter to their currently biggest drawing star?
Hang on, that’s pro wrestling I’m talking about isn’t it?
I’ll come back to that thought…
The answer should be simple, in that your championship is originally decided by a bout, or better yet a tournament between your best competitors in a weight class. After that, it is defended against the most deserving challenger, in terms of being perceived to be the biggest threat to the champion, holding the longest/most impressive winning streak etc.
Is that so difficult?
Well, when you throw a business model dependant on fan attachment to individual fighters rather than established tournaments or teams, in a developmental sport where some of the most effective means of victory are not the most popular and add in the injury risk of a combat sport, yeah it is.
As has long been the case in boxing, MMA promoters are often drawn, by sheer financial pressure/temptation to smooth the path to the top for popular or exciting fighters.
This means that the number of wins required for an exciting striker or compelling personality to get a title shot tends to be markedly less than for a mild mannered, effective yet dull grappler.
The likes of team sports, tennis and even conventional martial arts tend to decide their champions via regular, often annual tournaments which have a meaning and cache all their own but of the major MMA promotions these days, only Bellator stick to a strict tournament structure and the promotion has suffered for its commitment to a rigidly credible format.
The nature of MMA has caused top ranked competitors to be removed through injury, finals to be delayed and generally meant that we don’t get the nice, clockwork progression to crowning a tournament champion.
Furthermore, the need to crown a new tourney winner to select the next no.1 contender has led to the champions being left without opponents for long periods of time. The most title defences ever in Bellator are by current Welterweight champion Ben Askren who has defended his belt three times in his two and a half year reign.
Indeed in less active divisions, it’s been common for Bellator titles to remain undefended for years at a time, with Hector Lombard defending his middleweight belt once in the span of almost three years.
This inactivity is bad for both champion and promotion, and has resulted in champions fighting elsewhere to get a paycheck while waiting for a title match. This in turn has twice resulted in champions LOSING in other promotions, reducing the importance of the Bellator belt and muddying the neat lineage.
As such, it’s no surprise that most promotions, including the UFC select the no.1 contenders in a ‘best fit right now’ fashion, theoretically ensuring a steady stream of title defences.
However, in the UFC alone, the most recent (and next scheduled) Light Heavyweight title defences is against a fighter without a win in that division for many years, the last welterweight title defence was against a fight coming off a loss and a year long drug suspension, four of the last six lightweight title defences have been against fighters not coming off a win and the last featherweight title defence was against a fighter coming off a 0-2 streak.
In total, of the thirteen UFC title defences since the start of 2012, almost a third have been against challengers not coming off a win, or have not competed in that division for years.
How is that credible?
Of course, the call for rematches and popular, controversial fighters talking themselves into title shots all equates to money at the gate, while promotions are doubtless motivated to ‘save’ events beset by the late withdrawal of a title challenger by plugging any willing fighter into the role.
Nevertheless, it does result in fighters who have been actually building winning streaks (Alexander Gustafsson, Johny Hendricks, Ricardo Lamas) being overlooked for mouthier or more high profile opposition.
Can you imagine if an underdog team had carved their way through the FIFA World Cup, but didn’t get to play in the final because a larger nation would draw more TV viewers, despite losing in the semis?
Can you imagine Roger Federer demanding that he face Andy Murray in the Wimbledon final because he called him names, rather than Rafael Nadal who actually won the other semi?
Can you imagine the US PGA letting Tiger Woods compete at the weekend, even though he missed the cut, just because he’s a big name?
The answer is simply no. Normal sport doesn’t work like that.
However, MMA is not a normal sport. The pressures of a lineal title in a combat sport, which is promoted on the basis of individual matchups, rather than team affiliations and/or well established tournaments mean that it will never be as simple as it is for soccer or golf.
We’ve already covered the problems with fixed tournaments in MMA, but it’s worth mentioning that irregular tournaments can be a great way to decide new champions, or build stars or contenders without having to worry about the eventual winner defending a lineal belt.
PRIDE was characterised by it’s Grand Prix tournaments and similar formats have been used by the likes of DREAM and Strikeforce to good effect. Even the UFC have used brackets when crowning their new Flyweight champion, a tactic which will be shared by Cage Warriors this summer.
Of course, the decision to run tournaments or Grand Prix on an ad hoc, or even annual basis is no full solution for the ongoing issue of selecting regular credible no.1 contenders.
While the pressure to select the ‘biggest money’ fight at all times will always weigh on the mind of MMA promoters, I feel that it is important that promoters try and build their titles by ensuring they are defended against one of the most credible, deserving fighter’s available.
After all, a title which is regularly defended against opposition who are coming off losses, have been fighting in another weight class or are generally not considered serious threats to the champion lose their lustre.
A well booked title will confer meaning (and thus financial success) on the matches it is contested in, almost irrespective of the relative box office of the fighters concerned – but a credible challenger should always bring a certain degree of box office anyway.
There is a real value in being able to say, with an honest, straight face – that your champion is the best in the world (or region) in their weight class and the best way to ensure that is to ensure that the belt is defended against the best possible challenger.
So, aside from the occasional gimmick of tournaments/Grand Prix, or the last minute need to replace a booked challenger who cannot fight for whatever reason, I’ve put together some brief guidelines that I think MMA promotions should try and hold to when booking title matches.
1. The challenger should be on a winning streak of at least 2-0 in both the weight class and promotion concerned.
2. The challenger should be ranked within the top five in their division (either globally, in the case of the UFC or in their region/promotional rankings for smaller companies.)
1. Dominant reigning champions in one division make acceptable no.1 contenders for the weight class above or below.
2. Fighters who have been competitive in a higher weight class or more prestigious promotion are acceptable no.1 contenders, even if coming off a loss, although ideally they should fight and win at least once in the new weight class/promotion before being given a title shot as this shows more respect the weight class/promotion who’s belt is on the line.
That’s not too much in the way of rules is it? However, I do feel that sticking to these simple guidelines would help MMA companies impart meaning to their titles that supersedes the individual promotional hit that comes with a media savvy fighter or hot feud.
While its largely true that whatever their previous record, a fighter needs to beat the champ to become the champ, it’s important for the stature of the title and the champion’s legacy that the belt is defended against the best, not necessarily the most profitable opponents possible.
Call me idealistic, but if I want to watch the biggest money fights at the cost of all plausibility, I’ll watch WWE.