The Perils of a Unified Talent Pool, Part 5
Former WEC Fighter v. TUF Runner-Up – Renan Barao v. TJ Dillashaw, UFC 173. While the Ultimate Fighter is hardly cranking out contender-level talent at the rate it did during its heyday, Zuffa’s reality show is still able to find the occasional diamond in the rough. The introduction of new weight classes – and genders – opened new sources of unheralded contenders previously off-limits to the show. Whether by absorption or choice, the UFC’s seemingly insatiable desire for more weight classes created the possibility of new undiscovered talent where none was possible before.
The lasting impact of TUF’s initial foray into women’s mixed martial arts (and the upcoming strawweight women’s season, coinciding with that class’ ascension to the UFC) remains to be seen; however, their initial efforts to bolster and improve Zuffa’s new weight divisions have already borne fruit, as evidenced by John Dodson and TJ Dillashaw’s success in the Octagon. Dodson, winner of TUF 14′s bantamweight crown/glass obelisk/whatever, defeated Dillashaw for the honor and has only lost to flyweight (and possibly interdimensional) champion Demetrious Johnson since; Dillashaw has gone 5-1 since, only losing a razor-close split decision to Rafael Assuncao.
And then, of course, there’s Renan Barao, the best fighter most people have never seen. There are few UFC champions that receive the laudatory praise of professional gamblers the way Renan Barao does – and I’m not just talking about his dance moves. Barao isn’t mentioned in the same breath as Fedor Emelianenko – yet – possibly due to the lack of Hong Man Chois and Baby Zulus on his record, but his actual MMA ledger is the stuff of legend: lost his first fight via decision, then railed off 32 consecutive victories (omitting one NC due to Barao receiving an illegal blow) over the course of nine years, ascending from Jungle Fights to UFC champion in just under two. Dominick Cruz recently stated he wouldn’t request an immediate title shot upon his long-awaited return from injury; one has to assume the man holding the strap has something to do with that.
TUF Winner (Bantamweight) v. Rage In The Cage Champion (Bantamweight) – John Dodson v. John Moraga, UFC Fight Night 42 - This event, headlined by Benson Henderson (former WEC/UFC lightweight champion) and Rustam Khabilov (former… uh… M-1 Selection Ukraine 2010 Finalist?), is likely to draw criticism and be cited as an example of “too many cards, too many fights” by some. But you know what? It’s in Albuquerque. Have you ever been to Albuquerque? It’s a lovely place, don’t get me wrong. But it’s not exactly the kind of card that you stack to the gills.
This series has made mention, time and time again, of the numerous WEC, PRIDE and Strikeforce veterans to successfully ply their trade in the UFC for more money in front of more fans. Despite the unquestionable value the absorption of these promotions provided to their most skilled fighters, nostalgia for a time when talented fighters, weight classes and even genders were segregated from the Big Leagues remains fairly consistent. John Nash’s excellent series on “The Secret History of Strikeforce” can make even the most diehard Zuffa partisan wistful.
The cream of the featherweight and bantamweight classes were previously confined to World Extreme Cagefighting, and there were (and remain, particularly on PPV) concerns about the drawing ability of the little guys compared to their boxing counterparts. Whether Urijah Faber, despite his lack of title shot success, remains the most popular sub-155 fighter in MMA history remains to be seen. It is, however, an unquestionably anti-fighter position to support keeping certain classes out of the most profitable and active promotion on Earth for any reason.
Ariel Helwani, on his weekly podcast (of which I am a shameful former patron), argued against the flyweight division’s addition to the UFC. Instead, he argued, the flyweight division would make a fantastic addition to Strikeforce (then under Zuffa control), bolstering a dying brand and still providing an improved platform for the weight class. One can imagine hundreds of tiny middle fingers being thrust into the air simultaneously. It’s not the job nor the responsibility of the fighters, in their short window of earning potential as athletes, to conform to nebulous desires for “competition” among their potential employers; it’s to make as much money as possible.
And there’s no better way to do that than with a unified talent pool.
A brief note: this will be my final piece on MMA Owl. I want to thank Jesse Scheckner, Mike Fagan, McKinley Noble and Marlene Taborda for the opportunity and the assistance they provided along the way. A special thanks to Marlene for taking a chance on a writer many had left for dead. If any of you are interested in following my writing, I will be at MMAInsider.net, making the same tired arguments you’ve already dismissed as fallacious. MMA Owl, however, will forever remain in my bookmarks. Thanks, everybody.