Why Waiting Never Works
If the UFC’s 2012 can be characterized by anything at this point, it might be a lack of star power at the top of cards and the messy title pictures that have resulted (or it could be drug controversy, but indulge me and go with the former). The organization has done its best to toe the line between notable fighters atop cards and trying to develop new talent, but the simple fact is that they can’t accomplish both while attracting the type of viewership that will be seen as successful. There are too many cards and not enough notable names in play for that strategy to work, so the UFC has to focus on developing fighters into draws that will replace the Lesnars, Liddells, Penns, and Coutures atop cards while still maintaining the interest of the average viewer. Herein lays the problem. Rather than keeping fighters active and having fans come to know them for their successes inside the ring, fighters almost seem to be encouraged to wait for title shots and big fights to be handed to them.
The biggest issue with this strategy is that waiting in MMA never works. Alright, that statement might be a bit hyperbolic, as a select few fighters have benefitted from biding their time on the sidelines (most recently, Dan Henderson), but those are the exceptions rather than the rule. For a great example, lets look at Rashad Evans who took 23 months from the time he was initially promised a title shot until he actually received said shot. Certainly injuries played a role in that delay, but they weren’t the whole story. Although being the most deserving challenger and having the most intriguing storyline with the champion, Evans found himself passed over by Quinton Jackson (who he beat) and Lyoto Machida (who Jackson beat) for title shots because of his inactivity in 2011. Meanwhile, the man who replaced him in that initial title shot, Jon Jones, has since become one of the biggest draws in the UFC on the heels of 5 wins in 14 months. Surely that has to say something for the power of staying active.
Evans was not the first example of a fighter to suffer for waiting rather than staying active. All the way back in 2003, Pete Spratt was asked by the UFC if he wanted to fight Matt Hughes for a shot at the Welterweight Title. Pete declined. He ended up losing his next three fights and didn’t fight for the UFC again for two years. He never came remotely close to a title shot again. While it’s true that Hughes would have smashed Spratt into a pile of goo (ironically enough, Spratt’s next fight after declining the title shot was a first round submission loss to Georges St. Pierre), he would have at least garnered some name recognition and staying power in the UFC rather than fighting 4 of his next 28 fights in the organization and becoming a posterboy for all journeymen.
The current situation in the UFC features both fighters who have elected to sit on the sidelines and wait out their title shots like Evans (Nate Diaz, Johny Hendricks and potentially Chan Sung Jung as a few examples), and fighters who have passed up title shots in favour of other endeavours (like featherweight Hatsu Hioki). Neither is a good idea. Hell, even look at “Interim Champion” Carlos Condit. He defeated Nick Diaz in early February and won’t fight again until at least November because he elected to wait for GSP’s recovery. So really, Condit won a number one contender’s match and then waited for his shot. The problem is that nobody knew who Condit was when he fought Diaz, he didn’t put on a particularly awe inspiring performance, and hasn’t done anything since then to make people want to see him. A fight in June or July against Jake Ellenberger or Johny Hendricks would have not only solidified Condit as the top challenger to GSP upon his return, but would have gotten him a paycheck and remind fans of what kind of fighter he can be. Obviously there is inherent risk in taking a bout against a top flight fighter, but the risk of fading into obscurity after losing a lacklustre decision to St. Pierre is equally – if not more – real.
Not only is Condit sitting on the sidelines in the Welterweight division, but both Johny Hendricks and Jake Ellenberger could be joining him soon. Hendricks has already come out and said that he is willing to wait for the winner of St. Pierre/Condit, as he thinks he is deserving of a title shot. Consecutive victories over Jon Fitch and Josh Koscheck are certainly impressive – and may even be deserving of a title shot – but if that means Hendricks is going to sit out from May until whenever a winner of a bout that isn’t yet scheduled is ready to fight again (in a climate where champions usually only fight twice a year), nobody will even remember his knockout of Fitch. If the UFC is trying to build interest in a new generation of fighter, that is not the way to do it. If Ellenberger wins his upcoming bout with Martin Kampmann, certainly he too will hear that he is worthy of a title shot, and will likely elect to wait for it. Instead, if Hendricks and the winner of Ellenberger/Kampmann were to fight in the co-main event of the St. Pierre/Condit PPV, or in the main event of a future Fox card certainly that would produce far more excitement in the winner’s eventual title bout.
The Diaz situation is quite similar to that of Hendricks, although at least the title fight he’s waiting for has already happened. I wrote last week about how much Diaz truly deserves a shot at this point, and while I advocated that Gilbert Melendez be brought over to the UFC while Diaz gets one more fight to continue building interest in his eventual title bout, I never suggested that Diaz should remain inactive for a prolonged period of time.
To me, former Sengoku champion Hatsu Hioki’s situation is the most curious of the bunch. Hioki is somewhat like Pete Spratt in that the UFC would likely be willing to give him a title shot right now, as Hioki is a far better challenge to Jose Aldo than Erik Koch. However, Spratt was nowhere near ready to take on a championship caliber fighter, whereas Hioki has long been considered the second best Featherweight in the world. The fact that Hioki is ready to challenge for the belt is not the most intriguing aspect of this situation though, it’s the state of the rest of the division. Koch is a good fighter, but his best win is either Jonathan Brookins or Raphael Assuncao, which is definitely not title worthy. Dustin Poirier certainly showed this week that he is not ready to be considered an elite Featherweight, and the man who dominated him, Chan Sung Jung is only 3 fights removed from looking completely lost against George Roop before getting KO’d rather viciously.
Hioki has the best case of anyone at Featherweight to be squaring off against Aldo. His risk while waiting is that he may have a typical Hatsu Hioki moment, fight with a terrible gameplan, and lose to a solid but unspectacular fighter like say… Ricardo Lamas before he gets his shot. In Hioki’s case waiting won’t even result in more of a groundswell of support for him. Those who want to see him in a title shot have wanted to see such since he signed with the UFC, and those who don’t won’t see him featured prominently enough in his future fights to really pay him all that much mind. His fight with Lamas will be seen by fewer viewers than a Spike TV Fight Night, and even a Jung-like performance will really only get hardcore fans talking about him challenging Aldo.
Jung himself is now in quite a predicament after his fantastic victory over Poirer. Many are already saying he is worthy of a title shot, and while he is more accomplished than anyone else in the Featherweight division (save Hioki), that fight would not be happening until Aldo bests Koch, recovers and is ready to fight again. When might that be? How much will the current surge of interest in Jung subside by then? The Korean Zombie is definitely someone who, win or lose, is only going to continue to grow his popularity by stepping in the cage, and he should do just that, not wait for Aldo/Koch, and then even potentially a Hioki title shot depending on how Hioki looks against Lamas.
All told, the UFC has many big issues right now; from injuries, to drugs and drug testing, to the amount of big draws being lower than it has in many years. One thing they can control is what is done with the athletes who are healthy and ready to fight, and having those fighters – who could turn themselves into draws by getting out in the public eye – sit on the sidelines is doing nothing to correct any of the problems the UFC finds itself in right now. If it’s difficult enough to find quality fighters to fill the top of cards as is, so why not expand your options? Keeping fighters like Condit, Hendricks, Ellenberger, Diaz and Jung out of those potential bouts seems highly counterproductive.
For each of the fighters mentioned, waiting for their title shot is not the answer, staying active (or taking the title shot in Hioki’s case) would serve both fighters and the UFC the best at this moment, and no amount of undefended interim titles or months on the shelf will convince me otherwise.
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