Perhaps in the past, the UFC never had a legitimate ladder that governed who got a title shot, when, and based on what criteria. It just seems like recently, it’s become a problem for the world’s largest MMA promotion. In this, the first of a three part series, we’ll look at what broke the matchmaking process. In subsequent posts, we’ll look at one way to fix matchmaking, and we’ll finish up by considering the ramifications of such a solution.
Conor Takes Over
In an effort to maximize on the skyrocketing popularity of Conor McGregor, the UFC made some decisions that allowed it to short-circuit the understood progression of contenders in the featherweight and lightweight divisions. These decisions, while extremely effective, financially served to create a blueprint that has frozen the featherweight and lightweight divisions, disrupted the middleweight division, paused progress at light-heavyweight, and potentially upset the heavyweight division.
What did they do? They allowed for super fights to happen, fights that gave key fighters title shots without having to fight within the division first. Conor, who in December 2015, knocked out Jose Aldo to become the featherweight champion, went immediately into the #1 position at lightweight to fight Eddie Alvarez, the reigning champion there. Conor won that fight, becoming the UFC’s first two-weight champion creating confusion on whether or not he would be allowed to defend both belts.
Surging up the ladder, Max Holloway sought to avenge his loss to Conor and take the 145lb belt. Unfortunately, Conor left to fight Floyd Mayweather, a move that would upset both featherweight and lightweight classes.
Lightweight in Limbo
The UFC stripped Conor of the featherweight title, and Holloway eventually won that belt becoming the new champion, but at lightweight, the situation got stickier. Conor was still the reigning champion, and with him unable to defend his title due to the Mayweather fight, the UFC raised an interim champion in Tony Ferguson who defeated Kevin Lee back in 2017.
After Conor lost to Mayweather, the thought was that he was going to come back and unify the title, but nearly 2 years after he defeated Eddie Alvarez, it doesn’t seem like it is going to happen. As a result, Ferguson instead of Conor, will defend the interim title against 25-0 Khabib Nurmagamedov.
The Return of GSP
But Conor is not the only person to have created ladder havoc in the UFC. Georges St Pierre, arguably one of the greatest welterweights of all time, coming off a 4-year semi-retirement from the sport, was allowed to leapfrog the entire Middleweight division, skip the interim title holder Robert Whitaker and fight for a title in a weight class he has never competed. And he won.
But instead of going to fight Whitaker to unify the title, GSP decided to surrender the title, leaving Whitaker to assume the role of champion without defeating the reigning title holder.
Daniel Cormier, Heavyweight
Now, Daniel Cormier, the light-heavyweight title holder is moving up to heavyweight to challenge the current heavyweight champion, Stipe Miocic. Cormier is also absolved from fighting anyone at heavyweight first, and should he win, would have to decide if he is going to defend both the light-heavyweight and heavyweight titles.
These super fights, or money fights, are bad for the sport. While they do achieve a short-term gain by building a lot of excitement quickly, in each of the examples, they have served to damage the divisions that are left in their wake.
Fix the Matchmaking Process
The UFC must return to a predictable ladder structure that allows fighters to work their way up to title contention and fans to understand why one fighter should get a title shot over another.
We also need to find a way to keep matchmakers from being influenced by Twitter beefs and post-fight call-outs that seem to create buzz, but don’t create match-ups that are actually good for the sport. In the case of Colby Covington, a fighter who tried to get a title shot by disrespecting others, has had implications on his fight camp teammates, other fighters in the UFC, and the people of Brazil.
So, how do you do it? How do you fix what is broken about matchmaking in the UFC? How do you legitimize the Championship belt again?
Well, I have a solution, and I’ll share it with you in my next blog post.