I wanted to preface this article by saying to I took no joy in writing it. It’s rarely — if ever — pleasurable to see someone lose their job. It’s especially tougher to see a fighter lose their job considering all of the sacrifices they make.
However, I’ve remained steadfast that in order for mixed martial arts to continue to grow, it needs to be treated like a major sport. If I was still covering the NFL on a regular basis and the Philadelphia Eagles made some notable cuts after trimming their roster at the end of the preseason from 65 players to 53, you better believe I would analyze those cuts.
In that vein, I feel it’s appropriate to take a look at a list of recent fighter releases made by the UFC and to analyze their prospects in the fight game going forward.
Travis Lutter - According to the Wrestling Observer, Lutter has already received offers from Affliction and the IFL. Based on the IFL’s recent financials, I just find it hard to believe that anything between the promotion and Lutter will get done. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like to see it, as I hope the IFL is able to stick around. But Affliction still seems like a more realistic possibility, as it has a major pay-per-view scheduled for July 19 and no opponent secured for Matt Lindland. A Lindland vs. Lutter match might not be a bad idea.
It looks as though Lutter will do just fine without the UFC, which is only partially surprising to me. On one hand, the undeniable fact is that through his involvement with the fourth season of “The Ultimate Fighter” and having won the middleweight tournament that season, he’s a very recognizable fighter. And as a fighter, he’s extremely talented. His jiu-jitsu is world class and his wrestling is very good. His standup isn’t all that bad, either. That said, if I was a promoter, I’d be rather hesitant to commit serious money to Lutter until he had put some distance between his frequent injuries, conditioning issues, and concerns about being able to make weight.
To me, the concerns pertaining to Lutter are very real. There’s a reason why the UFC lost patience with him. In the end though, a major promotion is going to find his name recognition value too strong to ignore.
Din Thomas - Out of all the cuts made, this is the only one that I really question, as it seemed like just the other day that Thomas was 1-2 wins away from earning a shot at the UFC lightweight title. However, the reality is that he’s coming off two consecutive losses and with the UFC looking to cut nearly 25% of its workforce, not every cut is going to be an easy one.
When you look at recent cuts from the UFC that still have a chance to prosper, Thomas is at the top of that list. He has the option of retiring and just focusing on operating his school, but should he fight, he will likely have no shortage of opportunities. Like Lutter, Thomas also appeared on TUF 4. He also has an impressive resume, with 22 career wins over the likes of Clay Guida, Matt Serra, and Jens Pulver.
It’s also believed that the door is open for him to return to the Zuffa family should he elect to drop to 145 lbs. and is able to put some wins together outside of the promotion while competing at featherweight. Thomas is based out of Florida, which is a growing hotbed for regional MMA. It might not be a bad idea for Thomas to headline a few shows in Florida at 145 lbs. with the idea of trying to get into the WEC.
Jake O’Brien – O’Brien is an intriguing name because he’s young and he’s a heavyweight. The decision to drop him wasn’t based on his ability as a fighter or his record, as he has just one career loss in MMA. The reason why he was dropped was based almost solely on his fighting style, a style that many critics have justifiably labeled as boring. Wrestling is great, so long as you remain active once you take the fight to the floor.
His agent, Ken Pavia, was at first disappointed by the UFC’s decision to drop O’Brien. But after speaking with officials from the promotion, he seems to understand the logic behind their decision. According to recent comments made by Pavia on an Internet audio show, the UFC warned O’Brien to show more than just his wrestling skills. Pavia was adamant that O’Brien has very good hands, but has been reluctant to let them go in fights.
O’Brien will get a chance to experiment with his hands by letting them go more in a less-pressurized environment while competing for the California-based Palace Fighting Championships. If O’Brien can show more well-rounded MMA skills and put up some solid wins, the UFC will no doubt look to bring him back. However, because there is such a dearth of heavyweight talent, the UFC might not be the only major national promotion that comes calling.
O’Brien could be a hot free agent commodity a year from now and prove to be someone that actually benefits by the UFC’s decision to drop him from their roster.
Kalib Starnes - It’s really hard to know what’s going on with Starnes. The offered explanations as to why Starnes turned in the disappointing performance that he did at UFC 83 seem to change about as much as the reasons as to why the U.S. got involved in Iraq. Looking past that, I don’t think anyone will disagree that Starnes was not happy with his compensation or the pay he was making from the UFC.
Apparently rumors that he is retiring from MMA are not true and that he simply wanted to leave the UFC. Well, he’s got his wish and is now a free agent. The word that is making the rounds now is that Starnes believed he could make more money outside of the UFC. To some, the idea of Starnes making more money outside of the UFC sounds as far-fetched as Lindsay Lohan going to a club and not drinking. But the reality is, there could be a market for Starnes.
In the UFC, he was never going to be anything more than a run-of-the-mill middleweight. However, he could be a featured player for a Canadian promotion such as Hardcore Championship Fighting or the Maximum Fighting Championships. Say what you want about the guy, but Starnes already was somewhat recognizable thanks to his involvement on the third season of “The Ultimate Fighter.” And based on his controversial performance at UFC 83, he now has even more name recognition value.
Even though he fought poorly at UFC 83, he’s still a good fighter. Starnes has a very good ground game and has worked hard to improve his striking. Sure, he might not be the most popular guy based on recent events, but this isn’t pro wrestling where competitors are judged by how much applause they can generate and what their merchandise sales are. As such, I could easily see him making some good money with a Canada-based promotion as one of its marquee stars.
David Heath – At the start of 2007, Heath looked like a top light heavyweight prospect. He was 7-0 overall and 2-0 lifetime in the UFC. But things started to go downhill following a loss to Lyoto Machida at UFC 70 last April.
Heath garnered a lot of sympathy following his loss to Renato Sobral at UFC 74 but Sobral’s infractions took place after the fight was finished. The reality is that Heath took a beating and that Sobral didn’t use illegal means to win the fight. Heath’s tenure in the UFC came to an virtual end after he was on the receiving side of another lopsided loss, this time to Tim Boetsch at UFC 81 this past February.
He’s now lost three straight fights and finds himself out of the UFC. While the chips are down for Heath, he’s still someone who will be gainfully employed outside of the UFC. Much like heavyweights, there is a real need for capable light heavyweights. While Heath never had the benefit of the promotional push that TUF has provided so many fighters, he did get some publicity stemming from the Sobral incident.
Heath will no doubt have options. He’d be a good fit for EliteXC, which is starting to build a light heavyweight division with Rafael Feijao and Shane Del Rosario as the building blocks. They will need competition that can test them. He’d also be ideal for the IFL should they run shows after May. Vladimir Matyushenko, the current IFL light heavyweight champion, needs competition, and Heath would fit the bill perfectly.
One other long-shot possibility to consider: a rematch between Heath and Sobral promoted by Strikeforce or one of the other 50 promotions that Sobral has seemingly signed a contract with since being dropped by the UFC.
Joe Doerksen - Doerksen is the quintessential journeyman. He’ll never be a world beater at 185 lbs. but he’s been around the block and has paid his dues. Doerksen is a well-rounded fighter who can add a lot of credibility to regional shows. While I don’t think he’s a good fit for a major national promotion right now, I could see him returning to his roots in Canada and getting regular bookings competing for the country’s top regional promotions.
With a few regional wins, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Doerksen tapped as a last-minute injury replacement for a major promotion such as the IFL, EliteXC, Affliction, or whoever.
Kuniyoshi Hironaka - The obvious prediction here would be to suggest that Hironaka can just go fight in Japan. However, he has just about as much name value in the Land of the Rising Sun then in North America. This is a guy who does have wins over Ryan Schultz, Nick Diaz, and Charuto Verissimo, so he shouldn’t necessarily hang up the gloves. But after compiling a 1-3 record in the UFC and having been seen taking a lot of punishment in his fights, the reality is that he may need to go back to square one.
After fighting in Japan for Shooto early in his career, Hironaka eventually migrated to Hawaii, where he competed for the SuperBrawl (now ICON Sport) and Rumble on the Rock promotions. Perhaps a return to Hawaii might not be the worst idea in the world? If not Hawaii, then perhaps World Victory Road and a return to Japan would be an ideal destination.
John Halverson – Halverson lost to Roger Huerta in his UFC debut at UFC 67 but returned at UFC 82 following three wins on the regional scene. Unfortunately, he’s a free agent again after losing a unanimous decision to Jorge Gurgel.
But don’t lose any sleep for Halverson. He’s a draw in Ohio, which just happens to be a hotbed for mixed martial arts. There are so many shows in the state that there aren’t enough good fighters to fill up all the spots. At the very least, he’ll be able to make some money capitalizing on his ability to sell tickets in the Midwest. Monte Cox’s Adrenaline MMA is poised to run a lot of shows in the Midwest, and the two could be a perfect fit for each other.
Soa Palelei - This is an older cut dating back to earlier this year, but I felt it was appropriate to put Palelei on the list because we haven’t heard his name much since he was dropped by the UFC. My belief is that he will be a name we’ll be hearing from more in the future.
Many people don’t realize that he was a hot prospect before his disappointing performance against Eddie Sanchez at UFC 79. While EliteXC was recruiting Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou last year, they also made a strong pitch to bring in his Team Quest teammate, Palelei.
Thus far, EliteXC hasn’t had much luck when it comes to trying to sign Team Quest fighters such as Palelei, Sokoudjou, and Jason “Mayhem” Miller (whom they had an interest in before he signed with HDNet Fights). So the question is, will EliteXC take another look at him? He’s a fighter who would fit in well with a heavyweight division that includes the likes of Kimbo Slice, Antonio Silva, Brett Rogers, Jon Murphy, Dave Herman, and Bobby Jones.
I would think that Monte Cox’s Adrenaline MMA could also be an option. The promotion will in large part be built around heavyweights Tim Sylvia and Ben Rothwell. Since the pair are training partners at Miletich Fighting Systems in Iowa, they are unlikely to face each other. There will be a major need to find suitable competition for them and someone such as Palelei, who has the Team Quest affiliation and the UFC background, would be perfect.
The bottom line is that to judge Palelei based solely on his performance at UFC 79 would be a huge mistake. He’s a much better fighter than he showed and could prove to be an asset to a promotion that is in a position to be more patient with him than the UFC was.