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The Trouble with Titles

UFC title shots are at best inconsistent and at worst insulting to the intelligence of fans. Without an official ranking system, title fights are arranged based on their potential to attract an audience. Dana White defends this approach as preventing any obligation to put on boring fights. But there’s no denying it removes some credibility from being champion.

The current populist approach lends itself to title fights that seem undeserved. It also takes away from the whole idea of a champ being the best fighter in his weight class. A reputation for boring fights results in demotion to the undercards. However, a well-known grudge with the champ increases the chances of a title shot exponentially. All things being equal, fighting the champ has more to do with popularity than skill.

The UFC makes no illusions; they are in the business of making entertainment, not upholding moral standards for martial arts. Nevertheless, making fights based only on fan interest is not flawless; combining two popular fighters does not necessarily make a popular fight. That’s where the system can backfire. Champions should only face the best possible opponents. Impulsively arranging easy title defenses irritates fans and erodes meaning from the belts.

Current contenders Demian Maia, Dan Hardy, and Frankie Edgar all lack a definitive reason for getting their title shots. But while Maia and Edgar can be chocked up to timing and luck, the most puzzling is Dan Hardy. Originally, the number one welterweight contender fight was between Mike Swick and Martin Kampmann at UFC 103. Swick pulled out, so Paul Daley stepped in and knocked Kampmann silly. Then Swick lost by decision to Hardy at UFC 105 and suddenly Dan Hardy is fighting Georges St. Pierre. Coming off a split decision win over Marcus Davis before the Swick fight, Hardy has never proved himself to fans, and that bogs down any hype for his fight against GSP.

The situation is difficult because a real ranking system could produce equally undeserved title shots. Gray Maynard vs. Nate Diaz serves as an excellent example of the pitfalls of trying to rank fighters. Maynard has the win over Diaz on his record, and a 7-0-1 record in the UFC– technically he should be the number one contender. But his performance against Diaz was far from outstanding, and showed fans that he is not ready to fight lightweight champ BJ Penn. Quality of a win is a difficult thing to factor into rankings, but it will make all the difference for the business side of MMA.

A healthy compromise would be the inclusion of occasional tournaments to establish contenders in a weight class. Similar to Pride’s Grand Prix, they could be spaced out over several weeks but longer, about 8 weeks rather than four to allow time for fighters to recover. Sixteen top fighters from a weight class compete, with top level names mixed in with some unknowns from the undercards, three wins lead to the final (PPV) matchup.

The Ultimate Fighter has long-since outlasted its usefulness; fighters can get into the UFC much more easily by getting their start in smaller promotions. Furthermore, the fights have been getting less exciting, with last years “Heavyweights” starring Kimbo Slice being a near-complete dud. A tournament show would be far more interesting because truly established fighters would be competing instead of newcomers. Not only would the quality of the matchups increase dramatically, but imagine how much more credibility Hardy would have if he had beaten Paul Daley, Paulo Thiago, Jon Fitch, and/or Josh Koscheck to get his title shot.

A tournament win does not need to mean a guaranteed title shot. If the final bout is unimpressive, matchmaker Joe Silva can just go back to his old method of feeling around for big PPV buys. But at least it would provide a clearer picture of where the top-tier fighters rank in terms of skill.

UFC titles will never be purely about who’s the best. Being a UFC champion does not make you the best fighter in the world or even in a weight class. That’s fine. Figuring out who is actually number one is not the most important thing in MMA. If the greatest fighter in the world is a man who jumps all weight classes, and can go 100-0 by way of a secret ancient Chinese leg-hugging technique that forces opponents to tap from exhaustion, then I’m happy to see him denied the fame and glory of a UFC title.

Including tournaments would give fighters a way to demonstrate their skills and prove they have a shot at beating the champ, without awarding a title-shot based on something like a DQ win. They could do more to help legitimize title shots, and hype MMA than ten more season of “The Ultimate Fighter.”

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