As the sport of mixed martial arts continues to grow in the public's eye, so does the amount of professional and financial pressure for the UFC's belt holders. Each title defense and number one contender bouts are becoming bigger, more important, seen by more people, and impose more strains during training than previous battles. Unfortunately for fans, this reality is causing an unbecoming trend of championship inactivity.
Similar to boxing these days, it's becoming a rare sight to see a UFC champion defend the gold more than twice a year. Whether it's poor scheduling or over training, many of these elite fighters find themselves pushing pass their limits and getting injured (postponing) during training camps—hoping to achieve a preparation advantage—when in reality they are creating more time away from the octagon.
It's a lose-lose scenario.
Instead, the most covenant prize in a division—which belongs to its top draw—is put on the shelf for long drawn out periods of time. It's frustrating to accept the fact that you can count on seeing your favorite fighter—or at least the best guy in most divisions—fight on two opposite months on the calender each year.
"Oh yeah I remember that Anderson Silva title defense. I can't believe it's been that long ago. Wasn't there a heatwave then? Wasn't unemployment closer to 10% and Rick Perry was the Republican flavor of the month?"
Of course my example is hyperbolic in nature and I fully realize the physical risk and demand for somebody competing in such a direct combat sport. But, I also know lesser famed fighters tend to push through their nagging injuries to fulfill their obligation due to pride or nagging bills from the real world. I suspect the more successful a fighter becomes, the more entitled he or she feels to time off from work.
How many of your superiors take more vacation time throughout the year than you do? Sure, it happens more than it should, but it's somewhat expected in most jobs.
In an individually assessed and pride entrenched sport like MMA, the landscape provokes a greater sense of purpose from its participants. It's just not the same for the lonely number-crunching pawn rotting away in a cubicle (I can say this because I am one of those guys...for now). Fighters constantly want to prove themselves as the best against all deserving comers—typically whenever they can.
The Chael Sonnens, Josh Koschecks and Donald Cerrones represent a common desire within the most motivated of guys who embody this sense of purpose multiple times a year. They are the guys chomping at the bit to fight every chance they get regardless of the turnaround time.
Honestly, it's a characteristic I would love to see in more of the UFC's king pins.
Let's quickly fish out this common denominator in each of the weight classes which suffer the most from this modern circumstance.
Bantamweight - Dominick Cruz' transitional title defenses from the WEC to the UFC—December 2010 against Scott Jorgensen and then against Urijah Faber in July of 2011—created a seven month gap between his fights. Now due to the Ultimate Fighter and another hand injury, Cruz won't defend his title for at least another seven months.
Lightweight - Frankie Edgar defended his belt against BJ Penn, for the second time, back in August of 2010 and then suffered a draw against Gray Maynard on the first day of 2011. Thanks to training related injuries, both guys had to postpone their immediate rematch for ten months.
Welterweight - This division has suffered to such a degree, the UFC had to create an interim belt. Georges St-Pierre last saw action in the octagon back in April 2011 and will potentially be out until November 2012 with a rehabilitating ACL tear. We'll possibly be knocking on two years before he see GSP return to action.
Middleweight - Pound-for-pound great Anderson Silva slipped by Chael Sonnen back in August 2010, followed that up with a defense against Vitor Belfort in February 2011 and then Yushin Okami in August 2011. Again, due to injury and time away from competition, Silva won't defend his title until the summer of 2012.
Heavyweight - Brock Lesnar lost the belt to Cain Velasquez in October 2010, who then had his first title defense over a year later in November 2011 against Junior Dos Santos. Dos Santos, the current champ and like his two predecessors, will be sidelined well into the first half of 2012 due to physical afflictions.
Maybe guys need to train smarter, not harder.
Not only does this lack of championship action hamper casual fans' interest, but it's bad for business as well. The UFC can't expect to regain impressive Pay-Per-View numbers without consistent participation from their biggest stars. Obviously, Jon Jones and Jose Aldo—busy champs from the two excluded divisions on the list—should not be expected to carry such a cumbersome workload while everybody else is healing.
I'll admit, this problem is a difficult one to solve due to the nature of the sport's preparation and scheduling, but two things come to mind. One: the UFC could enact an extra incentive or penalty for champions and top contenders who fail to defend or fight three times a year. Three times a year is a reasonable expectation, assuming a fighter doesn't get legitimately injured or made incapable of fighting due to a previous injury made worse during their last time in the octagon.
Two: create more interim contests and champions. These guys will keep the divisions lively, open up more opportunities for contenders, and keep the fans intrigued while the incumbents are MIA. Of course, these newly crowned champions will also operate under the three fights a year requirement. If an interim title holder is unable to meet this stipulation for whatever reason, that belt will become available to the next two deserving guys in line.
Solutions within these two suggestions would no doubt prevent the divisional gold from becoming stagnant. However this problem gets fixed, the UFC needs to do something creative to keep the championship slots hot. Fans and fighters, alike, shouldn't have to operate under such a unreliable time frame.
The aftermath of UFC 143 really underlined the issue at hand and why it needs to be addressed.
Bottom line: Carlos Condit shouldn't be given the option to wait for Georges St-Pierre. You can't replace an absent champion with an interim champion who has the option to be inactive for eight to nine months. It defeats the purpose of interim belts.
As the biggest and most successful MMA promotion in the world, the UFC has the time slots and talent to fix any and all championship droughts. Call me spoiled, but a slightly more demanding schedule has been overdue.