After UFC 145, most of the fans of the sport are familiar with the hot-button topic that is the catalyst for what is sure to be more bad-blood drama in the future: teammate vs. teammate.
It’s nothing new, to be sure.
After Tito Ortiz held the UFC light heavyweight belt hostage after defeating Ken Shamrock at UFC 40, Dana White and Zuffa have been working hard to make sure fighters know and accept the fact that business comes before pleasure or friendship.
During the very first season of The Ultimate Fighter, teammate was forced to fight teammate, all to illustrate what is a hard truth in the fight game: competition comes first and all else can be reassembled once the dust settles.
But no matter what White tries to do, he is still forced to listen to fighters who say they’d never fight this teammate or that teammate, and that is not good news.
In a world where one fight team can assemble so much talent, often is the time when top contenders in the same weight class train side-by-side, and inevitably, friendships are made as they make each other better fighters.
Take, for instance, the case of Josh Koscheck and Jon Fitch. Both are good friends who spent many years training together and have often said they would never fight each other.
Now, as both men reel from recent losses, they are basically at the same level; skirting the outer limits of the top five or seven in their weight class. Should they both work their way up the ladder, they could once again be near the very top of the division with a title bout within their grasp.
Normally, two contenders in a situation like this would fight in order to decide who gets the title shot. But according to both Koscheck and Fitch, they wouldn’t fight. One would bow out and let the other proceed.
It’s a heart warming, noble and loyal thing to do.
It also doesn’t serve the best interests of the sport in any way, shape or form.
It’s a hard line to draw, but the truth is, it has to be drawn. And it needs to be drawn in bad blood if necessary.
Many fans who are outraged over the topic think the fighters should be allowed to choose if they fight a teammate or not, mainly based on the belief that there are plenty of other fighters and weight classes out there.
The truth is anything but.
The teammate vs. teammate situation usually comes up when fighters keep winning and rising toward what should be their ultimate goal: a championship.
When you consider what the title stands for, it becomes clear: the man who holds the belt is the best that division has to offer.
What the title doesn’t stand for is the notion that the man who holds it is the best in the division—except for his friend who didn’t want to fight him so he moved either up or down a weight class.
If that happens, then the belt for that division is rendered hollow, and when that situation happens, the belt is looked at with as much question as the man who holds it, because everyone is wondering if his bosom buddy is really better.
And if there is one thing that must never be questioned, it is the validity of the title.
Everyone who gets into the sport of MMA should honestly know, by now, that if they are as good as they dream, there may very well come a day when they have to fight a training partner and teammate.
This isn’t some secret in the fine print of their contracts that sends Dana White into a storm of hand-rubbing glee because he gets to spring it on them.
In fact, about the only time when training partners shouldn’t ever be asked to fight is when they are actual family members, like the Diaz brothers and the Millers.
Titles need to be worn by the best in the division, and if the two best fighters in the division are from the same camp, then they must fight.
But to make it clear, the UFC should put it into their contracts, large and unavoidable. It needs to be more than just a stipulation; it needs to be a code.
The fight game is all about conflict. This is not a Jane Austen garden party, it’s a fight sport. The men and women who freely enter into this as their chosen profession are supposedly doing so because they love it more than anything else.
No one is holding a gun to their head, making them choose the sport. There are much easier ways to earn a living, after all, then getting your clock cleaned in front of millions.
But like any other job, there are unpleasant obligations that come along with it. Keeping the title on a pedestal is one of those obligations, because it is ultimately what is best for the sport.
And if you are a fighter, your sole ambition should be to win that belt. If you win that belt, you should defend its interests jealously, because that is in the best traditions and interests of that position as the best in the division.
If the friendships formed during training cause you to doubt if you would fight your friend, then you shouldn’t be fighting any more.
Of course, one needn’t look very far to see just how rocky a road it would be if fighters got to pick and choose who they did and did not fight. Boxing is rife with examples of this, and from that came a slew of fabricated title belts from the alphabet organizations.
In fact, there are so many belts in boxing that they are essentially equal in their worthlessness. Tomorrow may see a boxer with a record of 17 wins and 14 losses crowned the new Heavyweight Champion of the World by the World Gardening Commission.
Thankfully, the sport of MMA doesn’t have that problem. There are title belts for different organizations, but UFC gold is the only real gold.
That could change, however, if fighters from the UFC begin defecting to lesser organizations in order to avoid fighting their friends; should the better fighter leave, then the problems start.
Being a champion isn’t a privilege, it’s a responsibility. If you are true to it, defending it against all comers will be very difficult, to be sure, but it should also be a labor of love.
And when you finally acknowledge that simple fact, then a code of competition is the most honest admission of the true responsibility of being a fighter and a champion.
Such a Code, fully read and signed and witnessed (by the coach ideally) along with the main contract would also help to ease the tension in the camps when and if those situations arise. They can all blame it on “Uncle Dana” and then go about their business, even if it is temporarily unpleasant.
When you look at the fight game, it is about many wonderful things (including friendships), but above all else, it’s about the fight.