The UFC is growing up so fast. From tentpole casinos in Mississippi, so insubstantial that they blew away in Katrina, to the glitz and glamour of Las Vegas, we've come a long way, baby.
For years UFC President Dana White has worked hard to position his promotion, his brand, right up with the professional sporting elite. "Bigger than football. Bigger than soccer." That was the mantra. And while not there yet, a shiny new network television deal is proof positive of the progress White has made on the UFC's behalf.
Perhaps, White and UFC ownership weren't quite ready for the price of that success. Because, and never doubt this for a moment, the athletes and their management see it too. They see every story about extravagant spending, about billion-dollar valuation. They smell success. They understand their role in creating that success. And they want their share.
Like teenagers testing boundaries, some of the UFC's best are pushing White, seeing where he might break and how far they can go. And White, as is his way, is pushing back.
The most recent example comes in the form of Mauricio "Shogun" Rua. A Pride legend and former UFC champion, Rua was last seen in the cage competing in what many consider the single best mixed martial arts fight of all time.
But, in a close decision, Rua lost to Dan Henderson. In White's mind, that seemingly negated all the positives of that night. When he told Rua, a top-ten contender still in the title hunt, that he would be fighting the unknown Glover Teixeira on Fox, he expected Shogun would step up and do it. After all, that's how the sport has operated since the UFC rescued it from potential extinction in 2001.
Shogun, though, saw things differently. He was an icon. A fighter still on the precipice of great things. What interest could he possibly have in fighting someone most fans couldn't pick out of a police lineup? He, no doubt politely, demurred.
It was a tough fight, one he could very well lose. If you are going to lose, and you want to maintain status as one of the best, you lose to the best. Losing to Glover Teixeira was a one-way ticket to the undercard. And that, and this is the scary part, is the path to seeing your contract scaled back and your endorsements cut in half—one small step from being sent packing right back to Brazil.
And so the two men stood staring, eye to eye in a sense, though the negotiations were done over the phone. Shogun had his way. He will not be fighting Glover Teixeira. Instead, his opponent will be Brandon Vera, a former prospect who has never lived up to the hype, self-created, that he might be the first man to hold heavyweight and light heavyweight gold at the same time.
Vera doesn't provide the same level of risk to Rua. And, just as importantly, he has more name value. If the worst happens, if Shogun is somehow upset in the bout, no one will be saying "Who?" when told the results.
It's not often White loses a battle. And, when he does, it isn't pretty. Never mind that Shogun just competed in the best fight of all time. White hasn't just thrown him under a bus. He's buried him under the Greyhound station and then lit the thing on fire, starting at a media scrum :
He absolutely refused to fight him. He would rather be cut than fight him. You know what, it was one of those very weird situations to hear one of the top five guys in the world say 'I’d rather be cut than fight a guy who isn’t ranked.' And the reason that they were saying was because 'oh he’s not top ten.'
But then when we offer him Brandon Vera he took it in two seconds. Vera isn’t top ten either. Someone asked me this question earlier, but the reality is that Shogun is a guy whom I respect, he been in a million wars with all the best in the world, but for some reason he does not wanna fight this dude Glover.
And you know me, if you don’t want me to tell the truth, don’t say that stuff to me on the phone. That’s exactly what happened, that’s exactly the way it went down. And me and Lorenzo said ‘Listen dude, you can’t be turning down fights at this level. With the money you’re making and where you are ranked in the world, you don’t turn down fights at this level. We might have to cut you’ and he said ‘I’d rather be cut than fight him.’”
While management-player unrest in other sports is met with a dismissive shrug or an elaborate eye roll, in mixed martial arts it's something new and fresh. It's endearing in a way.
Shogun standing up to the UFC is somewhat unprecedented. The promotion has prided itself in being able to make the fights it wants to make. How many times have we heard White clown on boxing, unable to book the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight everyone is clamoring for? That's a problem that doesn't exist for the UFC.
Or, rather, didn't exist.
We are now on a very slippery slope towards that mentality. That's the boxing path, where the power rests in the hands of the fighters and not the promoters. And while they deserve to be compensated fairly, that's a dangerous and destructive road to walk.
What's great about the UFC is that they do give us the fights we want to see. That the best guys in the world do step into the cage and go at it—with no exceptions. It's what powers the UFC brand, what allows matchmaker Joe Silva to work his magic.
Now Shogun has stuck his foot in the door. It's why White has had to slam it shut so hard. I'm sure he hates having to question the courage of one of his best fighters. But this is a battle he absolutely must win. A message has to be sent to other fighters, a message that says, unambiguously, that fighters don't make the fights. The UFC does. Period.
An exception was made for Shogun because he's a hero and a legend. The next fighter that decides he's going to decide which bouts to take and which to turn down? He needs to be cut, with great pomp and circumstance.
At the highest levels of MMA, we simply need the best to fight the best. It's a battle for MMA's soul. For the very future of the sport many of us love. And it's a battle that, for the sake of the fans, we need Dana White to win.