Vitor Belfort. Frank Mir. Urijah Faber. Frankie Edgar (twice).
All guys who’ve had cracks at UFC gold recently. All guys who did very little to earn their shots with prolonged success in the cage.
Sure, they’re great fighters with great legacies. Tough guys with a variety of skills, all of whom come to fight and routinely put on a show.
But it’s hard to argue they deserved the shots they got at gold when the UFC came a-knockin’ and told them they were next in line.
Belfort basically took a fight no one else wanted after five years in another weight class.
Mir had won three in a row, but got a title shot because Alistair Overeem is more man than any other five men combined, apparently.
Faber is the only consistently marketable star under 155lbs. that exists on the UFC roster, featherweight champion Jose Aldo included. He had exactly one win between title shots.
Edgar, despite two straight losses, may have been the most credible contender listed. He was champion for nearly two years, lost a questionable decision to lose his belt, then lost an even more questionable decision on his way to not getting it back.
He was offered a 145-pound shot as solace for the latter, provided he took the fight as an injury replacement. That the fight was stalled by injury again is erroneous—he was still booked for a shot.
What this is all to say, is that there is no question that the UFC’s system for awarding title shots is inexact, muddled, and often outright questionable.
As longtime contender, single-time title challenger Jon Fitch stated:
"There's no system for picking number one contenders. There's no order, there's no lineup, there's no point system. It's just whoever they feel they're going to make the most money off of. That's who gets the title shot.
It kind of sucks, because in other sports there's kind of a clear path; you do this, this and this, and you get this. That's just not the way combat sports work I guess. It doesn't work that way with boxing or the UFC.
It comes down to showmanship. I have to be a better showman to get a title shot. I don't have to be a better fighter. I just have to be a better showman."
You know what? Hate on the guy for being boring and apparently now whiny, but he’s not wrong.
The UFC has built itself on the idea that it’s a brand above all else, that there are always a host of contenders in the mix. It’s also built itself on the idea that, UFC 151 notwithstanding, the show must go on.
So what you often see, especially in an era where injuries ravage cards and training partners often refuse to fight one another, is that the most deserving guy isn’t always the one on the marquee.
Sometimes that’s a product of necessity for the reasons above, other times it’s a product of lining Zuffa’s pockets.
From the perspective of Dana White, is it easier to market Fitch and his boring, grinding, wrestling-heavy style? Or is it easier to market his arrogant, trash-talking, wrestle-to-keep-the-fight-standing-and-throw-a-big-right-hand (former) teammate Josh Koscheck?
It’s Koscheck, hands down. Even though he hasn’t had Fitch’s success in the cage, and has actually lost multiple times to the current champion, he’s just an easier sell. People want to see him get beat up, and they’ll pay for the chance.
And you know what? That’s alright.
Fitch can complain, and in actuality he’s completely justified. In a sport that spends every day of its existence trying to legitimize itself, ignoring the idea of rankings in favour of giving big fights to guys who’ll sell tickets (or guys who just aren’t too injured to fight) is a dangerous game.
But at the same time, it usually gives fans the fights they want to see. Most would rather watch Chael Sonnen instead of Lyoto Machida, because Sonnen is going to entertain them in every imaginable way leading up to the fight, and he’s relentless in the cage. Many find it harder to appreciate the nuances of a Machida karate clinic.
So Jon Fitch and his other underappreciated, less flashy cohorts can sit and ponder the system the UFC has in place for awarding title shots. They’re right to do so, because it isn’t fair and is at times utterly arbitrary.
But it’s the world they’re living in, and they might as well get used to it. It’s not fixing to change any time soon. Fans are proving as much with their wallets.