If any questions remained about whether the UFC brass awarded title shots based on merit, they were answered—and answered definitively—by president Dana White at a pre-fight press conference in Seattle. Merit was nowhere to be found, and fair play had also gone missing, as White announced UFC title shots for Nick Diaz and Liz Carmouche, respectively.
The UFC, it seems, has fallen down the proverbial slippery slope, with Chael Sonnen's title shot against Jon Jones in the light heavyweight division opening the boxing glove-shaped Pandora's Box for others to follow.
Sonnen was given the opportunity to compete for the UFC's marque belt despite losing his last bout in the middleweight division. Many said it was an aberration and was nothing more than a product of Sonnen's rare gift with words—a reward for his tireless work promoting the sport and his memorable bouts with Anderson Silva.
Not so fast.
It's now become clear that it wasn't a unique situation at all. The Sonnen title shot was actually the start of a new way of doing business for the UFC. Nick Diaz—Sonnen-lite—was chosen for his marketing potential, not his athletic performance.
Like "the Gangster from West Linn," Diaz lost his last bout, a five-round decision to Carlos Condit. That, according to White, is no reason for him not to compete for Georges St-Pierre's welterweight title.
It's a baffling decision to anyone who expects athletes to earn their opportunities. For boxing fans used to political wrangling and dollar-driven matchmaking, it's all too familiar.
There is no pretense that can explain White's decision, no excuse to justify it as the right move from a sporting sense. The UFC, quite simply, thinks Diaz and St-Pierre will garner more pay-per-views, and they are probably right. Diaz's bad-boy persona will play nicely against St-Pierre's white-hat act. But does its potential as a blockbuster make it the right decision for a company still fighting for legitimacy as a sport?
Diaz's coronation as title contender came at the expense of the more worthy Johny Hendricks, and he has more than a recent loss to speak against his selection as St-Pierre's next foil. That loss was accompanied by a drug-test failure that put him on the shelf for a year.
With his ascension, as well as the recent buzz that the human science experiment known as Alistair Overeem would also be considered for an immediate title shot after his return from a drug-test failure, the UFC is making it clear that it is wiping the slate clean for PED users.
Identification as a drug sport could be devastating for the UFC's attempts to capture the mainstream. Despite this, the promotion continues to pay mere lip service to stopping the spread of drugs into the sport. Still, all the talk in the world can't overpower action, and the UFC's actions show a complete disregard for fair play and a willingness to reward drug-test failures as if nothing happened at all.
The other big announcement was the selection of Ronda Rousey's opponent at UFC 157. Liz Carmouche got the nod, a decision that left people who follow the women's sport closely shaking their heads.
There's no doubt that Carmouche has shown potential in her two-year career. But there's also no doubt that she is still a very raw product, one who was bounced from the big time after two consecutive losses in Strikeforce.
She's gotten back on track in the fledgling Invicta FC promotion, but those wins came against opponents with a combined record of 8-10-1. The first opponent on Carmouche's comeback path had just a single fight to her credit—in other words, soft touches.
Carmouche will step into the cage against Rousey, but her presence is just incidental. She might as well change her name to "opponent" or "Living Human Meat Sack." She's not there for anything that she's accomplished. She's there because the UFC wants to give Rousey a big win in her debut.
"Right now, it's the Ronda Rousey business," Sargent, who heads up the Unified Women's MMA Rankings, told me in an email exchange. "If she keeps winning, the division will continue on. If she loses, it may end abruptly. Regardless, the UFC's focus is on the women's bantamweight division and that's it...they're serious about promoting female fights as long as they have one big star (Ronda) to put at the forefront, but after that, who knows? As Dana said, this could last one year or many years. Even he doesn't seem to know yet."
There's something untoward about the UFC's single-minded focus on Rousey. Promoting one woman alone isn't an indication that the UFC wants to give all hard-working women fighters an opportunity. It is just the opposite. Every other fighter in the weight class is judged in relation to Rousey and how they can help the effort to break her as a major star. It's not anything resembling sport at all. It's pure spectacle.
Rousey's looks and trash talk should be the "and" in any promotion of her fights. She's an Olympic athlete and looks good in a bathing suit. She's the best submission fighter in the world and is a witty sex symbol.
Unfortunately, it looks like the UFC will take the bonus feature and move it to the forefront. White all but salivates when he discusses Rousey, and her looks will be the angle that they use to try to push her into the mainstream.
"Come see our sexy blonde lady fighter," is the marketing slogan that they won't copy verbatim but will copy in spirit.
And that, more than their gender or skill, will immediately make it hard for many sports fans to take women like Rousey and Carmouche seriously. That is a real shame considering the talent and gumption that makes women's MMA so appealing to fans who have given it a chance.
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