In mixed martial arts, the saying "anything can happen" has become cliche, but that doesn't change the fact that it is a completely accurate statement. Upsets happen. Game plans fail. Fights change direction in one punch. Momentum can shift early, often, or not at all.
The unpredictable nature of the sport is what makes the fight game so exciting. No matter how clear cut things may look on paper, once the leather starts flying, talent and skill dance with uncertainty and circumstance. Every time a fighter enters the cage the risk of defeat hangs in the balance. That being said, it is ultimately their hunger for victory that drives them towards success.
But what happens when the inherent risks of the fight on the table don't measure up to the rewards that come with a victory? As much as fighting is a sport born out of primal competitive instincts, it is also a business, and when the potential gains for both parties are uneven, complex issues arise.
Make no mistake about it—winning is what matters most, but when a fighter with everything to gain and nothing to lose steps in with another competitor facing the complete opposite circumstances, the chances of cliches coming to life become an entirely different monster.
While these situations are rare, they do arise from time to time, and create interesting scenarios in the process. In recent instances, how the fighters involved have faced the scenario has created a chaotic dialogue throughout the sport.
Whether or not a champion should be willing to step in against whoever the promotion places in front of him is a solid topic to debate, but at the end of the day, for as much as the sport is based on entertainment, it is equal parts business.
Staying the Course No Matter the Circumstance
When it comes to the topic at hand, few fighters understand it better than Strikeforce lightweight champion Gilbert Melendez. For the past three years "El Nino" has been recognized as one of the best 155-pound fighters in the world. It is a position Melendez has taken pride in holding and has done everything in his power to push towards claiming the top spot.
With the majority of top competition residing under the UFC banner, it was always going to be an uphill climb for the California native. This never stopped Melendez from working towards his goal, and he battled onward looking for respect and recognition.
For awhile the situation made sense. The Skrap Pack fighter reclaimed the lightweight crown by defeating Josh Thomson in one of the best throw downs to ever take place under the promotion's banner, and followed up that performance by battering Shinya Aoki in his next outing. The 30-year old kept the momentum rolling by thrashing Tatsuya Kawajiri for his fifth consecutive victory. Things appeared to be firing on all cylinders for Melendez, but following his win over "The Crusher," his title reign took an awkward turn as the list of potential contenders ran thin.
As his focus was locked on the bigger picture, the reality of the situation came front and center when the organization he championed failed to bring big name fighters into the fold. Frustrated but undeterred, Melendez carried on and stepped in with whoever Strikeforce saw fit to contest his title.
When he fought Jorge Masvidal in San Diego, Melendez found himself in a scenario short on upside. For a champion considered to be among the top 3 lightweights in the sport to defend his title against an opponent outside of the Top 25 is a unique situation. It was a fight Melendez was supposed to win, which he ultimately accomplished by unanimous decision. But had the Team Cesar Gracie fighter lost, his standing as one of the world's best would have fallen by the wayside. The only thing Melendez gained by defeating Masvidal was a successful title defense on his record and a paycheck to put in the bank. While money is no doubt the primary motivator in the fight game, a loss would have served to cost him potentially bigger paydays in the future.
It was a similar situation in his next defense against Thomson. While a trilogy bout between the champion and former belt holder made sense, little else about the matchup added up. "The Punk" was coming off an uninspired victory over K.J. Noons after dropping a unanimous decision against Kawijiri in Japan. Once again Melendez found himself in a position short of rewards. On the other hand, in Thomson's case, defeating Melendez in a rubber match would benefit him greatly. The AKA-trained fighter nearly made it a reality but was ultimately edged out in a razor-thin split-decision defeat.
While Melendez was happy to walk out of the cage with the victory, he was quick to admit his performance left much to be desired. The champion discussed the situation in a recent interview with Bleacher Report.
"It's true I wasn't super motivated for my past few fights and it showed in the cage," Melendez said. "I wasn't happy with my performance but I'm happy I got the W. When things are handled a certain way you get a certain type of performance. But when the opportunity is right; you get the best I have to give."
With Strikeforce officially closing its doors and Melendez holding onto his top status, the future is set to yield positive results. While it is yet to be determined whether or not he will get an immediate shot at Benson Henderson's UFC crown, Melendez will certainly enter the UFC fold in the upper-tier of the competitive 155-pound weight class.
The Eddie Alvarez Paradox & the Rise of a Young Champion
The depth of the organization in which a fighter competes largely factors into whether or not the "high risk/low reward" ever comes to fruition. In the case of former Bellator champion Eddie Alvarez, it wasn't so much a case of overall talent, just the talent of a particular fighter who emerged from the organization's signature tournament format.
Few critics gave former Missouri wrestling standout Michael Chandler Jr. much of a chance when he entered Bellator's Season Four lightweight tournament. It was the deepest field the promotion had ever assembled at 155-pounds as a collection of seasoned veterans lined the brackets. Chandler ultimately ran the gauntlet in impressive fashion to earn a shot at Alvarez's title.
Much like Melendez, the Philadelphia based fighter is widely considered to be one of the best lightweight fighters competing outside of the UFC. That being the case, going into a fight against an unranked opponent the likes of Chandler, presented a strange and dangerous scenario. By all indications, their bout at Bellator 58, was a fight Alvarez was figured to win. But when the underdog challenger sunk in a rear naked choke to finish the fight in the fourth round, the nightmare became a reality for Alvarez.
While the action-packed scrap garnered acclaim for being the "Fight of the Year," the cold, stark truth is that Alvarez was defeated by a prospect with a quarter of the cage experience. Overnight, Alvarez watched his stock and recognition as one of the world's best flip upside down. Due to the brutal and fan-friendly nature of the fight, the amount of damage in the aftermath was slightly lessened, but the buzz surrounding Alvarez suffered.
It was exactly the opposite for Chandler. In the weeks leading up to their title fight, the 26-year old was vocal about his motivation for entering the tournament in the first place. He clearly understood the benefits that would come by not only winning the tournament, but getting a chance to compete against a fighter with the name recognition and standing that Alvarez possessed. It was a plan of action which paid off in a big way, and following his victory over Alvarez, Chandler's name suddenly appeared in the major ranking systems throughout MMA.
"It was pretty much all laid out for me," Chandler told Bleacher Report. "It was cool knowing the road ahead. I knew from the start I would get two fights and if I won those, I would get into the tournament. I would get three fights there and if I won those I earned an opportunity to fight for the belt. If I won that I was the champion. I knew the entire road ahead of me. I had my eye on that belt and fighting Alvarez every step of the way.
"I was young and unknown. I was kind of prospect but no really because not a ton of people knew about me. At that time I was only two years into the sport and was more focused on becoming a better mixed martial artist. Going into the fight with Eddie, I had six months to prepare for it. I had a good game plan going in and it worked out. Good things happen to good people.
"It was pretty crazy," Chandler added. "That fight took me from being a prospect into the Top 10. Now the job is to keep fighting my way up."
In the year that followed, Alvarez picked up two solid wins and was able to set about repairing the damage done after the loss to Chandler. That being said, had Alvarez bested the young prospect in their meeting, his stock would have been much higher heading into his current contract negotiation.
There is no doubt Alvarez is one of the most talented lightweight fighters on the planet but losing that fight with Chandler came with a cost.
The Future of This Strange Beast
As I stated above—fighting is a business. There are a lot of moving parts in the machine and sometimes a fighter is faced with unfavorable circumstances. Much like Melendez and Alvarez had to battle this adversity, this weekend in Strikeforce's final event Daniel Cormier and Nate Marquardt will face high risk bouts in their own right.
While these scenarios seem to play out in other organizations, the sport's most prominent promotion isn't immune to this strange animal arising in its ranks as well. This past summer, light heavyweight phenom Jon Jones came face to face with the circumstance when his original opponent Dan Henderson dropped out due to injury and the "Gangster from West Linn" Chael Sonnen attempted to step up to fill the void. Despite heavy criticism from UFC President Dana White, Jones opted not to accept the bout and a drastic turn of events followed.
Critics chimed in all over the MMA landscape to chip away at Jones's decision, but at the end of the day, the champion didn't feel the risk met the reward.
It is a slippery slope to travel by all means and it will be interesting to see how other fighters deal with this situation in the future.
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained first hand unless noted otherwise
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