The road to a UFC title shot has become a complex path to navigate these days. The trend of worthy contenders being pushed aside in favor of more marketable matchups doesn't appear to be fading any time soon, and it has created a scenario where several of the sport's biggest names are enjoying the fruits of their labor, while other fighters on the grind are left shaking their heads.
Whether or not you agree with big-draw fighters dropping down or going up in weight and being granted immediate title shots doesn't matter much in the grand scheme.
A big part of the fight business is the entertainment factor, and the more sellable fight will win the majority of the time. It has simply become the way things are.
UFC President Dana White can tell the media that fighter A was the only one who would take the bout or how a champion demanded a certain opponent rather than taking on the fighter who many believed was deservedly next in the line.
Fans can get upset, the media can criticize, but the basic truth of the matter is that White and Co. have a business to run.
Thus far, they've done a passable job of giving us a reason for why these fights are being put together, but if they were to come out and bypass the rhetoric and bluntly say this is the way things are because it's the way we want it to be, then the sport would roll on all the same.
The Blurred Lines Between Earned & Given
It's easy to argue that Johny Hendricks and Ricardo Lamas have earned the right to compete for UFC titles. Both men defeated a collection of top-level competitors in their respective weight classes, and in the process, they appeared to have put themselves on the doorstep of a title shot. Both were ultimately bypassed in favor of more marketable championship fights, leaving fans to question the justice of the matter.
The dangerous aspect of making these types of high-profile matchups is what it could cause for the future contenders involved. Immediately after defeating Martin Kampmann at UFC 154 with a punishing first-round knockout, "Bigg Rigg" stated publicly he would be sitting out until the opportunity to fight Georges St-Pierre presented itself.
The win over "The Hitman" was Hendricks' fifth consecutive victory, and a title shot appeared to be the next logical step.
In light of the announcement of St-Pierre vs. Diaz, Hendricks was upset but ultimately chose to take a fight in the interim against Jake Ellenberger. Should Ellenberger pull off the upset against Hendricks, the former NCAA Division I national champion wrestler's long-awaited title shot will go up in smoke.
Hendricks wants to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt he is the top contender, and his next fight at UFC 158 will be crucial in making that a reality.
On the flip side of this discussion is what it really means to have earned a title shot in the UFC. While there have certainly been cases where a fighter has battled his way up the ranks with the end result being a shot at UFC gold, there have been others where things have gone in a different direction.
When you look at the likes of Chael Sonnen, Nick Diaz, Frankie Edgar and Anthony Pettis being given title shots upon circumstance, it makes sense when you examine the word "earn" in a different light.
With the exception of Pettis on this list, the three other fighters are/were coming off losses when getting their respective opportunities. While that has rubbed some in the MMA community the wrong way, there is no doubting the fact that these fighters have worked to acquire their fanbases.
Whether it is professional wrestling-style promotional pushes, bird-flipping, bad-boy face smashing or showing the caliber of heart that makes every performance worth watching, Sonnen, Diaz and Edgar are fighters people can't wait to see compete.
Personally, I am of the opinion that title shots should never be given off a loss, especially when there are plenty of able-bodied contenders at the ready. In the words of Jon Jones, I believe it "devalues the title" when opportunities are not granted to the next person in line. But then again, I'm only a writer covering this beautiful sport, and whether I agree or not, trudging forward is the only option.
On the other hand, these fighters getting title shots have passionate fanbases which automatically creates a buzz when they are in highly visible situations. It also helps to push easily sold story lines when selling the bouts as well.
Former lightweight champion versus unstoppable pound-for-pound great. Mercurial trash talker versus the future of mixed martial arts. Stockton bad boy finally gets his chance to put his money where his mouth is against one of MMA's most dominant champions. I could go on, but I'm pretty sure you know where I was going with this.
At the end of the day, business is truly what matters in combat sports. The "big fight" will always trump what appears to be the "right fight." And like it or not, it is the way things are.