The fight game can be an unforgiving creature.
Athletes losing their jobs is simply part of the process, and with new talent emerging and with competitors failing to fend off the rising tide, there will be those fighters who are pushed aside as the machine moves on. Surely it can be a difficult thing to swallow, and the cliche of "it's business; not personal" does little to soften the blow. But promotions releasing fighters from their rosters is a stone cold aspect of the fight game that will never change.
In mixed martial arts, there has always been a natural "weeding out" process inside the cage. When a fighter fails to perform up to the standards which landed them the position in the first place, the shadow of a hovering axe looms overhead. The saying "you are only as good as your last fight" gets tossed around in MMA with the frequency of 4 oz. leather, and while the phrase is overused, it doesn't mean the words do not ring true. That being said, some times those lines become blurred, and what constitutes a "good fight" is not easily determined.
With the UFC's recent string of cuts and with President Dana White telling the media in Anaheim that there is still more blood to be spilled, the sport's biggest promotion sent a message to the fighters on their roster. The biggest question lingering is exactly what that message is and what implications it will have on how fighters approach their bouts in the future.
UFC Proving to Be No Fan of the Grind
It is common practice for the UFC to trim their roster in the aftermath of events. But when the news hit earlier this week that former No. 1 welterweight contender Jon Fitch had been released, it kicked up dust in all corners of the MMA community.
Following Thursday's press conference for UFC 157, White addressed the situation surrounding Fitch's release from the company. Whether you agree with White's reasoning or buy in to the idea that the AKA staple is an expensive fighter on the decline, it doesn't change the fact that White and Co. saw the 34-year-old as expendable.
White was quick to dismiss the notion that Fitch had been released for anything other than performance, but nevertheless, the additional details he offered and the tidbits of information he laid out this week surrounding other fighters and their respective styles, may provide the best "tell" in the situation at hand.
Fitch's fighting style has never been one that fans have clamored over. The former Purdue University wrestling standout has found success inside the Octagon working behind a grinding, wrestling-heavy attack. It was an effective approach that resulted in Fitch earning one of the highest winning percentages in UFC welterweight history, but one that created a stigma of sorts that hovered over him at all times.
The point at hand becomes stronger when you consider White's recent comments concerning Clay Guida. Where "The Carpenter" was once one of the most beloved fighters on the roster, the Chicago-native's most recent showings appear to have put him out of favor with the UFC boss. Following an awful showing against Gray Maynard in Atlantic City that saw Guida refuse to engage for the entirety of the five round affair and a "lay and pray" performance against Hatsu Hioki at UFC on Fox 6, one of the UFC's most fan-friendly fighters now finds himself lingering somewhere in the cold distance.
At the post-fight press conference following his loss to Maynard, the Jackson/Winkeljohn-trained fighter attempted to explain his change in approach. Guida said he was tired of getting beaten up for the sake of exciting fights and refused to stand in front of the powerful lightweight for the sake of an entertaining scrap. Instead, Guida attempted to work a game plan his team believed would improve his chances of winning. While that approach played out to terrible reviews, can we really blame Guida for not wanting to eat bombs from "The Bully?"
But therein lies the problem of perception. The blurred lines between the entertainment business and the authenticity of sports as a whole become an issue when simply winning isn't enough. Guida lost the fight with Maynard and ultimately won his tilt with Hioki, but watching the 31-year-old sit awkwardly at the end of the dais at the post-fight presser told the bigger story. Where he could once do no wrong, Guida has now put himself under the microscope.
Whether you call it the "hot seat" or an unfavorable position, White questioning what happened to the way you used to fight is never a good thing.
The UFC boss also mentioned this week that Matt Riddle "used to be exciting," before giving a tepid review of the takedown-heavy approach he's taken as of late. But what is a middle-tier welterweight to do? Winning is the only means to guarantee continued employment, but winning "ugly" raises the ire of the man holding the axe.
Big Name Fighters On the Chopping Block?
In the fight business, a high profile and a strong connection to the promotional fan base is typically enough to keep the all mighty pink slip out of your general area. This may no longer be the case in the UFC.
During White's media scrum where he addressed the Fitch situation, the UFC head honcho also mentioned Urijah Faber as another fighter who could be coming to the end of the road. With Faber's current contender status in the bantamweight division and his history of being the poster boy for the lighter weight classes, the news of a possible cut this weekend was surprising. But if you take what White said about Fitch being an expensive fighter on the downside of his career at face value, the former WEC featherweight champion's potential release could fit the new mold.
While Fitch's release may have been shocking in the moment, the idea of the UFC cutting high profile fighters on a skid, could be the biggest news of all. When you look at the recent turn of events for some of the UFC's most recognizable stars, it brings plenty of questions and pressure into their foreseeable futures.
White explained that Fitch had gone from being the No. 1 contender to ranked ninth in the rankings and former light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans appears to be on a similar trajectory. After losing to champion Jon Jones at UFC 145 and a dreadful showing against Antonio Rogerio Nogueira at UFC 156, "Suga" has fallen to the back in the heated race for contention in the 205-pound weight class. Much like Faber, the former TUF winner has the talent to always be one or two fights away from another shot at the title, but if Evans can't find a way to stop his current backslide, it is hard to imagine the UFC shelling out top dollar to put Evans on a preliminary card.
It is premature to think fighters who carry a profile the likes of Evans and Faber will be cut from the fold in a hasty fashion, but it could certainly be a turn the UFC takes in the near future. White stated there were still a 100 more cuts to make with a full schedule of events on the docket over the next several months. It should come as no surprise if those cuts come in bulk and a few big names are pared from the roster.