In case you haven't seen or heard yet, the UFC has released Top Five middleweight mainstay Yushin Okami. He was released from the UFC with a 13-5 record and has gone 3-1 over his last four fights. He owns wins over Mark Munoz, Mike Swick, Nate Marquardt, Alan Belcher and Hector Lombard.
All those fighters, by the way, are still with the promotion.
The Japanese veteran never talked smack. He was never in any sort of public feud with the promotion or another fighter. All he did was show up, fight and (much more often than not) win.
Winning, though, means very little in today's UFC.
There has always been a deep divide among MMA fans, in no small part thanks to the UFC's own marketing in its infancy. Forever torn between sport and blood sport, the UFC continues to struggle against itself in its quest for mainstream legitimacy.
On one hand, supreme athletes are flooding into a sport that, just a decade ago, was illegal in a huge portion of the United States. Fans see Ronda Rousey, Satoshi Ishii and Henry Cejudo leaving the Olympic Games behind them, tirelessly working not for a medal but for a belt. Even well-known boxers like Mike Tyson and Roy Jones Jr., previously arch-enemies of the MMA world, have started actively attaching themselves to mixed martial arts as a way to build their brands.
The other hand, though, is an unrepentant refusal to subscribe to the tenets of every other sport, ever.
While the NFL has "just win, baby," the UFC has "just bleed." This concept—that the fighters in the cage are objects that fans pay to see broken, rather than people in an athletic competition—persists to this day.
Though the mantra came from a random eccentric fan in 1997, the image of a future convict clutching a Bud Light while showing off an imaginary intensity the college educated can only dream of has become the avatar for a major portion of the UFC's fanbase. Unfortunately, Zuffa has continually pandered to that demographic, consistently showing favor to fighters who wind up in bloodbaths rather than those who step into the cage and win.
There is no way to draw a comparison with another sport and have it sound anything but ludicrous. The NFL doesn't seed the playoffs based on who ran the ball the fewest times. The World Series isn't a matchup between the two teams that have hit the most home runs. A slam dunk is worth as many points as a layup.
However, the UFC just doesn't seem to grasp the concept that "you play to win the game."
Yushin Okami, by and large, is a winner and has demonstrated that opposite numerous contenders over the years. When pressed as to why the UFC would cut the line on a fighter who has so consistently found success against top competition, UFC president Dana White responded with the following:
Talking with Yahoo! Sports' Kevin Iole, White elaborated further:
He was always a tough guy and was right up there, but it's almost like he'd become a gatekeeper...But he was never able to get over the hump and win one of those [significant] fights. We have a lot of guys coming in and I've been saying this all year: We have a full roster and there are guys who deserve opportunities.
Obviously, this simply doesn't pass the sniff test. "Gatekeepers" are many in the fight world. The UFC is loaded with them and isn't above putting them in main events (Wanderlei Silva vs. Brian Stann being a perfect example).
This also doesn't take into account that Okami was riding a three-fight winning streak that came at the expense of still-on-the-payroll fighters Hector Lombard, Buddy Roberts and Alan Belcher, none of whom has a present or future as bright as Okami.
That, though, gives too much credit to White's argument.
Okami is not the first Top 10 fighter to be released by the UFC. The axing of fellow grinder Jon Fitch earlier this year showed that contenders whose style doesn't mesh well with fans will get cut at the first opportunity.
The UFC career of Leonard Garcia (who was one competent judge short of an 0-6 record with the promotion) lingered far too long because he wasn't one of those "guys that love to do that push-against-the-cage s--- all night," according to White, via MMAJunkie.com.
It is this sort of shallowness that works against MMA in the already-uphill battle to be recognized as an equal to hockey, soccer or any other enduring sport that has been taken seriously on a global scale. Worst of all, it continues to undermine the livelihood of fighters.
Ultimately, though, it isn't about the sport, and it isn't about the fighters. It's about entertainment.
So if you're in the UFC and want to keep a roof over your head and food on the table, you know what you have to do. Just get in the cage, and just bleed. It's more important than winning.
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