You couldn’t blame World Series of Fighting if it felt a little beat up right now.
Frustrations appeared to be on the rise at the upstart MMA promotion last week, after welterweight champion Rousimar Palhares pulled out of a scheduled title defense against Jon Fitch in order to take care of his ailing mother.
Jake Shields replaced Palhares—a move that allowed WSOF to maintain a respectable co-main event for its July 5 show—but the 34-year-old Brazilian wild man will be missed.
Even if his excuse was a good one, Palhares’ withdrawal scuttled plans for what was shaping up as the company’s first must-see bout. It also came amid a three-month stretch where the organization lost both Anthony Johnson and Andrei Arlovski to UFC returns and squabbled with Josh Burkman after the 170-pound contender took to Twitter to ask for his release.
I can't work on going anywhere else unless #WSOF releases me. If so, we will start fresh somewhere else...— Joshua Burkman (@JoshBurkman) April 3, 2014
In the wake of all this public boat-rocking, WSOF vice president and matchmaker Ali Abdel-Aziz told the media he’s getting fed up with fighters taking advantage of his promotion’s unique place in the MMA industry.
"We're getting screwed," Abdel-Aziz said last week, via MMA Fighting’s Ariel Helwani. "I'm trying to put on a fight card and be nice to fighters, and now they don't want to fight each other. I have to put WSOF first and everyone else second. No more Mr. Nice Guy."
All threats aside, it’s easy to feel WSOF’s pain here. The company currently occupies a high profile but perhaps unenviable position in our sport: It’s big enough to attract well-known fighters but still small enough that few of them want to make it their full-time home.
Instead, elite-level fighters appear to treat WSOF like an airport layover. They want to get in, get a couple of wins under their belt and vault back into the Octagon, where they believe they belong.
Such is the reality of being a mid-major MMA promotion in 2014, especially one that maintains a friendly relationship with the UFC and has historically seemed to take pains not to cast itself as competition.
Recently, though, there have been signs that perhaps WSOF has higher aspirations, with Abdel-Aziz telling MMA Junkie’s John Morgan: “We try to be the best MMA promotion in the world. We cannot do that with fighters turning down fights.”
The organization wished both Arlovski and Johnson well in their future endeavors when they moved back to the UFC, but it will surely be difficult for WSOF to make many long-term plans if fighters and fans view it as little more than a pit stop on the path back to the big time.
“I don’t want people to get the misconception that we’re just going to release everybody to the UFC,” Abdel-Aziz recently told Morgan. “I believe fighters are trying to take safe fights, run their contract out and try to get released to the UFC. If fighters are going to act this way, I can’t put on any good fights for the fans.”
It’s a tough spot, and the real question may be what WSOF can do about it. Since the fall of Pride in 2007, the UFC has taken the mantle as our sport’s only real destination employer. Fighters who land at WSOF are probably legitimately pleased to be there, but most of them likely think of themselves as just passing through.
It’s possible WSOF has a choice to make here. If it is content to go on being the second- or third-best MMA organization in the world, then it likely has to get used to fighters treating it like a taxi ride back to the top. On the other hand, if it truly wants to be regarded as a contender to the UFC’s throne, maintaining a friendly relationship with Zuffa brass may prove impossible.
It can be one or the other, but probably not both.