Not that long ago, the notion of a top-tier UFC fighter coming to the expiration of his contract was a silly one.
Fighters didn't have much choice in the matter. After the death of PRIDE and then Strikeforce, the UFC had no competition. There was no place for a fighter dissatisfied with his UFC tenure to go. Athletes mostly sucked it up and kept hoping for a breakthrough that would help catapult them into the land of riches and gold.
Times have changed. Fighters have seen that Scott Coker happens to be growing some mighty green grass over in Bellator, and it has given them options. They don't think you are paid highly enough? Unhappy when you're bypassed by lesser talents with bigger mouths? Fine. Fight out your contract, gamble on yourself and see where the chips fall. Do what Rory MacDonald and Ryan Bader and other former UFC stars have done.
You could win big. But you might lose big too.
Cub Swanson is the latest to allow himself to see the expiration of a UFC contract. Having negotiated with the UFC brass over the past six months, Swanson was unhappy with the offers being pushed across the table. And when the UFC opted to give Frankie Edgar a title shot over Swanson (likely because of Swanson's refusal to sign a new contract), Swanson took the road less traveled.
Who could blame him? Swanson is 10-2 since 2012 and has long since become more than just the guy being double-kneed in the face in that World Extreme Cagefighting highlight.
Swanson went into his UFC Fight Night 123 bout against Brian Ortega with a gamble; with a big win, he would enter the free-agent market on a high, with multiple suitors likely attempting to wrest him away from the UFC.
Swanson dominated him on the feet, peppering Ortega with gorgeous hooks to the body and powerful blows to the head. But Ortega discovered Swanson's weakness at the end of the first round, nearly submitting Swanson with a D'Arce choke.
Slow-motion replays of the moment showed a clearly panicked Swanson, his eyes bulging, looking frantically for the arena clock above his head to see whether he had enough time to hold on and escape the round. He did.
But once Ortega grabbed him in the second round, pressing Swanson up against the cage, it was as good as over. T-City deftly wrapped Swanson in a guillotine, used his legs to press off the cage and hung off his opponent's frame, applying ungodly pressure to his neck.
When Swanson tried to escape, Ortega quickly adjusted his grip to make it tighter—all without dropping from his position, hanging on Swanson's body. With that adjustment, it was over; Swanson quickly tapped.
With the submission loss, Swanson loses an entire world of opportunity that was ripe for the taking. Bellator may still be interested in securing his services, but it will be at a far lower pay scale than it would have been had he won. And the UFC? Well, one can imagine Sean Shelby smugly grinning, at least internally; Swanson gave up his place in the driver's seat.
If Swanson wants to stick around the UFC, he will have to do so on the UFC's terms. And those terms are surely going to be far lower than the offers Swanson has already turned down.
This is another thing that separates mixed martial arts from every other sport. In other sports, athletes have entire seasons to make their contract-year statement. Fortunes are not usually decided in an instant. But that's the way it goes in combat sports.
The advent of true mixed martial arts free agency is a great thing and a boon for the sport, its athletes and its fans. But it also leads to the sort of high-pressure, high-stakes scenario Swanson faced Saturday night. You can put your money where your mouth is and try to prove you are worth what you believe. More power to you; it is your right to do so.
But if that's the route you take, you should understand that everything can backfire in the blink of an eye. And then, if you're lucky, you will end up back where you started. But more likely, you will find yourself on a hill, trying to figure out a way just to get back to where you were before your big gamble failed to pay off.