We all know by now that “the UFC is a business”, which has become a catch-all defense of anything that the organization does which makes very little sense in terms of actual competition. A marketable fighter gets an undeserved title shot? “It’s a business.” Titles put on hold for six months for another yawn-inducing season of The Ultimate Fighter? “It’s a business.” Good fighters get cut while lesser ones stay on the roster? “It’s a business.”
I only hope that any of you UFC apologists who would explain away the most-recent fighter release party with “it’s a business” would humor me as I dare to question which of the 16 releases from yesterday were actually warranted, and to what degree they were. Let’s separate them into categories.
Jon Fitch- Fitch is the Citizen Kane of indefensible roster cuts. He’s still by most accounts a top ten welterweight, and his only two losses in four and a half years were the recent ones to Johny Hendricks and Demian Maia. Even then, he had a dominating win over a great young talent in Erick Silva in between the two losses.
Come on, Man
Che Mills- Mills hasn’t even lost consecutive fights, but here he is getting released, anyway. He won two of his four UFC fights and was exciting in both, and previous to Saturday night’s loss to Matt Riddle, he had only lost to the UFC’s up-and-coming welterweight golden boy, Rory MacDonald. However, Dana White criticized Mills for not putting the pedal to the medal in the closing seconds of his fight with Riddle, saying “if you’re too fucking tired…then go get a [new] job.” Nevermind the fact that similar things happen in every UFC event with at least a couple of eventual losers showing much less desperation than Mills did.
Jacob Volkmann- Volkmann also didn’t lose consecutive fights, and in fact had won five in a row before losing two out of three and getting released. So now, 6-2 in your last eight fights gets you cut? Good to know. As usual, there’s more than meets the eye here, as Volkmann attracted negative attention by criticizing Barack Obama and also didn’t have the most exciting style in the cage, to boot. Still…6-2!
Vladimir Matyushenko- This sturdy old workhorse did everything you asked of him. He fought Jon Jones. He took on Alexander Gustafsson (at nearly 41 years old, no less). His UFC record in his most recent stint? 4-3. Sure, he lost two in a row, but his three losses in his most recent UFC run were against Jon Jones, Gustafsson, and Ryan Bader. Not exactly subpar competition. Perhaps Matyushenko will think about retiring now at 42 years old, anyway, but the UFC could have sent him off with a winnable fight against a non-top ten opponent.
Mike Russow- Russow lost two in a row and was not exactly a “marketable” fighter (that’s a nice way of saying he’s fat), which I only bring up because this is kind of a head-scratching decision on the UFC’s part. Russow won four fights in a row and has been cut after amassing a 4-2 record in the organization.
Jorge Santiago- Santiago is a bit of a sad case. He has long been a borderline top ten fighter (many in the media, including myself, had him ranked in 2010 when he was Sengoku’s middleweight champion), but has never panned out in the UFC. He was cut in 2006 after going 1-2 in the Octagon (his losses- Chris Leben and Alan Belcher), then rattled off nine straight wins. More recently, he was brought onboard and was cut after losing to Brian Stann and Demian Maia- both top ten opponents. The UFC brought him back again after he won two in a row, only to cut him immediately after his loss to Gunnar Nelson. Why bring a guy back if you’re going to cut him after one fight?
Paul Sass- Sass was 3-2 in the UFC, winning three in a row (including a win over Jacob Volkmann and former Ultimate Fighter winner Michael Johnson) before losing consecutive bouts against Matt Wiman and Danny Castillo. He even finished all three of his wins via submission!
Iffy, but ultimately okay
Jay Hieron- Hieron lost both of his fights in his UFC return. While the competition was stiff (Jake Ellenberger and Tyron Woodley), this has become consistent UFC policy in recent years: get brought in, lose your first two, get cut.
Simeon Thoresen- Thoresen won his first UFC bout against Besam Yousef before losing against Seth Baczynski and David Mitchell. Ultimately, he’s a lower tier guy and those are fights you have to win to stay on the roster, although I would have liked to see another fight before having him get cut.
Terry Etim- Etim has lost three out of four, which is why I’m ultimately okay with this. Still, he won four in a row before his recent troubles, and one of those losses was to Edson Barboza. Still, I get it, you can’t lose three out of four. Fine.
Wagner Prado- Prado’s 0-2 (1 no contest) record in the UFC wasn’t getting it done, particularly when he was finished in both of his losses.
Mike Stumpf- 0-2 in his UFC career, including a submission loss to TJ Waldburger. Again, it’s a little short of a leash for my taste, but that’s how the UFC does things now.
CJ Keith- Lost both of his UFC fights, and was finished in each of them. Didn’t give a great impression of himself, but is young and could get another shot in the future.
Josh Grispi- Grispi lost all four of his UFC fights after a solid run in the Zuffa-run WEC. He went from a scheduled title fight with Jose Aldo to cut from the UFC in two years. Is he good enough talent-wise to be on the roster? Sure, but you can’t lose four in a row, regardless (unless you “WAR!!!”). He’s 24, he’ll be back.
Motonobu Tezuka- Lost both of his UFC fights, another young guy who just may not have been ready.
Ulysses Gomez- Lost both of his UFC fights, including a first-round KO loss to John Moraga.
So, there you have it: only nine of the 16 cuts were really warranted. Even then, I still mostly disagree with the UFC’s recent tendency to cut fighters after just two losses in a row. They’ve done this regardless of the quality of the fighter’s performances, the level of his opponents, or extenuating circumstances, such as shady judges’ decisions. Now, they’re generally good at giving guys another shot after they’ve won a couple of fights outside of the organization, but that’s still a very small margin of error.
The Fitch cut sends a particularly negative message: that regardless of your ability level, if you don’t “play ball” with the UFC, you’ll be gone. Even while Fitch was a UFC fighter, he didn’t really receive great treatment- who else had to win eight fights in a row to get a single title shot?
The real reasons for Fitch’s release had nothing to do with his win-loss record, and anyone with an inkling of critical thinking ability can sort that out for themselves. He had multiple disagreements with Dana White over everything from ancillary rights (he didn’t want to give the UFC permanent rights to use him in their video games) to fighting guys from his own camp (he became the avatar of White’s long-standing problem with fighters refusing to fight teammates, as he did when both he and Josh Koscheck were near the top of the rankings). Furthermore, White never cared for Fitch’s methodical, wrestling-based fighting style.
Whenever this stuff comes up, I can’t help but point out that it’s not good for the credibility of a sport to hold back the best competitors over reasons that have nothing to do with actual performance. That criticism still holds true. Tell me it’s a business all you want, and we all know that yes, that’s true, but part of being a legitimate sport is that you make sure that competition comes first and business comes second. For now, we have yet another cautionary tale for fighters in a world where the UFC is almost the only game in town: don’t cross the boss, or even 14 UFC wins won’t keep your job secure.