"I guess they had heard I'd already been cut," Duffee said. "That was the first I'd heard of it."
At first, he thought it was a joke. He'd suffered the first loss of his career at UFC 114 in May. Now it was early September. He felt sure these were just rumors, idle locker room gossip. Then he heard from his manager that the rumors were true, and that the UFC was releasing him from his contract.
"I thought it was a joke at first," he said. "I mean, they're not cutting me off one loss. They don't do that. It didn't make sense to me."
It didn't make sense to a lot of people, but there it was. Duffee, a 6-1 heavyweight who seemed destined for a big future after knocking out Tim Hague in seven seconds in his UFC debut, was cut from the UFC more than three months after losing the first fight of his career. He'd been dominating every second of the bout against Mike Russow at UFC 114, but a single punch slipped through and changed the course of his entire career.
In a subsequent interview with MMA Fighting's Ariel Helwani, UFC president Dana White would blame Duffee's "horrible attitude" for the move, saying, "Todd Duffee to me doesn't seem like he wants to be in the UFC. He doesn't like being in the UFC."
Duffee's release was remarkable not just because it was sudden, but because it didn't follow the usual formula that the UFC employs. Most guys don't get cut after one loss. Depending on how long they've been with the UFC and what kind of performances they've produced, it normally takes two or three losses in a row before they're shown the door.
But for the newer fighters on the roster, the guys who have yet to solidify their standing, the threat of being cut is never far from their minds. They do the math in their heads, tallying up wins and losses, decisions and finishes, and they know when the axe is about to come down.
That's how it was for John Gunderson. After losing a unanimous decision to Yves Edwards on the preliminary card at UFC Fight Night 22 on September 15, he got his walking papers from the UFC.
"I expected it, I did," said Gunderson, who went 1-2 in the Octagon with every fight going to a decision. "Realistically, the UFC is trying to be mainstream and be seen as the best sport in the world, so they expect a certain level out of you. If you go in there and you give it your all, the UFC is not going to cut you. But if you don't, they're going to cut you. That's business. The UFC only wants to put out the best. I understand where they're coming from."
And yet, it's a hard reality for many fighters to live with. The UFC wants them to put on exciting performances, which necessarily involves taking some risks in each fight. But if they lose, they take a step toward unemployment. Then they have to choose between taking the same risks again and hoping for a better outcome – or at least a loss that is sufficiently spectacular – or else play it safe and pray that merely winning at all costs will be enough to keep the paychecks coming.
Edwards, the man who beat Gunderson and sent him packing, knows what that's all about. In his thirteen-year career he's been in and out of the UFC and is as familiar as anyone with the pressures to perform.
"I guess that's just the reality of the situation," Edwards said. "You can't think about that going into fights, though. If you do, then you fight just trying to win. For me anyway, I can't fight if I'm just trying to win. I just have to relax, be loose, and fight my fight. I think there's probably a lot of guys like that. But it's a lot of pressure."
Before his Fight Night appearance against Gunderson, Edwards' last time in the Octagon was in 2006. He lost via a cut stoppage against Joe Stevenson, then spent the next four years scraping together a living in organizations like EliteXC, Bodog, Strikeforce, MFC, and Bellator. He fought everywhere from St. Petersburg, Russia to Worcester, Massachusetts.
When he got the call to rejoin the UFC, he saw it as his chance to take another run at being the world's best lightweight. But being a veteran of the sport, he knew his first fight back could be his last if he didn't get the win and perform up to expectations.
"I've heard people say, 'You don't have a real job?' But it doesn't get much realer than this," Edwards said. "You lose a fight and you could be out of a job. It's tough."
In a way, the fact that someone as prolific as Edwards has been in and out and back in again is somewhat comforting to the younger guys who have been recently let go. As Duffee put it, "Guys like Yves Edwards have been cut, you know? There are some serious pioneers in this sport who have been cut by the UFC."
But at the same time it's hard not to wonder how the UFC's short fuse affects the young fighters who are still building their name and their skills when they sign a contract that could be pulled out from under them with a single defeat. Even Efrain Escudero, an "Ultimate Fighter" winner with a 3-2 record in the UFC, got cut after missing weight and then losing via submission against Charles Oliveira.
The way Duffee explains it, it's a reality that the fighters live with and discuss openly among each other.
"Guys have that conversation all the time. Everybody knows when you're up for a cut fight. It's not a secret; it's pretty obvious. When you get matched up with a certain guy, it's pretty clear that if you lose you're getting cut. You'll hear guys say to each other, 'Oh, you got so-and-so? Don't lose that fight. That's your cut fight.'"
As for Duffee, he's not entirely sure what he wants to do now. He's reluctant to enter a long-term contract with any other organization, and yet he wants to fight as much as possible in the coming year.
Perhaps the hardest part, he said, are those awkward conversations with strangers on airplanes or at parties. At some point, it's inevitable that someone will ask him what he does for a living. That's when he has to tell people that he used to be a UFC fighter.
"I'm back to where it's kind of hard to admit that I'm a fighter. When I finally made it into the UFC, all the people who thought I was stupid for pursuing this sort of shut up about it. You could tell people, 'I'm in the UFC.' Now I'm back to where I don't really want to tell people what I do."
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