Matt Mitrione's name was in the news for all the wrong reasons earlier this week after Dana White revealed he recently turned down a main event fight against undefeated Strikeforce heavyweight Daniel Cormier. In typical fashion White didn't pull any punches when asked for his thoughts on Mitrione's decision.
"It makes me sick," White said when speaking to reporters after last Saturday's UFC on FUEL TV 5 event in Nottingham, England, "I guess he doesn't want big opportunities. I get it. Duly noted."
Needless to say it likely wasn't a pleasant morning in the Mitrione household when he got word of this public tongue lashing from his boss. White's unreserved vitriol when it comes to fighters turning down fights is nothing new; the astute ear could hear echos of his frustration with Jon Jones after the UFC light heavyweight champion turned down a fight with Chael Sonnen on only eight days notice that would have saved the UFC 151 card from cancellation.
Mitrione gave his side of the situation in an interview with Bloody Elbow's Steph Daniels where he said, "I would love to fight Daniel Cormier, but I'm just not ready right now. He has Olympic level wrestling...Wrestling is, by far, my weakest skill. I'm working hard on my wrestling, but it would be a huge weakness against me in a short notice fight against Cormier."
In cases like this and the infamous Jon Jones fiasco it can be tempting to pick sides. Some fans tend to accept White's statements at face value and echo his disdain for fighters who "duck" big fights whereas others see the perspective of fighters who are unwilling to put themselves at an increased risk in order to do a favor for Zuffa. The schism between these two sides points to a fundamental philosophical question at the heart of Zuffa's business model: is the UFC primarily a sport, or is it primarily a form of entertainment?
Under the UFC's current business model it is impossible for them to remain profitable without drawing the majority of their revenue from pay per view. This puts them in a different category than entrenched mainstream sports leagues like the NFL and MLB. It would seem absurd if Roger Goodell suggested putting the Super Bowl on pay per view along with one game a month, but this is exactly what the UFC does. A ratings juggernaut like the NFL can thrive on television rights fees alone, but a comparatively fringe organization like the UFC has no such luxury. They live and die on their ability to convince fans to open up their wallets and spend $50 for three hours of fighting. It's the stars on top though who drive the lion's share of this business.
This leads to another major difference between the UFC and all other non-combat sports: the top draws aren't necessarily always the best fighters. The UFC's pay per view boom period was put over the top by two cards featuring main event fighters long past their competitive primes. Thanks to a masterful prefight build fans believed a semiretired Royce Gracie had a chance against a then dominant Matt Hughes and that a majorly washed out Ken Shamrock was a match for a slightly washed out Tito Ortiz. Both shows set PPV records for the UFC. Huges/Gracie at UFC 60 did 620,000 buys and UFC 61's Shamrock/Ortiz fight went ahead and smashed that record doing 775,000 buys. Then a couple years later Brock Lesnar - a former pro wrestler with a 3 and 1 record at the time - went on to set what remains the all time pay per view high water mark with a staggering 1,600,000 buys for his heavyweight title fight against heated rival Frank Mir. While to be fair, a co-main event welterweight title fight featuring top draw Georges St-Pierre against Thiago Alves also had more than a little to do with this number, the basic lesson remains intact: star fighters involved in conflicts fans can emotionally invest are what sell fights.
With the UFC's expansion over the past few years, however, its roster of drawing cards is spread increasingly thin. Further exacerbating the problem you have the retirement of pay per view kingpin Brock Lesnar along with an injury epidemic that shows no signs of slowing down. Throw in the ever increasing demand for main events to headline cards on PPV, FOX, FX, FUEL, and the occasional Strikeforce show on Showtime and you begin to get a greater idea of the logistical nightmare facing Dana White and Joe Silva. The UFC only has a finite number of stars but they have an expanding schedule of shows. Elementary arithmetic is all that's needed to understand this is a recipe for trouble. This dearth of name fighters leads to situations like the one Matt Mitrione recently found himself in.
From the UFC's perspective when a main eventer goes down, somebody to step up and save the day. Zuffa have traditionally rewarded fighters who have "done them favors" by accepting fights on short notice before, but for a fighter this can be a risky proposition. Put yourself in Mitrione's shoes for a second and think about what was he was offered: a main event for a moribund brand that pitted him against an undefeated Olympic caliber wrestler who also looks like a beast standing up. Is really so hard to understand why he turned the fight down, especially coming off a loss to Cheik Kongo? After all, a loss against Cormier could conceivably put him one loss away from the magic three losses in a row mark that has spelled the end of many a UFC career over the years. Fighting is how Mitrione makes his living; why should he be expected to risk his livelihood to solve a problem he didn't create?
This then is the delicate Catch 22 that UFC fighters must negotiate: they are highly skilled athletes competing in a very real, very high stakes sport but they are also encouraged at times to take fights they aren't comfortable with in order to keep the UFC's promotional machine running smoothly. Are fighters athletes, entertainers, or both? There aren't any easy answers. At the end of the day the number one priority for most fighters is making money, and given the current landscape of the sport there is nowhere better to do that than the UFC.
From Zuffa's perspective, they need to put on fights people want to see in order to stay in business. To this end they need fighters who are willing to step up and take one for the team when a main eventer goes down with an injury. With the injury epidemic showing no signs of slowing down and Dana White talking about adding even more shows as UFC continues its global expansion, fighters with name recognition who are between fights better get used to being called upon to salvage main events that have been ravaged by injury. Whether or not they have to like it is another issue altogether.