There is an argument floating around that the UFC's decision to cut top 10 middleweight Yushin Okami is one not based on any notion of merit. While I am sympathetic to the sentiment and do not wish to see Okami go, I would challenge the argument the UFC doesn't operate in a meritocracy. Well, a sort-of, bizarre meritocracy.
Okami's supporters point to his list of achievements and accolades as evidence that his removal is unjustified. They note he was 3-1 in his last four fights, once marketed at 'the best fighter ever to come out of Japan', the record holder for the most number of UFC middleweight wins and more. Okami also once fought for a title and while he lost, found a way to get back on the winning streak against respected competitors.
All of these arguments are true, of course. They're also only part of the larger way in which fighters are evaluated, measured and valued.
In defending his company's decision, UFC President Dana White described Okami to Yahoo Sports as 'a gatekeeper', which is semi-debatable, but beside the point. What, precisely, is wrong with being a gatekeeper? Gatekeepers aren't world beaters by definition, but they are valuable and serve a real purpose. What's more, haven't any number of other fighters occupied that role in all of the UFC's divisions now and previously? And what spaces are Dan Hardy, Josh Koscheck and Chris Leben occupying in their respective divisions that makes their inclusion warranted?
The answer is that none of them pose all of the issues Okami did for UFC management. The Japanese middleweight is still very good, but is often viewed as 'boring' by a large swathe of the UFC fan base. He isn't old exactly, but he's no longer in his youth. He also isn't as expensive as others, but without a loyal fan following or exciting style, his price tag becomes relatively hefty.
In other words, it's easy to attack the decision to release Okami by pointing to what he accomplished in the cage. But like it or not, that is merely one factor among many others - the 'others' largely being related to how well the fighter serves the larger business' interests - that can be hugely influential in making or breaking a fighter's career.
There's also another issue to consider here beyond the mostly obvious idea fighters have to move the financial needle. The reality of the UFC experience isn't merely the set of criteria you're judged by. It's also a function of inertia. In the UFC, you're either coming or going, rising or falling. Everyone's interested in the upside of things, but there's some tolerance to the downside. Okami's crime is that he was in stasis. An elite fighter, yes, but one who wasn't moving one direction or the other. He was trying to hold position. In this game, either you move or the UFC will take care of that for you.
One may wonder about fighters who have seemingly overstayed their welcome while Okami gets cut short. Rich Franklin certainly comes to mind. But he's managed to endure for a couple of reasons. For starters, he's tight with UFC brass and has bailed them out in a number of bad spots. Releasing him wouldn't be so easy. Second, he's at least tried several paths of reinvention. If he's not champion, he's gunning for a title shot. If that doesn't work, he's changing weight classes. If that runs its course, he's changing weight classes again, creating a fresh new set of match-ups. Randy Couture did the same thing (albeit winning titles the entire time, nearly). Frankie Edgar has done something similar. Okami, however, never seemed interested in weight class makeovers.
It's not all bad news for 'Thunder' (although none of it is great). It's weird to say he can work his way back to the UFC given how massively he outclasses every other middleweight not in the UFC, but a few wins might be enough to get back. Okami isn't a huge draw in Japan, but would be valuable for the UFC to have if they return to the country. And as aforementioned, wherever he ends up next, it's pretty safe to assume he'll be able to bludgeon just about anyone put in front of him.
So, what's the key takeaway fighters, fans and interested observers should have in this post-Jon Fitch, post-Yushin Okami UFC? Get ready. Because more is coming. If not eminently, then eventually.
Most of the onus to save a fighter regrettably falls almost entirely on them. If you're a fighter, do not think your relative in-competition accomplishments are enough to keep your head above water. If you're a fan of a particular athlete, do everything you can to let it be known.
Whether we like it or not, this is the UFC's ball game. It's their rules. And what they're telling us is doing enough in the Octagon to hold a spot is not enough. You need to be coming, going, rising or falling because you're trying and taking chances. UFC is interested in risk takers and reinventors almost as much as it is winners.
It's a bitter pill to swallow, but in actuality, the cost to cutting Okami is low even if it angers a key portion of MMA's hardcore fan base or the more sporting traditionalists among us. While UFC can't cut a portion of their elite talent en masse, UFC can not only cut Okami and legitimately claim to have the best fighters in the world, they also still have the best middleweight division. Losing Okami hurts, but doesn't undercut the larger product or messaging.
Welcome to the new fight game, where the game is about much more than merely fighting.