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The UFC’s battle between sport, entertainment and business

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The last minute creation of a 145-pound women’s title, and who is in the first title match, may be able to be justified short term, but seeing where the road is headed is something UFC needs to look at.

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Remember when Dana White used to say that they studied boxing, saw what boxing did wrong, and made sure not to repeat those mistakes?

Well, here we are a few years later. The boxing of my youth was all about the championships. There were eight of them then, and most sports fans could name at least three or four off the top of their head, and nearly everyone, sports fan or not, could tell you who the heavyweight champion was. Championship fights were a big deal, and heavyweight championship fights were sometimes so big that it felt like the world stood still when they were taking place.

Today, with alphabet soup organizations and weight classes sometimes only three pounds apart, almost nobody knows — or cares — about boxing championships.

With UFC, there was a golden age of champions, when there were five titles and UFC fans could name them all without having to think about it. Eventually that got expanded to seven. It was better for the sport. But to the fans, they started to lose meaning. Just putting on a championship fight no longer guaranteed you 300,000 buys on pay-per-view.

With the newly created interim featherweight championship, followed by the creation of a women's featherweight title — championships created largely because of the belief that you need a championship match to headline a pay-per-view and no actual champions were available — we're seeing the example that in time, UFC is headed down the same road as boxing, and it will become all about personalities and very little about championships and proving who is actually the best.

While at the same time, we will have more champions and championship fights than ever before, and the public won't care about most of them. Today, if you put on a championship fight, you appear to be guaranteed 100,000 buys on pay-per-view if it's the wrong championship.

This is all part of a bigger problem. Professional combat sports are three very different things. They are sports. They are business. And they are entertainment. Some people hate that. But the reality is, if any one of the three elements is missing, they will also either cease to exist, or exist at a level where they have very few fans.

From a sports standpoint, there should be more weight divisions and championships, and people should only face opponents very close to their own size. The champions should only defend against the top contender and rankings should be followed close to religiously.

From an entertainment standpoint, there are no rules in that regard. The fight in Japan in a few weeks with the 52-year-old pro-wrestler-turned-politician going against Gabi Garcia, who is twice her size, is the most extreme example of this. The problem, and this is in theory why we have athletic commissions, is that this isn't ballet, and it isn't chess. It's strong people punching each other in the face. It's dangerous, and can be very unhealthy. So there needs to be limitations put in place to at least make things close to fair. Plus, the freak show route historically leads to some short-term popularity, but long term it's something the public will lose interest in.

By the same token, championship fights nobody cares about don't make people buy pay-per-views, and once the idea that titles mean nothing, that's a bad road to travel down as well. Don't think so? Well, we already have pro boxing and the interest level in its championship fights today to look at to see where this road dead ends.

There are championship matches that should be made from a sports standpoint that the public doesn't want to see. This becomes a quandary. Should champions, paid based on the business they draw, risk their bodies against opponents that they would make far less money fighting? Should promoters be forced to lose money by promoting a match the public doesn't want to see, and won't pay for, because as a sport, it is the right match to make? Last week, there were arguments in front of a Congressional subcommittee complaining about rankings not being adhered to, but nobody asked this very germane question.

And there are no easy answers to these questions. And the ethics of MMA are confusing at times. The Pride organization was the strongest MMA group with the exception of the modern UFC, and did television ratings in Japan that UFC on its best day couldn't touch in the United States.

But Pride may not have existed without early fixed fights for Nobuhiko Takada, its original biggest star. Once they were big enough that they didn't need Takada on top to survive, largely the rise of Kazushi Sakuraba, they no longer had to fix fights to stay afloat. But there is nothing more abhorrent from a sports standpoint than fixing outcomes. Yet, without doing so in the early days, there is a good chance the organization would have never existed long enough to have a period that many consider as glory days in the sport's history.

On Feb. 11, the UFC will add yet another championship, as Holly Holm faces Germaine de Randamie for a women's title at 145 pounds. Holm was a champion at 135, but is coming off losing two straight fights at a lighter weight class. De Randamie was ranked No. 11 in a lighter weight division, and now is in a title match at a weight she has only fought in twice during her career, the most recent of which was more than four years ago.

When it comes to sports, this specific match makes no sense as a title fight, even though adding it as a weight class does, as would adding a ton of new weight classes. Except there is the inherent long-term impact where it will kill the value of titles and title fights in time.

When it comes to entertainment, Holm vs. de Randamie is nothing people will go out of their way to see.

When it comes to business, it does satisfy the standard of a championship fight on a pay-per-view, except it really doesn't, because the public isn't going to buy it as a championship fight, just as they didn't buy Anthony Pettis vs. Max Holloway as a championship fight. And it's just heading down the boxing path.

But long-term, there is a logical explanation. If Holm can win and hold a championship, it can and really will rehab her after the two losses. If Ronda Rousey also wins over Amanda Nunes, it could create a Rousey vs. Holm double title fight. That could be the biggest pay-per-view fight UFC has ever put on, and if not, will easily be the biggest women's fight in history.

Of course, there are plenty of ifs. Wins by de Randamie or Nunes derail that. Rousey also has to agree to do that fight. But there are always ifs when it comes to long-term matchmaking in a completely unpredictable sport.

But much of the talk since the announcement has regarded having a title fight at 145, and not including Cris Cyborg. Of course, the problem there is that Justino was asked to be in the title fight, but said that the earliest she could make 145 is March. Realistically, at a time when there have been more precautions than ever about extreme weight cutting, a woman who publicly make it clear she normally weighs 175 pounds, whether she can make 145 or not, that is hardly healthy to do so.

If she can't make it for months, as Joe Silva said, maybe 145 really isn't the weight class for her. For health, 155 would probably be a lot better. Except, we don't have a 155 and it's probably not coming any time soon. So Cyborg Justino will make the big cut at a weight she's already missed at twice in her career when she was smaller, because there isn't the right weight class for her. And all the concerns about extreme weight cutting will be thrown out the window by everyone.

The reality is we're getting this new weight class largely because they need a title fight on a certain date. That's not a pretty answer, and just the fact this specific fight on this specific day is being made for a newly created championship speaks volumes. Still, if the Olympics are in August and you can't make the weight class in August, it's hard to listen to complaints from people about someone invited not coming because they can't make weight.

At the same time, the Olympics won't add a weight class two months out because they can't find a championship to put on in one of the sessions.

But this is all symptomatic of a much larger issue: the battle between sport, entertainment and business. And in the long run, the three have, and always will, contradict each other.