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Fightweets: On real and fake titles

UFC 205 photos
Will Conor McGregor ever defend a UFC belt?
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The UFC assembly line spits out a pretty good one this weekend, with former welterweight champion Robbie Lawler vs. former lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos headlining an interesting UFC on FOX card in Winnipeg. The winner of that bout should get the next crack at Tyron Woodley’s welterweight belt, which brings us to ...

UFC’s title troubles

@xJuanPradax: What value do titles have left if champs vacate (GSP), or hold up the division (Conor) and never defend?

People seem intrigued by how — and if — the UFC is going to be able to shake itself free of the problems they created for themselves by going for the short-term cash grab over the long-term divisional structure at what seemed like each available opportunity over the past couple years.

On one hand, the company seems to be extricating itself from its middleweight morass about as well as they could have hoped for. Having Georges St-Pierre finish Michael Bisping to win the belt at UFC 217 made for the biggest mixed martial arts event of the year, provided a feel-good moment for the fans, and also happened to put millions of eyeballs on T.J. Dillashaw and Rose Namajunas’ title wins, making their respective next fights bigger than they would have otherwise been. UFC 217 was much bigger than anything a Bisping rematch with former champ Luke Rockhold, or a unification fight with then-interim-and-now-full champ Robert Whittaker, would have delivered.

Now, with GSP vacating the belt, we end up with a UFC 221 match between Whittaker and Rockhold, the two best fighters in the division. As long as the company doesn’t go off the rails with out-of-the-box matchmaking again from here, this is about as clean an opportunity at a reset as could have possibly played out.

The lightweight division is a different matter.

We’re at 13 months and counting since Conor McGregor won the UFC lightweight title from Eddie Alvarez. I don’t have to remind you he hasn’t defended the belt since. And it looks like it’s going to be awhile, if ever, before we see a McGregor title defense. Instead, we’re being pelted with bad ideas like boxing matches against Paulie Malignaggi, Oscar De La Hoya, or Manny Pacquiao. Yes, August’s fight with Floyd Mayweather did 4.3 million North American buys, but, guess what? The public usually only pays to go to the carnival once, then moves on to the next thing. The reaction to each of these proposed second McGregor forays into boxing indicates the novelty might wear off far faster than some seem to be banking on.

Additionally, though, interim champ Tony Ferguson is on the sideline indefinitely after undergoing elbow surgery — surgery one assumes he would have put off had he had the opportunity to fight McGregor any time soon.

This means both the title and interim title are on ice. This is what happens when chasing money fights goes wrong. The UFC’s not about to strip Conor of the belt at this juncture, when they absolutely need him to get back in the cage. But he’s out for now, and the interim champ’s out. If someone suggests an interim interim champ, please slap that person.

The middleweight division came out with something close to their best-case scenario for getting out of its logjam. Lightweight is getting close to its worst case. And if the UFC can’t figure away out of this spot, we’ll find out whether hotshotting money fights truly will do the company long-term damage.

Most Violent Fighter

@RuckerYeah: Is it weird I kind of like Eddie Alvarez’s “Most Violent Fighter” thing better than the actual lightweight belts right now?

In the middle of all the above nonsense, Eddie Alvarez comes along and makes up the “Most Violent Fighter” title, which is one of the catchier gimmicks a fighter’s come up with in awhile (And as a side note, Alvarez really should go ahead and create an actual title belt to carry around with him if he’s already run this far with the idea). And with two fighters claiming lightweight gold sitting on the sidelines, people seem interested in the novelty, especially after Alvarez put on a barnburner like his UFC 218 bout with Justin Gaethje.

Fighters certainly have noticed: Paul Felder said the route Alvarez is taking is a bad idea, which is an interesting take, given Felder’s own style would seem to put him in contention for Alvarez’s pretend title. And Friday, Ferguson went off on Alvarez, who had intimated on The MMA Hour that, basically, Ferguson’s belt was worthless.

Of course, Alvarez responded to Ferguson by saying he’s not interested in fighting, on the heels of also saying he’s not interested in rematching Dustin Poirier. Those are two of the most exciting fighters in the division. Does this mean Alvarez is the Conor of MVF champs?

Gastelum’s path

@dlae223: Since he didn't get his title shot will Gastelum go back to 170?

That would be a rash move. Gastelum is building a fine resume at middleweight. He just happens to be a fight or two away from a title shot. It’s not like he’d jump the line at welterweight if he went back down. The winner of Lawler-dos Anjos barnburner presumably gets next, anyway. And that doesn’t even take into account champ Tyron Woodley being out awhile, and Gastelum’s, umm, “adventures” making weight at 170. It’s taken Gastelum this long to get this far, so why take a step back now?

Raising Cain

@spiritinblack82: Is Cain still relevant in this new HW division? I know it's thin on talent but he's been out the game a long time

Cain Velasquez is always relevant in the heavyweight division. He’s a two-time champion, and when he’s healthy, he’s flirted with true greatness.

Of course, the fact is that injuries have kept him from sustaining the sort of run that he could have had. He was a breakthrough star waiting to happen when he finished Brock Lesnar to win the first title. Then he had his ill-timed knockout loss to Junior dos Santos at the worst possible moment. And injuries have put him on the shelf for long periods. Without these setbacks, Velasquez by this point very well could be regarded as the greatest heavyweight of all-time.

This week, AKA teammate Daniel Cormier insisted Velasquez is healthy, back in the gym, and ready to make a big run next year. That might or might not happen, at age 35. But until he shows in the cage that he’s not the fighter he used to be, then he remains a force to be reckoned with. And the intrigue of whether he’s up for one more title run makes him relevant from the jump.

DJ vs. TJ

@AirLew_: Is TJ vs. DJ actually marketable? It may be the greatest fight ever on paper but how will the UFC bring it to Conor-level ppv numbers? Can they?

I think we’ve become a bit too hyper-focused on finding the next Conor McGregor or next Ronda Rousey. The UFC seems to be making strides toward regaining its mojo. UFC 217 and 218 were two of the best back-to-back pay-per-views in company history. Early 2018’s docket already includes killer fights like Stipe Miocic vs. Francis Ngannou and Whittaker vs. Rockhold.

And that’s before we figure out what’s next for the likes of Rose Namajunas and Max Holloway and Darren Till and Brian Ortega and so on. Maybe the UFC hasn’t found the next Conor and Ronda yet, but they do seem to be pulling out of the rut it was in late summer early fall.

Which brings us to TJ vs. DJ. No, it wouldn’t be as big as a Conor fight, but it doesn’t need to be. Dillashaw has been in his fair number of high-profile fights, none bigger than regaining the bantamweight belt by knocking out Cody Garbrandt. Johnson, as you might have heard, now holds the UFC record for title defenses, and no one is clamoring to see a rematch with him and Henry Cejudo. If this fight comes together, nah, it’s not a Conor level fight. But with proper promotion it should be one of those elusive “middle class”-drawing PPV cards, and that’s not a bad spot at all.

Ducking Usman

@hunt5588: Is the rebooking of Usman/Meek proof that Kamaru is having trouble getting top ranked welterweights to step in there with him?

That was obvious before the Kamaru Usman-Emil Meek fight, which has bounced from UFC 219 to UFC 220, was even booked in the first place. Usman, the TUF 21 champ, is 6-0 in the UFC, his last one a nasty first-round knockout of Sergio Moraes in September. Now, it’s not like Usman is next in line for a welterweight title shot, but out of all the potential name opponents, dos Anjos brushed off his callout; Carlos Condit took Neil Magny as his opponent for his return fight; Demian Maia and Colby Covington squared off; and even Mike Perry, who was open to fighting Usman, took on Sergio Ponzinibbio instead. So Usman ended up with Meek (which isn’t a fight we should sleep on, incidentally; Meek himself is pretty underrated), and with another win ... well, I want to say he’ll finally get that big-name opponent he deserves, but we can’t guarantee that now, can we?

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