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Fightweets: Sizing up the Leslie Smith situation

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Another Friday, another weigh-in scene that makes a sport trying to be a multi-billion dollar mainstream business look instead like one of those low-rent carnivals that set up shop in mall parking lots. On the plus side, the fallout from Friday’s UFC Atlantic City weigh-in fiasco gives us plenty to discuss on what had previously seemed a slow week. So let’s get right into it.

The Leslie Smith situation

@fightfeedhq: What do you think about the Leslie Smith situation?

If a real fighter’s union ever gets up and running, Leslie Smith could end up the Curt Flood of the movement: the athlete who had the bravery to sacrifice their own major-league career to make lasting change for the betterment of those who came after them. Flood was basically blackballed from baseball for his role in helping to usher in the free agency period.

Comparing Major League Baseball and mixed martial arts obviously isn’t entirely an apples-to-apples comparison. But the UFC essentially paid Smith to go away following her choice not to accept a bout with Aspen Ladd at UFC Atlantic City after Ladd missed weight. By giving Smith her win and show money for the final bout of her contract, she could become the poster child for her sport’s labor movement the way Flood did his.

We’ve been waiting for the other shoe to drop on UFC fighters who have been outspoken on fighters’ rights issues. Smith has led the pack on raising awareness for Project Spearhead, the most promising attempt at a fighter organization which has come down the pike (unlike the Mixed Martial Arts Athletes Association, which was pretty much stillborn, and the Mixed Martial Arts Fighters Association, which usually comes across as more interested in what’s good for MMAFA leadership than for fighter rights as a whole).

The question from here is, without being a part of the UFC, will Smith still be able to get her message across? Will other another major company offer her a contract, or will they consider her work for fighters’ rights a headache? Will others on the UFC roster pick up the slack in Smith’s absence?

Ultimately, I’ve got the same gut feeling I’ve had for years about labor issues in MMA: It’s going to take one of the big dogs at the top of the food chain wielding their power on behalf of the rest of the fighters in order to make this work. But Smith has helped get the ball rolling in a way like no one before her. She might or might not be the person who gets this over the finish line, but her efforts to this point alone make her legacy in the sport secure.

More weigh-in madness

@joecorb88: Kevin Lee...time to move up or does he just need better weight management? Can’t imagine he’d find 170 too difficult to at least try it.

@mrallor: Time for 165, 175 divisions?

@JUSTOSLICE: Should fines be handed out as a result to missed weight when fights have been signed with enough time out? I know they lose business by not fighting.

Let me start with the last one, here: No. I get where you’re coming from, but the majority of these guys and gals already aren’t rich in the first place. If fighters know they have a threat of a fine hanging over their head if they miss weight, then they’re going to push even further through bad weight cuts. That’s basically a tragedy waiting to happen.

But that said, something needs to be done. Every Friday before a fight card brings a new spate of bad news, with weight misses, weight cuts halted, fights pulled from cards, and so on. It’s only gotten worse since the early weigh-in system was adopted in 2016.

Exacerbating matters, of course, is that each state commission has their own standard. If Kevin Lee and Ladd, who both missed weight on Friday for their respective fights against Edson Barboza and Smith at UFC Atlantic City, had instead been on last week’s card in Arizona, they would have had an extra two hours to make weight. But that’s not the case in New Jersey, which led to all sorts of pandemonium. The ironic part of this is that New Jersey is one of the states, like California, in which the head of the commission, Nick Lembo in this case, cares greatly about the sport of MMA. We still have scenes like Friday’s whether it’s in New Jersey or whether it’s in a state that only cares about collecting their share of the gate.

It’s clear the system is nearing the breaking point. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but it’s past due time for the commissions to go back to the drawing board and figure out how to get on the same page. The UFC has become more proactive about shutting down weight cuts that go bad, which is good for the health of the fighters. But it also needs to find a way to change the culture of the sport so that guys like Lee, who also had a horrific weight cut for his UFC 216 fight with Tony Ferguson, don’t feel compelled to do this to themselves over and over again. Easier said than done, but things can’t keep going on this way.

The Ultimate Fighter 27

@hunt5588: 1 episode in, how are you feeling about the 27th installment of TUF?

I did watch the opening episode of TUF, and, you know, it’s been so long since I’ve more or less tuned out the series that the first episode almost seemed fresh. Maybe it’s the sheer force of Daniel Cormier’s personality. Maybe it’s the fact that, at least through one episode, they’re not trying to make it seem like DC and Stipe Miocic hate each other, which is something that the fans wouldn’t buy into even with the most fantastical of editing. Maybe it’s that even though I thought the “only undefeated fighters” idea was kind of corny, the personalities of the fighters and their hunger to make it shone through in the opening episode in a way that transcended my cynisicm.

I still think The Ultimate Fighter’s shelf life has expired and believe the sooner they replace it permanently with some version of Contender Series, the better. But based on the first week, at least maybe we’ll have one more memorable TUF season after all.

@sigep422wesg: I still don’t feel @stipemiocic is getting the love from the @ufc?? Great person, father, fireman, EMT, & MMA fighter.. @ufc missing the boat promoting this guy!! Do you feel the same way Dave?

Uhh, I think this was a valid question a few months ago, back when the UFC heavyweight champion was treated as a side note in the Coronation of Francis Ngannou storyline, but I don’t think you can make the argument now.

Miocic got what much of what he wanted after his UFC 220 win over Ngannou: A giant fight with Cormier on one of the traditionally biggest shows of the year, and the slot on TUF. But becoming a major star is a two-way street. Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey broke huge as big as they did because they were willing to put in the PR work to make it happen in addition to getting the big PR push.

My gut feeling is that Miocic’s sheer work in the cage is in the process of pushing him to that elusive “middle class” of PPV draws. But I still don’t sense he has any desire to become a Conor or Ronda-like figure. That’s his absolute right, but we can’t say anymore that the UFC isn’t doing their part.

Who gets Khabib?

@MBodziach: Not who deserves it, but who ACTUALLY fights Khabib first?

Can the UFC make a deal with McGregor? Can McGregor put his legal trouble behind him? If the answers to both questions are “yes,” then there’s so much money to be made that he’s the obvious choice. If not? Given the time frame on Ferguson’s injury, and given the UFC apparently wants to do a show in Russia in September, and given Dustin Poirier has indicated he doesn’t mind going into that lion’s den if that’s what it takes to get a title shot, he sure seems to have vaulted into the backup spot if Conor doesn’t happen.

Feels like the first time

@KroganFury: Do you remember tha literal moment when you were first exposed to MMA?

Oh yeah, easily. I started subscribing to Dave Meltzer’s Wrestling Observer back in 1992. One Saturday back in late 1993, the Observer arrived -- and incidentally, back then, with no internet and no mainstream coverage of wrestling, you eagerly awaited the Observer to arrive in your mailbox on Saturday, and if it didn’t get there on Saturday you were like a junkie going through withdrawal until Monday’s mail arrived -- and the lead story was on the first UFC event. I had seen ads for the event, but didn’t buy the show. Dave’s coverage of UFC 1 and UFC 2 interested me enough to get UFC 3.

UFC 3 was the first night that provided the sort of pandemonium we consider so normal today, as alternate Steve Jennum won the tourney after everyone expected Royce Gracie to cruise to his third straight championship going in. It was pretty much off to the races for me from there: Bought all the PPVs until they were bumped off television, kinda sorta kept up through the Observer and VHS tapes through the dark ages and PRIDE, came back around once they got back on TV, and found myself in the right place at the right time working for FOX Sports in Los Angeles in 2005, when the UFC started to break big. But yeah, Meltzer was pretty much the only person in the media with the foresight to see where this was going from the jump, and don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise.