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As new decade begins, is MMA still about determining the best?

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Jorge Masvidal and Nate Diaz Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Nearly three decades in, the origin story of MMA still varies by the telling. Depending on the raconteur, the Ultimate Fighting Championship either began as a showcase for the Gracie family, which sought to highlight the effectiveness of their jiu-jitsu system against a bunch of under-learned and overmatched patsies; or it was a way to determine which fighting art was the most potent when rulesets were cast aside. In a way, that early collision of reality with marketing myth was a harbinger of what was to come, perfectly encapsulating the excitement of MMA. For it to be good, there only needed to be fights. For it to be great, the conflict must exist both inside and outside the cage.

It is a tension that ebbs and flows through time. But at the dawn of a new decade, it is worth looking at where the sport stands. The last 10 years were unquestionably the greatest decade of growth it has yet seen. Events have truly gone worldwide, television revenues have rocketed upward, and the talent pool continues to widen. Still, there is a sense of malaise that has seeped into the annual fight schedule, a feeling that has heightened as the number of events has risen and rosters have bloated.

There was a time when the UFC brand name was the major draw to big events because it was synonymous with quality. Then, championship fights took the spotlight, bringing with them easily definable stakes and the recognizable names of veterans. But that’s no longer the case. Now more than ever, MMA is purely a star-driven sport. There may be a baseline number of fanatics who will watch anything contested in a cage, but drawing a monster crowd requires a superstar.

Right on cue, the UFC is starting the decade with its spotlight squarely on the biggest star the sport has ever known: Conor McGregor. The former two-division champion hasn’t won a fight since 2016, and has only competed once in the cage since then. Yet he’s apparently fighting for huge stakes when he squares off with Donald Cerrone at UFC 246. According to UFC president Dana White, McGregor will set himself up for a UFC lightweight title fight if he wins at UFC 246. This despite his own inactivity, and despite the fact that the man he’s facing has been knocked out in each of his last two bouts. This is a title eliminator?

Perhaps we have simply reached the point where meritocracy no longer matters to the majority of the sport’s observers. It’s a development that parallels society at large. We are at a time in human history where feelings seem to matter more than facts, and emotion triumphs over reason.

This is easily exploited within the narrative of marketing a fight. White’s argument for McGregor’s top contendership, after all, boils down to a holistic look at his overall history, with little regard for how his recent past stacks up against others like Justin Gaethje, who’ve been grinding in McGregor’s absence. Which begs the question, for how long does he hold this trump card? If McGregor’s last three years of inactivity and defeat aren’t a strike against him, then everyone else’s efforts within the division have mostly been in vain.

He isn’t the first one to hold this type of privilege. In 2017, Georges St-Pierre emerged from a four-year hiatus and immediately fought for a UFC championship in a division he had never before competed in. In 2007, Randy Couture returned from a one-year contract dispute to move up a division and fight for a belt. Even as far back as 2000, Tito Ortiz was given a second UFC title match immediately coming off a title shot loss.

All of which is to say that this slippery slope has actually been a very long slide. And after all this time, it’s been accepted, normalized, even embraced.

To wit, here are the biggest fights of the last half-decade:

Only one of those fights — McGregor vs. Aldo — was a meritocratic matchup, featuring the lineal featherweight champ Aldo against the interim champ in McGregor on a dominant six-fight win streak. The rest of the fights were either steeped in fun spectacle or featuring one (or two) of the biggest stars of the moment. McGregor did nothing specific to earn the Nurmagomedov matchup; St-Pierre did nothing specific to earn the Bisping bout. They were simply awarded major matchups because of past laurels. The question is, is that OK?

More and more, it seems like the fans have already given their blessing. They vote with their money and their eyeballs, and they have overwhelmingly approved of à la carte, star-driven matchups. This may be concerning to rank-and-file fighters, but the good news is that at least for now, the UFC generally does try to put the champion and the top challenger together. On the upcoming schedule, we have Jon Jones vs. Dominick Reyes, Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Tony Ferguson and Zhang Weili vs. Joanna Jedrzejczyk. All fair and good.

There are also equitable non-UFC options. PFL holds season-long tournaments to crown champions; Bellator has held tourneys within several of its divisions as well. Still, those organizations are more intent on offering an alternative product than they are in being magnanimous. Most promoters offered the chance to vault a star to the front of the line wouldn’t hesitate to do so. MMA is a sport, but one with wildly different logistics than stick-and-ball team sports. Matchups can be crafted and manipulated for maximum interest, and that’s a lure that is tough to resist, for promoters, fans and yes, media.

So that’s where we are to start a new decade. The talent pool is outrageously good, but talent may not always equate to interest, and accomplishment may not always lead to opportunities. We all crave the buzz of the biggest rivalry with the biggest names, and there’s no going back. It’s an adrenaline addiction. At least now, the athletes know what they are facing. To get to the top in MMA, winning is no longer enough. Perhaps, it never has been, and we’re finally able to admit it.