It’s the rarest occasion in MMA: a weekend without the UFC. Following a solid but underwhelming UFC Vegas 30, the fight world is taking a bit of a hiatus this July 4th weekend in anticipation of what is sure to be a monster next week. But just because there aren’t any (marquee) fights this week doesn’t mean there isn’t fight news, most notably that the UFC will crown a new interim heavyweight champion just a few months after Francis Ngannou won the title. So let’s talk about that – and then let’s get a head start on next week’s festivities.
Francis Ngannou: a champion passed over
So Stipe can defend once a year but an interim title fight is put together 3 months after Francis wins the belt? Is there more to this story than just needing another title fight for that ppv?— Daniel Pompilio (@elpompilio) June 30, 2021
I, like everyone else in the MMA community, was stunned to learn that just three months after Francis Ngannou finally claimed the heavyweight title, the UFC nonetheless decided to create an interim title fight between Derrick Lewis and Ciryl Gane at next month’s UFC 265 despite Ngannou being ready to defend his belt in September.
However, like most of the rest of the MMA world, I quickly reconciled myself to the fact that this happened. After all, it’s 2021, and this is how the UFC plays ball. If you don’t know that by now, you haven’t been paying attention.
There are only two reasons for the UFC to slap this interim title fight together so quickly. First, Ngannou was getting just a bit too outspoken about fighter pay. Upon winning the title, he assumed, as did the rest of the world, that he would be facing Jon Jones in one of the most anticipated superfights in UFC history. A win would be a legacy-defining moment, and as a champion and budding superstar, he could reasonably anticipate to make tens of millions of dollars from such a bout. It’s the fight all the fans wanted, and one that both he and Jones have been keen on for years.
Yet almost immediately, it was shot down by UFC President Dana White in one of the more transparent cases of price-setting in recent years. Sure, White would make the fight if both men would sign on for pennies on the dollar. But he wouldn’t do it for one dollar more than he had to. Why would he? Like always, he held all the cards.
Because Ngannou and Jones are locked into contracts, White doesn’t have to pay them more than that, no matter the financial windfall it will lead to. White has the most precious commodity of them all, one neither Jones nor Ngannou posses: time.
It would undeniably help the UFC’s bottom line to book Ngannou-Jones tomorrow, but it wouldn’t make or break their fiscal year. Conor McGregor is going to fight twice this year (perhaps even three times). They’re set. Ngannou-Jones is a luxury, and so White can pass on that until he gets exactly the terms he wants, and if the heavyweight champion doesn’t like it? Tough noogies. He can replace you at will while still preventing you from plying your trade elsewhere. Sucks to be you.
If only there was some way for the forces of labor to overcome the gross disparities in power that exist here. But alas, that problem is unsolvable. Go back to trading in brain cells for pennies on the dollar, fighters.
That’s the first reason this travesty of matchmaking happened, and it’s a pretty compelling one: Ngannou tweeted about getting screwed on fighter pay, better show him who has the keys to this yard. I think that undeniably has played a part in this, but I don’t think it’s the primary motivator here. The true culprit for why this is happening is the UFC promotional structure in general. The wheel must keep turning, inexorably, forever.
Until this heavyweight “title” fight was announced, UFC 265 was set to be headlined by Amanda Nunes vs. Julianna Peña. Now, you might be thinking to yourself, “That’s a fine headliner, Nunes is the greatest female fighter ever!” And you could not be more wrong. Not about the latter – that’s pretty inarguable. But for all her incredible ability and accomplishment, Nunes is not a pay-per-view headliner. Just look at the numbers.
Nunes has headlined five PPVs, but if you remove UFC 200, which would have done gangbusters with me as the headliner, and UFC 207, where she fought Ronda Rousey, Nunes has sold 100,000 buys or less as a headliner. That’s worse than Demetrious Johnson, who Dana White consistently lambasted for not being a star. Nunes is one of the best fighters ever, and people simply do not give a shit, which puts the UFC in a tough position.
If all else fails, they can have Nunes headline a PPV and settle for the rough numbers, knowing Conor’s presence next week will make up for a mid-summer doldrum. But in a better world, they can put Nunes as the co-main to a fight that will at least draw a normal amount of eyeballs. The only problem is, no other champ is ready to roll. So they go with the next best option: Derrick Lewis is a Houston guy and a charismatic fighter. Let’s put him on the card, and since we can’t have a three-round heavyweight non-title fight headline over the GOAT, welp, guess it’s for some hardware. It’s really as simple as that.
Ultimately, this is all very dumb, but it doesn’t matter much. Lewis and Gane will fight, and the winner will get to call themselves champion. But everyone will know that title means next to nothing. The winner will be next in line to face Ngannou, and given that this is heavyweight, the UFC can probably get the winner to turn around and fight him in September or October anyway. That’s a little thing called having your cake and eating it too. And the machine keeps right on rolling.
UFC 264: the main event
I’ll save any breakdown of the actual fight for next week, but since you asked, let’s talk about the mental battle heading into UFC 264, because it strains credulity to believe that Conor McGregor possesses any mental edge going into this fight, particularly one that would see him make it 25 minutes. McGregor has many good qualities, but mental fortitude and cardio are not the things that made him who he is. Now, that’s not to say he can’t win. It’s very possible McGregor comes into UFC 264 and blows Dustin Poirier’s doors off, but if he does so, it will be because of his talent and skill, not because he won a battle of mental warfare.
McGregor is routinely praised for his ability to win the mental battles, and it is not without reason. Jose Aldo, one of the four best fighters of all time, was defeated before he even stepped in the cage and eroded under the ceaseless onslaught of McGregor’s schtick. But the problem with that sort of thing is that it has a shelf life. As a brash upstart, you can make hay for quite a while, getting under people’s skin, especially if you pair it with winning spectacularly. But after a while, the book is out on you. People know what you’re trying to do and can more easily ignore it. Even a group as emotionally fragile as professional fighters can turn it off given the overwhelming amount of evidence that playing into his game is stupid. It becomes a dull weapon, and continuing to try and wield it becomes a farce, like a small child play-fighting with stick.
Moreover, though McGregor undoubtedly has a good measure of mental toughness, to quote Ron White, “That boy’s got a lot of quit in him.” Don’t get me wrong, McGregor isn’t a total wilting lily who collapses at the first sign of resistance. But there’s a reason the man doesn’t have many comeback wins on his resume. When he hits the wall of his own limitations, he hits it hard. Just look at his fight with Khabib Nurmagomedov. Conor knew Khabib would be able to have success, but he clearly believed that once he weathered the storm, the fight was his. The third round was supposed to be his turning point. And then, when Khabib grabbed him in the fourth, that was that was the ball game and the wheels fell off entirely. Like many others before him, Conor McGregor is a glass cannon. The largest and shiniest of all the glass cannons, but one all the same.
Meanwhile, Dustin Poirier is most assuredly not that. Poirier can be broken, Khabib did it to him as well, but Poirier is one of the most battle-tested fighters in the sport. He has been weighed, he has been measured, and he has been found up to snuff in the ways that matter most. If McGregor is going to beat Poirier, which, again, is something he very possibly will do, it will be because he lands That Left, and not because he goes hammer and tongs with Poirier for 25 minutes and comes out the better.
UFC 264: the co-main event
In your opinion - Who in the division poses the biggest threat to the seemingly unstoppable Usman? And does Wonderboy deserve a title shot with a win over Burns?— Dean Jenkinson (@deancomedy) June 23, 2021
In the co-main event of UFC 264, former two-time welterweight title challenger Stephen Thompson takes on recent title challenger Gilbert Burns, and should Thompson win, it seems likely he will get the next crack at Kamaru Usman. That’s good because aside from being a new challenger for the dominant champion, Thompson is, in my view, clearly the most difficult test for the champion.
Since winning the title in 2019, Usman has looked mostly sensational. He’s stacked up four title defenses and is coming off the front-runner for “Knockout of the Year” against Jorge Masvidal. There have even been the beginnings of the Greatest Welterweight of All Time mantle being bestowed upon him, and while that is categorically absurd at this point, it’s not unreasonable to say that Usman is at least making a case for the number two spot and, should he keep this pace up, making a legitimate run at Georges St-Pierre. But for all his many accomplishments and his excellence, Usman is still far from a flawless fighter, and Thompson presents some very interesting challenges for him, should the two ever meet.
Although Usman was an accomplished amateur wrestler and he uses that skill effectively in MMA, his wrestling is not open-mat shot-wrestling. Usman relies on walking opponents down and backing them into the fence where he can then initiate a clinch and get to work. That’s a difficult game to implement against Thompson’s high-movement karate style. People remember Thompson getting lamped by Woodley in their two fights, but what the forget is that absent those big bursts of violent activity from one of the most explosive individuals MMA has ever seen, much of that fight was Thompson scoring points and dictating the range. Against Usman, particularly an aging Usman with bad knees, that’s a dangerous, dangerous proposition.
Fortunately for Usman, the point may be moot anyway. Thompson first has to get by Gilbert Burns, and Burns has proven to be an excellent pressure fighter with fast hands and big power, a combination that has vexed Wonderboy historically. But if Thompson can find a way to win next Saturday, riding a three-fight winning streak over three top-10 opponents, it seems impossible for the UFC to deny him one last shot at a title.
Thanks for reading this week, and thank you for everyone who sent in Tweets! Do you have any burning questions about things at least tacitly related to combat sports? Then you’re in luck, because you can send your Hot Tweets to me, @JedKMeshew and I will answer them! Doesn’t matter if they’re topical or insane. Get weird with it. Let’s have fun.