The UFC officially merged with the WEC on the first of this year, increasing the UFC roster and adding two weight classes to the MMA juggernaut's repertoire. Part of the company's transition through the merger seems to have inspired a slew of fighter releases.
Antonio McKee (25-4-2), Brandon Vera (11-6), Marcus Davis (17-8), Phil Baroni (13-13), Jamie Varner (16-5-1), Chris Horodecki (16-3), Joe Doerksen (46-14), Pat Audinwood (9-2-1), Tyler Toner (11-3), and Dustin Hazelett (12-7) have all been sacrificed to slim down the field of competitors and also seemingly to send a message that you can't survive in this league if you can't put on a true show.
Justified or not, these fighter dumps are becoming more and more frequent as the UFC gets more popular. Putting on a show is essential to moving on, and that means fighters must exude fierce aggression if they don't want a tough loss to result in a subsequent dismissal. McKee and Davis both ended their careers in the UFC with very competitive performances. It wasn't enough.
The UFC is intent on making sure the fans and the fighters all know that only the best of the best and the most dynamic competitors will be allowed to stay under the UFC umbrella. This attitude is sometimes controversial, but to many experts it is an obviously smart business move. Either way, the design is to breed excitement, and it seems to be working.
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Fans are now treated to a new trend developing in the UFC as a result of this push to send poor fighters packing. Fighters go into the octagon these days with a mindset to be more than just slightly superior to their opponent. Strategy, smart fighting, and defensive measures are going out of style. There is more stand up now, more striking than ever, and the emphasis is put on finishing fights. Controversial judging in the UFC is also increasing the pressure on fighters to demolish their opponents rather than risk a decision. Clearly, this makes for more entertaining fights, but does it represent the best direction for a sport that is still struggling to be recognized and regulated everywhere?
Over time, the UFC has evolved from a brutal, unorganized and unregulated mess into a structured example for the rest of the sport of MMA to follow and emulate. Years ago, guys like Senator John McCain railed against mixed martial arts and called the sport "Human Cockfighting." Though MMA in general has yet to impress some state legislatures enough to allow formal regulation of the sport in all 50 states, the UFC has exponentially increased the sport's reach and drawing power since McCain made those remarks.
Today, the UFC is the most successful MMA league, contains arguably the best fighters in the world at nearly every weight class, and these releases indicate that it's not easy to break in or stay in the company's ranks as a fighter. You can't just be a competitor or a journeyman in this kill-or-be-killed league now. You have to fight like you are a modern day gladiator, which it seems the founders of the company always had in mind. After all, every show starts off with a gladiator mantra, and many modern day venues are structured much like the Roman Coliseum.
The popularity of the sport of MMA will no doubt be boosted by this approach to inspire fighters to put it all out there in the cage. The only problem is how much this approach might also inspire more fighter injuries. If it's no longer the goal just to compete and do your best, if the object is instead to ruin the opponent in grand fashion, clearly that will result in the sport growing more brutal over time. Concussions, cuts, and even fractures could increase drastically. It's possible that serious injuries are already starting to grow due to these new conditions. The UFC is putting so many pressure points in place to encourage more explosive fighting without consideration to what such a trend could do to damage the sport and the fighters in the long run.
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At the end of the day the UFC is a business. Fighters who get released can often find work elsewhere if they try hard enough, and the "UFC Veteran" label always helps to market a fighter in the MMA minor leagues. Promoters know the best fights and fighters sell themselves, and the ability to put on a show has always been the hallmark of great fighters, even throughout the history of boxing and other individual martial arts and combat sports. Still, the drive toward valuing the show over the showman is troubling in the UFC.
It begs the question: Do fighters need to unionize?
It's hard to believe people who specialize in what many consider to be pure violence could be victims themselves. Considering the risks they take just to fight in the first place, it seems easy to conclude that fighters know what they are getting into and should simply have to eat the consequences of not fighting up to their utmost potential. The real concern, though, is where is the regulation for the management level of the sport? It's been deemed important enough for the sport's expansion to have sound rules in place to eliminate such things as head butting, eye gouging, groin shots, and knees or kicks to the head of a downed opponent. Why is it that the type of behavior exhibited by the UFC brass toward their fighters isn't at times considered equally foul and in need of serious overhaul?