Opinion: On Puppetry and Fairness

By Jordan Breen Sep 30, 2016

Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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Fans are, by nature, passionate and therefore fickle. Perhaps there's something to be said for the way in which professional sports tease out a certain kind of mania in its fandom, but I'm skeptical that mixed martial arts fans, or any particular sports fans, are “worse” on the whole, or that particular sport's fans are uniquely successful in dragging down the discourse around that sport. Fans of a particular sport may be different, idiosyncratic, but not abstractly “worse.”

OK, now, having said all that ... MMA fans are just the worst sometimes, aren't they?

Last week, I wrote in this same space about how UFC 205, when its lone title offering was Tyron Woodley-Stephen Thompson, was a fantastic high-level MMA card, but not one that matched the years of hype and symbol significant attributed to the first Ultimate Fighting Championship card at Madison Square Garden. Fast forward a week, and UFC 205 is probably the greatest MMA card ever assembled, at least on paper. With all due reverence to the outstanding, historic Joanna Jedrzejczyk-Karolina Kowalkiewicz clash that now graces UFC 205, those two women are not really why I'm writing in such superlative terms. It's Conor McGregor and Eddie Alvarez.

I appreciate that owing to McGregor's star power, any action he takes in his career will have the largest audience watching and dissecting him at every turn, and more than that, due to his bombastic persona, he's a natural magnet for criticism and disdain. I also appreciate that Twitter or my inbox might not be representative cross-section of MMA folks. Nonetheless, to see adults, theoretical fans of professional prizefighting, complaining that Alvarez-McGregor -- literally, one of the most historically significant bouts in MMA history if it happened in a midwestern barn, nevermind Madison Square Garden -- wasn't “fair”? Like I said, MMA fans are not abstractly “worse” than any other fans of anything, but damn if these aren't exactly the kind of moments that make you say “Man, MMA fans are the worst.”

I would not have complained if we wound up with Alvarez defending against Khabib Nurmagomedov at either UFC 205 or 206, but it's not like Nurmagomedov is being cheated out of a UFC lightweight title shot because he's 23-0 and beat the guy Alvarez just lifted the title off of two-plus years ago. If you're particularly concerned with how “fair” the UFC lightweight title picture is, consider that Tony Ferguson is 7-0 with five finishes in the same time span that Nurmagomedov has just one win, and even if Ferguson beats Rafael dos Anjos in the coming weeks, he still isn't assured a lightweight shot.

More than that, there are major potential benefits for Nurmagomedov bound up in Alvarez-McGregor, assuming Nurmagomedov can take care of business against Michael Johnson on the same card. First of all, Nurmagomedov will get the greatest exposure of his entire career courtesy of fighting on a McGregor undercard. Secondly, if Alvarez beats McGregor and send him back to 145, a future Alvarez-Nurmagomedov fight is made more lucrative by Alvarez first headlining a card that should do more than 1.5 million pay-per-view buys. On the flipside, if McGregor knocks Alvarez off and becomes the UFC's first-ever simultaneous double champion, Nurmagomedov will make millions of dollars more than he ever would've fighting Alvarez and he can find out what red panty night is all about.

Assuming Nurmagomedov eventually becomes UFC lightweight champion, ironically, he should be thankful that Alvarez balked at fighting him over McGregor. Alvarez-McGregor is only happening because those two fighters wanted it and pushed for it, specifically Alvarez who was bullish in his demands and didn't back down from Zuffa. Yes, in this particular case, Nurmagomedov was a fairly powerless bystander in negotiation, but historically, even UFC champions have been powerless bystanders in those situations. It is a better professional atmosphere for MMA fighters when they can push back against their promoters, negotiate on their own behalf and try to, you know, make money. Alvarez getting his way with the McGregor fight normalizes a behavior which is obviously beneficial to fighters' earning potential but that the UFC has been keen to stifle for as long as possible. This is a good thing.

And of course, there's Jose Aldo, one of the 10 greatest fighters in MMA history who has decided that Alvarez-McGregor is such a personal, professional affront to him that he wants to be released from his UFC contract. Aldo told Brazilian outlet Combate that he felt UFC boss Dana White was now McGregor's “puppet” and that he signed a contract to fight for the UFC, not for McGregor. Aldo doubled down on his bluster, too, saying that he didn't even want to fight MMA any more and that was interested in a different career in sports.

This is hyperbolic, of course. Unless he meant starting a fledgling sports management company, I can't imagine what sport Aldo is suddenly going to take up professionally at 30 years old after all the wear and tear of his oft-injured fight career. Aldo's literally been a pro MMA fighter since he was a teenager. Now, after 12-plus years in the fight game, when he has the chance to make millions, he's going to peace out? Not likely. This is Aldo's version of the McGregor retirement tweet, but the fact that Aldo is not given to insane public proclamations the way the Irishman is simply make it a bit of a surprise.

Another ironic quirk in all of this McGregor-related drama: by saying he doesn't want to “play the game” so to speak and that he'd rather leave the UFC than put up with, Aldo's showing that he, like Alvarez, has learned from McGregor. The most powerful negotiations in MMA, at least those related to matchmaking, now happen in public, in the press, on social media, in real time.

Aldo complains about McGregor's insistence that he will reign at 145 and 155 pounds, despite Dana White remaining adamant that McGregor can't hold two belts simultaneously for the promotion and the fact that Aldo says he would've been forced to vacate his featherweight title back if he had beaten then-lightweight champ Anthony Pettis back at UFC 163. First of all, McGregor isn't even a two-division champion as of yet, perhaps this bridge could be crossed in six weeks or so. Secondly, Aldo is doing the classic “Oh, it's not fair!” as if he doesn't understand what McGregor brings to the table. After T.J. Grant got hurt, turning UFC 163's headliner into Aldo-Chan Sung Jung and 164's into Pettis-Benson Henderson 2, UFC 163 did an estimated 180,000 PPV buys. UFC 164? 220,000. McGregor will do four times as many PPV buys as both UFC 163 and 164 combined, nevermind probably setting the record for the biggest UFC gate ever. Aldo may bristle at the UFC treating his rival like he's the golden goose, but, well, he is the golden goose. Aldo is not mad that said goose exists, he's mad that he is not getting the next golden egg.

“Fair” is never the top concern of any fight promoter, it's about making money and creating a stable, reliably entertaining product. The UFC's business is -- and yes, I can hear your Fight Pass undercard jokes -- predicated on the best fighting the best, but that doesn't necessarily mean that an incumbent champion must fight their No. 1 challenger or no one at all. There will inevitably be moments where deserving challengers get put on the backburner, but the UFC is not concocting a fraudulent cash grab. Alvarez and McGregor aren't fighting CM Punk, they're fighting one another in a one of the grandiose spectacles ever staged in this sport and as I pointed out, the ripple effects of such a massive event may prove beneficial for Aldo, Nurmagomedov and other fighters in elite contendership, regardless of weight class. As trite as its become to say whenever he is discussed, McGregor is the rising tide that lifts all boats, more dramatically and tangibly that anyone we've seen in MMA history.

And of course, Aldo's not wrong: McGregor is a puppeteer, too. However, there's no puppeteer on Earth who assures a promoter $20 million in extra revenue whenever they show up to yank strings and talk out of the side of their mouth. If that person ever enters our world, the world of puppetry will become far more lucrative, and less “fair,” to boot.

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