With well over 100,000 viewing on Youtube, the UFC held a press conference at the UFC Gym in Torrance, California, to promote the new UFC 196 main event between Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz. Amidst talk of why Diaz was chosen and why the fight will take place at 170 pounds came this exchange:
Diaz: “Fuck your bitch-ass belt, too.”
McGregor: “Fuck the belt. I don’t give a fuck about the belt. The only belt I care about-“
Diaz: “Why you bring it everywhere?”
McGregor: “I don’t give a fuck about nothing. The only thing I give a fuck about is my check, and my checks are superheavy.”
Diaz: “I don’t give a fuck about no belt, motherfucker.”
This isn’t typical trash talk heading into a massive pay-per-view event, though it comes as no surprise given the participants. But they incidentally hit on an important point: MMA’s promotional model devalues the importance of its belts.
Now, that isn’t to say they are worthless, of course. They serve as a good proxy for who the best fighter in the world is at a given weight class, especially in this current Zuffa-dominated landscape. And, of course, they serve the promotions themselves as effective tools to draw casual interest. The belts serve a purpose.
But let’s take a look back at MMA history. Zuffa purchased Pride FC in March of 2007, and the latter would run its last event weeks later. Pride’s belts ceased to exist as relevant entities. But did Fedor Emelianenko’s reign as the world’s top heavyweight cease when Randy Couture suddenly found the weight class’s most important title belt around his waist? It’s hard to imagine any right-minded person believing so.
Let’s jump back to present-day. Surely there is no dispute that the UFC title belts represent the top belts in their respective weight classes. Then what value do Bellator’s belts offer (let alone World Series of Fighting or ONE or Titan)? Fighters don’t grow up dreaming of winning the Bellator middleweight title. Fighters settle for the Bellator middleweight title.
And it’s not as if the UFC treats their own titles with any sort of reverence. Jon Jones’ light heavyweight title reign included title defenses over middleweights Vitor Belfort and Chael Sonnen in a bizarre punishment/reward situation following the cancellation of UFC 151. Nick Diaz fought for the George St-Pierre’s welterweight title a year after losing to Carlos Condit (and testing positive for weed) with no fights in the interim. The UFC granted McGregor his initial title shot despite not having to fight either Frankie Edgar or Chad Mendes for it. That’s not a criticism of the UFC’s decisions in any of those cases. Rather, it merely points out the reality that these promotional belts feature the rightful, “sporting” matchups only when those matchups are convenient.
Fans are just as complicit in this charade. Take a look at Twitter or message boards following the defeat of dominant champions, and you’ll find people arguing against an immediate rematch because they want a “fresh” matchup. When Conor McGregor knocked out Jose Aldo at UFC 194, did Aldo suddenly plummet beyond number-one contender status in the rankings? It’s hard to believe so, considering his dominant wins over Edgar and Mendes. Isn’t it, then, a no-brainer to give the man who defended the UFC/WEC featherweight title ten times a crack at his belt?
And belts either directly or indirectly have prevented Zuffa from making superfights despite having both fighters under contract. Anderson Silva and Georges St. Pierre never fought (or have never fought…) because they had their “own” divisions to worry about. The UFC failed to put together Ronda Rousey and Cris Cyborg because the latter couldn’t get down to 135 and the former didn’t believe the onus was on her as champ. (Nevermind that Cyborg owns the most meaningful championship in the next weight up.)
As a fight fan, one’s primary (and perhaps only) concern is that promotion’s put on the best fights available. Title belts need not enter the equation. McGregor and Diaz have peeled back the curtain on the fighters’ side in their promotional back-and-forth. And we know the UFC is willing to sell out their own belts when it’s convenient. So why do so many of us seem to give a fuck about the belts still?