With all respect to Tyron Woodley, who recently said that the UFC isn’t a sport, the UFC has never been a purely athletic contest in the sense that there are fixed rankings and fighters get fights only based on their performance.
The very early days of the UFC – the first dozen or so UFC events – were primarily to show that Brazilian jiu jitsu was superior to other martial arts and the entrants were carefully selected to make BJJ look good. After Zuffa bought the promotion, the small number of initial fighters meant that they had to, basically, keep fighting each other – which is why we had THREE Tito Ortiz-Ken Shamrock fighters. Ken won NONE of them, and lost quite badly, each time by TKO, and the first was for the belt . . . even though Ken had lost his previous two fights. Lose two fights and get a title shot? Yep. Shamrock was never in Tito’s league, but it sold tickets, and there were other realities at stake.
Likewise, take Brock Lesnar. While undoubtedly a good fighter, he fought two fights in the UFC – losing one of them – before challenging for the belt. Clearly, Lesnar was advanced faster than his talents dictated, because he was a huge draw for the UFC, getting all those WWE marks to buy UFC PPVs.
I could go on in this vein, but the point is that the UFC has never operated solely by ranking the top competition, and then having the champ fight the best fighter they haven’t fought.
While it sometimes frustrates me, too, that doesn’t mean that the UFC “isn’t a sport”. In, say, the NFL, the championship team doesn’t just play the “top contenders”. They play a regular season. And in a lot of combat sports, like wrestling and judo, you have these big, sprawling tournaments and “top contenders” are sometimes knocked out by young people and never get to fight other “top contenders”. There is no perfect system.
By peppering salable fights with top level fights, well, money is the grease that makes this whole thing work. Sure, Conor McGregor-Nate Diaz II is slightly ridiculous, but it’s going to sell a lot of tickets. (And let us acknowledge that Conor is flirting with career suicide. If he can’t let go of things, he’s got a rocky professional road, ahead, shall we say.) Is it ideal from a purely athletic standpoint? No. Athletically, he should go back to featherweight and unify the belt with another Aldo fight.
But while Conor’s feud with Nate is a distraction from a purely athletic standpoint, it isn’t like the fight won’t be competitive and interesting. I hope, win or lose, Conor goes back to his regularly scheduled career afterwards. While this fight doesn’t lead to the belt for either guy, it is a real, competitive match-up. It is sport.
On the other hand, Woodley is right in the sense that the smart move for him is to call out Nick Diaz and Georges St-Pierre (though one could argue that calling out the greatest welterweight to walk into the ring is very much asking for the most athletically significant fight he could get). Even though Nick hasn’t won since his fight with BJ Penn, and is absolutely athletically pointless – Nick simply doesn’t deserve to be considered a top fighter, and is unranked – it WOULD be a big money fight, as would his fight with GSP. And it would still be sport. Nick has a hard fucking head and Woodley gasses, which activates Nick’s killer instinct. It’s a real fight and Woodley would really have to take it seriously to win.
Ideally, I would like to see Woodley fight Stephen Thompson, of course (or, y’know, GSP – it would be hard to argue that GSP doesn’t deserve a title shot, seeing as how he never lost the belt). But if Woodley got Nick Diaz, it would be alright.
And I don’t see the UFC changing this side of a fighter’s union.