Aljamain Sterling’s reign as a UFC champion is just the latest instance of them showing how they really value their belts.
Ask anyone who watches sports who’s the best, the overwhelming majority will say the champion. This is especially true in combat sports where the lack of a team on game day excludes debates about role players, starters, and personnel shuffles in the off-season.
If you ask that same question to the UFC, don’t be surprised if the answer isn’t that straightforward. Depending on what day of the week you ask company president Dana White, that name is liable to be rooted more in their willingness to submit in the boardroom than their ability to make others submit in the cage.
The surprising road to UFC vs. Aljamain Sterling
When asked about the plans to bring bantamweight champion Aljamain Sterling to Boston in an August title defense on a 15-week turnaround from his 25-minute decision win at UFC 288, White stated that Sterling “couldn’t get out of his own way” for wondering if his body would have ample recovery time.
White then suggested an interim title could be up for grabs if Aljamain Sterling was physically unable to make the date. This would only serve to delegitimize the champion in an even more extreme retread of the interim title that was introduced just 8 months after winning the belt.
Aljamain Sterling is not the first reigning champion to have the very organization that is supposed to promote him undermine him instead.
This recent development comes on the heels of the former heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou jumping ship for the PFL. Similar to Aljamain Sterling, his reign included an interim crown that was introduced under questionable circumstances as he was uninjured and only 5 months removed from capturing gold.
Former welterweight champion Tyron Woodley endured similar treatment during his 2 ½ years at the top of his division. Even though he defended three times in just 8 months, his unwillingness to prematurely end rehab on his injured shoulder meant that Colby Covington and Rafael Dos Anjos got to compete for a placeholder title. The fact that Woodley was healthy and ready to return just a few months later when he finished Darren Till at UFC 228 highlights how unnecessary the whole ordeal was.
To add insult to injury, the company couldn’t even be bothered to honor Covington’s interim strap and instead elected to dissolve it after he needed nasal surgery. So instead of the promotional slam dunk that would’ve been a unification bout doubling as a grudge match, the two would finally meet in a rank-and-file fight night.
Meanwhile, two former interim champions, Dustin Poirier and Justin Gaethje, will be competing for the latest incarnation of the BMF title. While that combination of all-time great lightweights produced fireworks in their 2018 fight of the year and is likely to entertain yet again, the addition of a gimmick like a belt originally given to Jorge Masvidal by The Rock seems silly and contrived.
We can only hope that at the very least the belts that suddenly appear strictly for marketing purposes add monetary value where they lack merit. However, it makes you wonder, what’s the point of it all? To climb the ranks at the highest levels in the company that’s synonymous with the sport only to be disrespected upon reaching that pinnacle?
Despite being tasked with promoting the bantamweight champion, whose most recent main event reportedly sold 700k pay-per-view buys, tearing him down and/or even threatening to water down his accomplishments only makes box office success less likely the next time.
How many of those 700,000 are likely to come back with open wallets if the man at the center of the product they just paid for or the prize that was on the line was undercut?
That’s a dangerous game to play with the audience in this microwave era of UFC content. With so many events per year, the never-ending cycle of fights and new faces makes for forgettable content. Standout moments are overshadowed as there’s no time to soak in what we just witnessed before our attention is redirected to what’s coming the very next weekend.
The fighters good enough and fortunate enough to thrive in that gauntlet deserve a level of respect beyond being dispensable names that can be replaced in a heartbeat. Champions in particular should be exalted.
Considering the UFC raked in $387 million of profit in 2022 according to Bloody Elbow’s John Nash, White nor his bosses at Endeavor may not see any reason to change course in any considerable way. After all, their commercial feats are believed to have surpassed the combination of every other fight promotion.
But let’s not forget that attention spans are short in this day and age. A constant stream of forgettable products tends to make people…forget. If the events aren’t special, the fighters aren’t special, and even the champions aren’t special, then what is?