Even though fate once again reared its cruel head and dealt UFC 234 a devastating blow this weekend, the card as it originally stood presented an opportunity the UFC would be wise to build on.
The original main and co-main event of Saturday’s pay-per-view was basically a mini-tournament for the UFC’s middleweight division, which is a weight class that was subject to some uncertainty over the last two years. Before he was pulled from the card at the last minute due to injury, UFC middleweight champion Robert Whittaker was going to face Kelvin Gastelum, while rising star Israel Adesanya defeated a former champion and possibly the greatest UFC middleweight ever in Anderson Silva.
The situation that UFC 234 dealt with this weekend was a metaphor for the promotion as a whole right now. Title belts have become meaningless props that don’t hold the same prestige as before. Fewer and fewer divisions offer fights between champions and clear-cut No. 1 contenders as fighters continue to chase “money fights” – a term that has quickly become the most overused in mixed martial arts.
But if UFC 234 had unfolded unmolested, we would have a clear champion and bonafide number one contender in the middleweight division right now. How often do we get to say that with the other divisions in the UFC?
The UFC used a mini-tournament in 2012 when it introduced the Flyweight division, which led to the dominant reign of former champion Demetrious Johnson. While you can argue the merits of Silva – who is clearly a shell of his former self and is 1-4-1, 1 NC in his last six fights – still being mentioned as a contender at middleweight, the main and co-main event UFC 234 had the chance to provide some much-needed clarity before Whittaker’s injury.
What other divisions in the UFC would benefit from holding a tournament to clear up its title picture? The most obvious answer is a division that has experienced turmoil for nearly two-and-a-half years: The UFC’s lightweight division.
Ever since former lightweight champion Conor McGregor won the 155-pound belt in 2016, the lightweight division has dealt with endless tumult. McGregor never officially defended the belt and was stripped leading up to and after his rampage at UFC 223 last year. Tony Ferguson was briefly crowned interim lightweight champion, but was stripped of that belt after hurting his knee right before his planned UFC 223 bout with Khabib Nurmagomedov.
Nurmagomedov defeated last-minute replacement Al Iaquinta on that card to become the new undisputed lightweight champion, and choked out McGregor at UFC 229 last year. This seemed to finally bring stability to the lightweight division. However, Ferguson is now recovered from his injury and probably has a more valid claim to a title shot than anyone else.
But Dustin Poirier has also been on a tear since returning to 155 pounds and has won four straight fights and six out of seven, and Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone has won his last two fights via finish and might face McGregor for another interim lightweight title while Nurmagomedov serves a 6-month suspension for his actions following his win at UFC 229.
The uncertainty in the Lightweight title picture can be attributed to Dana White’s ongoing coddling of McGregor and catering to his every whim. On the other hand, White’s blatant favoritism ended up creating an unexpected opportunity. Imagine a mini Lightweight tournament featuring guys like Nurmagomedov, Ferguson, Poirier and McGregor. If you include Cerrone and need to expand the field to an even six fighters, adding someone like Iaquinta, Justin Gaethje or Edson Barboza would create the opportunity for more fireworks and immediately boost interest.
The UFC’s main competitor, Bellator MMA, is reintroducing the tournament format to great success with its heavyweight and welterweight Grand Prix tournaments. Its heavyweight Grand Prix just completed its year-long journey by crowning another double champion in Ryan Bader and boasted names like Fedor Emelianenko, Frank Mir, Chael Sonnen and Quinton “Rampage” Jackson. The Bellator Welterweight Grand Prix is ongoing and includes names like Bellator welterweight champion Rory MacDonald, Jon Fitch, Michael “Venom” Page, Paul Daley and Lorenz Larkin.
Other divisions in the UFC would benefit from holding mini-tournaments – especially the Welterweight, Featherweight and Strawweight divisions. While those should not become the norm for the UFC and number one contenders should still individually establish themselves, what happened at UFC 234 should not dismiss what can become an effective matchmaking tool.
Photo Credit: MMA Weekly