You'd be forgiven for getting the sense that ever since the UFC was purchased by mega talent agency WME|IMG the promotion had turned ever so subtly Hollywood. Our new WME days have been defined by an almost fantastical approach to matchmaking, similar to the Opening Weekend strategy of modern-day filmmaking: Make money today and save tomorrow for tomorrow. It's a consequence-free environment, and a substance-free one as well, with undeserving but needle-moving fighters leaping the rankings and getting title shots and interim title fights appearing from out of nowhere to juice up main events and bless them with an air of meaning, no matter how manufactured. Less sports, more Hollywood razzle-dazzle.
This new era has provided both opportunities for fighters (become one of WME's chosen guys and the world and all its riches could be yours) and confusion, as the long-established meritocratic approach to fight-making has been pushed aside in favor of flashier "event" fights that make far more monetary sense than athletic sense. Nowhere has this been the case more than in the UFC's middleweight division, where the meaning of rankings has been tossed out time and again in the name of flash. First there was champion Michael Bisping (whose skills as a self-promoter and maker of moments fit in perfectly with the new regime) getting his long-awaited revenge fight against legend Dan Henderson, who is much loved, much admired, but totally irrelevant from a rankings standpoint. That fight was followed by the announcement a few months ago that Bisping's next opponent would be Georges St-Pierre, who had not only been retired for three years by that point but who had never fought at 185 pounds. When that announcement was made the media went crazy, not just MMA media, media at large. Which only goes to show how big GSP is and how crafty WME's approach is: Substance means less than the shock of a good story. Meanwhile, however, a whole line of worthy contenders, from Yoel Romero to Luke Rockhold to "Jacare" Souza, was forced to sit back and watch as their division came grinding to a halt and all their ideas about the justice of the ranking system were turned to dust.
Not that they just sat by quietly and accepted this new reality. No. If there's one thing the age of MMA has taught fighters it's that he who makes the most noise, he who makes the biggest spectacle of himself, is the most richly rewarded. So, WME, live by the callout, die by the callout. And so we got middleweight legend Anderson "The Spider" Silva calling out the UFC and its president, Dana White, for gifting GSP a title shot and for not giving Silva the fight he wanted at UFC 212 in Rio, against Romero and for (you guessed it) an interim title belt. He called the UFC's decision to book the GSP/Bisping fight "bullshit" and called White "The Almighty." Soon, fellow middleweight contenders were following Silva's lead. First Luke Rockhold slammed the UFC for putting on mega-fights that "don't make sense" and calling on his divison-mates to "stand their ground." "Say, 'Fuck you, [UFC].' Put a title on the line or else fuck you, you don't even have a division." New contender Robert Whittaker joined Rockhold, saying "the division is at a standstill … There's no incentive to fight. There's no direction." And suddenly it seemed like an insurrection was in the works, with more and more fighters actively rebelling against the UFC's new big-money, small-meaning approach to matchmaking. Something had to give.
And yesterday, something did. In response to a video St-Pierre posted on Twitter telling the world he wouldn't be ready to fight Bisping until "after October" (as opposed to this summer, when that fight was tentatively scheduled to go on), White called the bluff of one of his biggest money-makers and declared the Bisping/GSP off. In its place, Bisping will now defend his belt against the legitimate number one contender, Yoel Romero—a rather dramatic return to the reality of the "rightful heir" theory of matchmaking and, it seems anyway, a bit of a thumb in the nose of the UFC's new leaders, who, we have to assume, look at GSP (one of the three biggest and most profitable names the sport has ever produced) and then look at Romero (a brilliant fighter with minimal English and a limited track record when it comes to driving revenue) and would choose GSP every time, rankings and reality be damned.
But maybe this kind of return to something like the old school is necessary sometimes, a bit of course-correction for a sport that has suddenly been thrust into the dizzying world of big-time Hollywood marketing but that has its own ways of doing things that maybe, possibly shouldn't be tossed out completely, if for no other reason that they tend to keep fighters happy rather than off looking for greener pastures, like, say Bellator.
As if to drive his point home, White didn't just stop with the GSP announcement. The next thing we knew, Anderson Silva's demands for an interim title fight were being brushed aside by the promotion and he was officially pulled from UFC 212, and White was even lighting a fire under the negotiations for a boxing match between UFC superstar Conor McGregor and Floyd Mayweather, negotiations that have not only kept the UFC's biggest money-maker out of the Octagon but have clogged up both of the divisions McGregor is the king of (precipitating the creation of an interim belt in at least one of them). Earlier today White said that if he can't get McGregor's team to agree to terms by the end of this weekend and then begin talking to Mayweather's team by Monday, that superfight might off.
"I just can't keep messing with this thing," White said. "I have to run my business and I have to focus on all the other things that are going on around here." In the multi-tiered, synergistic, consolidated-entertainment, Big Hollywood world of WME|IMG—and in the UFC of 2017—such focus sounds almost revolutionary.