Ever since Hollywood super-agency WME|IMG bought the UFC last summer for an outlandish $4 billion there's been a discernible shift in the spirit of the promotion, a marked movement away front the sport-first mentality of ratings-based matchmaking and fight-based marketing campaigns into the realm of big-money fights that have nothing to do with rankings and brand-based, product-integrated, synergistic media strategies driven by fighters' personalities and cross-platform marketability. In just the past year the UFC has grown both more sophisticated and more cynical, more corporate and more chaotic, and it's still an open question where the balance of power is going to fall once all the dust has settled. Will the UFC's new corporate culture entrench power even further in the hands of management or will more and more fighters, recognizing the power that grows out of individual popularity and success, flex their muscles?
Freed by their new bosses from the confines of the rankings system (bosses forever looking for the most profitable fight at the moment, without an eye on the future) champions are starting to realize that they can get the fights they want by convincing their bosses that fight would bring in the most attention. So, a little manufactured controversy here and some hype there gets a champion his handpicked opponent, and spares him those he doesn't want to deal with, whether out of fear or simple disinterest.
Such behavior may be the mark of the new WME big Hollywood era, but it's not hard to see how rebellious souls and self-promotion savants like Conor McGregor and Michael Bisping were just waiting for such an era to arrive, and are taking advantage of it with both hands now that it's here. But you know there's been a fundamental shift in the way things are done when even a good company man like flyweight and pound-for-pound champion Demetrious Johnson starts pushing his weight (such as it is) around. There's a resistance astir among fighter in the UFC, but I don't think anyone would have guessed that "Mighty Mouse" would become one of its biggest names.
DJ's "political awakening" began late last month when rumors started circulating that bantamweight champion Cody Garbrandt was going to pull out of his title fight with arch-nemesis TJ Dillashaw at UFC 213 in July. Dillashaw immediately began lobbying for a title fight with Demetrious Johnson. If the rumors are true, Dillashaw said, and my fight with Garbrandt is off, I will move down to flyweight and challenge the champion there. It seemed perfect: the flyweight champion, now exactly one title defense away from breaking the all-time UFC record, fights the former bantamweight champion. Perhaps not a true super-fight but pretty close.
But Johnson, feeling his oats after yet another dominant victory a month before and surely sensing something new in the air, demurred. Dillashaw is not the bantamweight champion, he said, so ours would be no super fight. Besides, who is TJ Dillashaw to come down to the flyweight division and leapfrog every fighter already in line for my title? Let him fight at 125 pounds once before we start considering him. Instead Johnson said he was expecting to fight Ray Borg next, a little-known fighter who has none of the drawing power of TJ Dillashaw but who, in Johnson's eyes, had earned the chance.
For a week now, Johnson hasn't backed down, no matter that UFC President Dana White is demanding he fight Dillashaw next. "TJ is going to go down to 125 to fight D.J. to stop him from breaking the record, but D.J. doesn't want to fight him," White told the UFC Unfiltered podcast earlier this week. "It's insanity."
White then pulled rank on his flyweight champion. "Unfortunately for DJ, you don't make the fights around here," he said. "I do. [Johnson vs. Dillashaw is] the fight we're pushing for."
The problem for Dana White is that he may not have that kind of rank to pull anymore. Back in the Zuffa days, White and his matchmakers ruled the UFC with absolute authority. Where they pointed fighters went. Then along came Conor McGregor with his huge numbers and his enormous bankability and his two belts and his onerous demands and his desire to start boxing, and after him came WME with its lust for big-name/big-money fights and its devotion to brand integration and the religion of corporate synergy, and suddenly fighters, and especially champions, are starting to feel what kind of leverage they have. And there's the biting irony for UFC management: This new era, it turns out, cuts both ways. When you give power to some champions to choose and sell what you see as the biggest fights, don't be surprised when other champions choose fights that don't you're your definition. Sometimes a champion just wants to fight the next guy in line, Hollywood razzle-dazzle be damned, and you've just handed that champion a loaded gun. Score one for the little guy.