The new owners of the UFC have inherited a whole host of issues. A lack of star-power, a voracious drug-testing regimen, various lawsuits and a general trough in MMA signal tough times ahead for WME-IMG.
But perhaps the most significant problem facing the new owners is self-imposed. As of late the UFC has been cutting many top-tier fighters for no apparent reason leaving many scratching their heads.
News recently came out that Kyoji Horiguchi has signed with Japanese promotion Rizin. Horiguchi accumulated a record of 7-1 in the UFC and leaves on a three-fight win streak. Moreover, the Japanese Flyweight was easily in the top three at Flyweight and on the short-list for title contention. How then could the UFC let go of what is essentially an invaluable commodity in their perhaps least deep division? What’s more baffling is Horiguchi isn’t alone.
Among those recently released by the UFC are Nikita Krylov, Rick Story, and Érik Pérez. Those three fighters had an accumulative record of 25-12 in the organization. Krylov was cut with an average 6-3 record but still has quite a bit of upside and is sorely needed in a Light-Heavyweight Division with only about 40 fighters.
Pérez is perhaps most puzzling out of these three, as he, like Horiguchi, is a rising prospect with a UFC record of 7-2. These are only the releases that have been substantiated.
Quite a few credible journalists are pointing to two other fighters who are highly likely to leave the sport’s premier organization. Both Light-Heavyweight prospect Misha Cirkunov and Welterweight standout Lorenz Larkin have been removed from the UFC’s rankings and are likely headed to other organizations. Cirkunov, a highly touted 205-lber is 4-0 in the UFC and is the only current prospect in their perennially shallow Light-Heavyweight Division besides newcomer Paul Craig. Larkin holds an unremarkable record in the UFC (just 6-5) but he has picked up tremendous momentum as of late. “The Monsoon” has won four of his last five fights with that one loss coming by way of a very close split decision.
How can the UFC justify purging its ranks of both elite talent and extremely promising up and comers? The apparent strategy that WME-IMG is pursuing is a specious one. It seems as though their argument is that these fighters (the ones being cut) will never be major assets to the company. Sure they are elite at what they do but they won’t be able to headline the kind of events needed to pay off the exorbitant loans needed to purchase a $4.2 billion company.
Lets face it, their idea isn’t totally wrong. They might be able to get one or two more title fights out of Horiguchi but does that justify paying him a sum commensurate to what Rizin offered – undoubtedly a hefty price. What about someone like Larkin? He could easily rise to Welterweight contention but can the UFC really afford to get into a bidding war with Bellator at this point in time? If they were set on keeping him that wouldn’t be a problem but the fact is fighters like him no longer fit the UFC model.
The UFC has always relied on star power. Under Zuffa and the Fertitta brothers the company could afford to balance this out with a steady cast of elite though less than bombastic middle men. Now though, WME-IMG is in a bind. They need to make returns on their gargantuan purchase and “small fish” like Horiguchi and Cirkunov are not going to do that.
(Above: Actor Jeremy Piven describes portraying Ari Emanuel; CEO of WME-IMG)
But here is the problem:
Demetrious Johnson has cleared out his division. His next opponent will likely be Joseph Benavidez who he has beaten twice. With Horiguchi gone Johnson has maybe one or two other men to rematch again. He can of course move up for a super fight but Flyweight will stagnate in the mean time and perhaps for the immediate future. That is going to cost the company big time. Light Heavyweight too is at risk. There are four maybe five men at the top of the division and that is it. Jon Jones, Daniel Cormier, Anthony Johnson, Alexander Gustafsson, and Glover Teixeira are the 205 lbs division there is no one else. After mixing and matching these five fighters (many into rematches) the division is at a standstill. The disappearance of Cirkunov, the one viable prospect and fresh match-up, points to a willingness to let that division stagnate as well.
WME-IMG is cutting fighters who are almost certainly future contenders because they don’t appear immediately financially viable. But how do they expect to create new stars when they cut elite talent all of whom have winning records in the organization? The UFC will continue to put on too many top heavy shows, filled with sub-par talent because it makes financial sense. It is cheaper to pay for big headliners and lots of no names than it is to pay big headliners, elite athletes, and one or two scrubs.
The real losers here are not the Horiguchis of this world, who probably will be making more at other organizations, but the fans. For the most part cards will feature two or three good fights and nothing else of substance.
WME-IMG is reaching over a dollar to pick up a quarter. To them it seems like they are making money and paying off loans that they probably regret taking out in the first place. But in a few months when Flyweight is devoid of excitement and Light Heavyweight is all but empty they will realize their mistake. Who knows how much more damage they’ll do in the meantime. But until then fans and media alike will curse the new owners for robbing them of exciting match-ups and giving them cards that are full of sub par talent.