The devil in this particular equation? “Legitimacy.”
Today news broke that the UFC parted ways with one of their most recognizable figures. Not a fighter, not a commentator, not even a referee—but rather, a cutman by the name of Jacob “Stitch” Duran. Cutmen play a massively important role in the octagon: they tend to injuries between rounds, stitch fighters back together mid-fight. They help keep fighters safe.
Duran was one of the best in the business, and easily the most beloved with his gentle demeanor and signature vest. If you’ve ever watched a UFC card, you’ve probably seen his face for at least a minute or two. He’d been helping out at UFC events for 14 years, and the UFC cut him like an overgrown hangnail. Why? Because he dared voice his honest opinion about where the UFC’s new deal with Reebok—a deal which stipulates that Reebok is now the only sponsor whose apparel can appear in the octagon—left him. He’s making less money now, he said, as are a large number of fighters. Previously UFC fighters (and cut-folk like Duran) made a significant portion of their income from sponsors, so this is a pretty big shock to the system. The only obvious winners in this deal? Reebok and the UFC.
Duran’s words weren’t even particularly inflammatory. He explained that he was concerned about his family and his future, that he might have to seek additional work on the side. But that was enough, apparently, and a day later the UFC canned him without a second thought.
That’s hardly the only recent bit of UFC news that’s left me with a bad taste in my mouth. The road to “legitimacy”—the UFC’s dogged attempt at following in the footsteps of other major sporting leagues like the NBA, MLB, and NFL—has been fraught with ugly bumps. New Reebok-brand fighter uniforms—an attempt at standardizing the general look of UFC fighters ala professional sports teams—have been criticized to hell and back, but they don’t look to be changing any time soon.
I understand the desire to give the product a more professional appearance, and lord knows some fighters used to look tacky as hell. But MMA is a sport built on the backs (and rippling tree trunk shoulders) of individuals. It might sound strange, but fighters like Mirko Cro Cop and Chuck Liddell were fucking iconic, in part, because of their octagon apparel. Cro Cop’s Croatian flag, Chuck “The Ice Man” Liddell’s ice-blue trunks. Those things were part of the package, parcel with their ineffable brand of badassery.
Now everybody just kinda looks the same. Oh, and most of them get paid a lot less too. I’m talking tens of thousands of dollars less per fight. In a sport where a surprising amount of money goes toward paying for training, medical expenses, and other termite-like fees, that’s no good. It makes lower-profile UFC competitors like Bellator look more attractive to young up-and-coming fighters. Oh, and despite all these stringent requirements, UFC fighters are still regarded as independent contractors—not full-time employees. I’m not saying there isn’t a good version of this Reebok deal, a compromise waiting somewhere in the ether. I’m just saying this isn’t it.
Meanwhile, the UFC is putting on more events than ever. These days, there’s a fight card almost every week. There are so many fighters—only a fraction of them actually good or noteworthy—that even people like me struggle to keep up. I mean, the sheer fucking volume of it all. UFC 100-whatever. UFC Fight Night Vitamin B12. UFC In A Box On Fox With Goddamn Green Eggs And Ham. BIG NUMBERS. ANGRY MEN GRIMACING ON POSTERS.
But what are the stakes? Who are the people involved? Sometimes, it’s tough to tell. Sometimes, there are hardly any stakes at all. Non-marquee events often feel like filler, flab, dangling strands of fat obscuring that sweet six pack you keep telling yourself you could have if only you weren’t spending all your time keeping up with these damn UFC events.
Here’s the recent Reebok fight kit reveal, which is just... painful to watch.
Now, let’s be real here: the UFC has always been a business. They have always wanted to put their #brand in front of as many #eyeballs as possible and make as much #money as they #can. That’s understandable. But lately it’s felt like they’ve lost sight of their soul. Or rather, they’ve forgotten what their soul is made up of: the fighters, the individuals. Fighting is not a team sport. It lives and dies on singular entities far more than team sports, where people can be traded without a whole team (necessarily) losing its identity or legacy. MMA fighters are not disposable or interchangeable.
As a result, all UFC cards are not created equal. Just because you slap the UFC name on card full of no-name fighters, that doesn’t mean you’ve put together something worth watching (this goes double for cards hosted in places that aren’t the US, Canada, or Brazil, where the company seems to think “lip service” is a good business policy). If neophytes tune into that and think, “Wait, this is all UFC is? This is what the fuss is about?” it’s doubtful that they’ll tune back in at a later date.
The UFC’s jam-packed schedule already made it hard enough for individuals to stand out. And if that’s the way the UFC wants to go, sure, fine, do that. Proliferate. Dial back quality, dial up quantity. But don’t create a clothing/sponsorship/business model that obscures fighters even more. The UFC wouldn’t be where it is today without the stars who made it what it is. Reward those people. Create a structure that facilitates the growth of more of them. But instead, the UFC is actively hurting their own ability to nurture more stars. They’re burying them, smothering them, snuffing them out. I mean, try to think of current UFC fighters everybody knows about. There’s Ronda Rousey, Conor McGregor, and... ? (I guess also Jon Jones, but he recently disappeared in a fog of drugs, crime, and who knows what else.)
I know it might seem like I’m complaining about too much of a good thing, but that’s not really the point I’m trying to make. What I’m saying is, when the UFC prioritizes the UFC brand name and business over all else, everybody suffers. Fans, fighters, cutmen, and eventually—ultimately—even the UFC itself. Because all these things I’ve talked about? They have a cumulative effect. A single cutman might not seem like a big deal, but when it’s a single beloved cutman who rocks at his job and has been with the company for 14 years, it becomes telling. Telling of intention, ambition, and direction. Telling of a slow degradation of personality and principles in favor of nebulous “legitimacy”—of jumping through hoops other sports have set up instead of forging their own path.
It tells employees something, too: don’t stick your neck out, or you might lose your head. Don’t stand out, don’t speak up. That’s not a message you want to send in an organization where your two biggest stars got a lot of their notoriety by being big talkers. Admittedly, I can’t think of a fighter who’s gotten the axe for talking about Reebok yet, but make no mistake: by cutting Duran today, the UFC—whether on purpose or not—sent a message: quit fucking talking about this... or else. That right there? That’s called a precedent.
It feels like the UFC is looking past the past and the present, letting themselves be blinded by a brighter future—one they seem to think is a foregone conclusion. There have been upsides to all of this (a much slicker broadcast presentation, some unexpectedly fantastic fight cards, cool YouTube extras like the “Embed” series), but the organization has taken precedence over the individual. The UFC has diluted itself, become less than the sum of its parts. That’s dangerous. And yet, they seem determined to keep running in this direction, everyone except Reebok be damned. All I can say is, I hope it’s worth it. I hope those new shoes are damn comfortable.
Image credit: Getty.