Just In Trading Shots: What’s behind unexpected UFC roster cuts, and what’s the overall effect? MMA Life

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What effect do sudden, unexpected roster cuts have on UFC fighters, and why can’t we even ger a clear answer on who’s fired and who isn’t? Retired UFC and WEC fighter Danny Downes joins MMA Junkie columnist Ben Fowlkes to discuss in this week’s Trading Shots.

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Fowlkes: I know you’re probably busy transferring money into your investment account just so it’s ready the instant Endeavor launches its IPO, but there’s some news out this week that makes me wonder how a multi-billion dollar company like the UFC can really operate this way. I refer now, of course, to this weird situation with Justin Willis.

Here we have an 8-2 heavyweight coming off his first loss in the UFC – a unanimous decision defeat at the hands of Curtis Blaydes, who’s no slouch – and word is that he’s been cut from the roster after turning down a fight with Walt Harris this summer. Except, hold on, Willis insists he hasn’t been cut, that it’s all a “miscommunication,” despite his release being confirmed by a UFC official.

This strikes me as the kind of thing that could only happen in this strange sport of ours. The fighter and his employer can’t even agree on whether or not he still has a job. What do you make of this situation, Danny? And what do you think about the UFC’s practice of occasionally firing (or threatening to fire) fighters who say anything but yes to the UFC’s plan? Is Willis getting Yair Rodriguez’d here?

Downes: The first person I thought of when I heard about the situation with “Big Pretty” was Rodriguez. We’ve seen how this goes. The fighter doesn’t agree to everything the UFC says, the UFC says, “OK, you’re cut,” and then the fighter comes back and begs for his or her job.

If I was a betting man, I’d say Willis isn’t going anywhere. His next fight will be in the UFC against the first opponent offered. When you think of it that way, it’s perfect negotiation from the promotion.

Willis has an 8-2 record and before his last fight against Blaydes, he was ranked No. 10 in the division. Considering the lack of heavyweight depth it may seem like a rash decision on the surface, but is it really?

Sure, Willis has three wins inside the organization, but did his jab-a-palooza fight against Mark Hunt really endear him to you? If you’re the UFC, why would you keep a heavyweight who was (allegedly) too big to make the heavyweight limit with two months notice and makes demands? Even if he was the tenth best heavyweight in the UFC, is he worth the headache?

We’ve complained about the bloated UFC roster for years. The UFC may be doing this to weaken fighters, but maybe it should be pickier with whom it decides to keep. The UFC cut Elias Theodorou. He was a ranked middleweight with an 8-3 record in the octagon, but look at his last couple fights. You plan on rewatching them any time soon? As a budding labor activist, you may not be happy. As a fan, however, aren’t these moves you support?

Fowlkes: You could definitely make the case for paring down the UFC roster (even if it might make booking 40 events a year more difficult). What’s tougher to support is the habitual use of “you’re fired” as a negotiation tactic.

There are lots of reasons to turn down a fight, and some are more legit than others. It’s one thing if you just don’t like the choice of opponent. As the UFC matchmakers have put it, if you’re here in the sport’s top promotion, then you better be ready to fight who they’ve got for you.

But what if you don’t feel physically or mentally ready to book a fight just yet? What if you know your weight isn’t where it needs to be and you don’t want to jeopardize your health with a drastic cut? (A less sympathetic argument at heavyweight, but still.) If the UFC policy is that anyone who doesn’t say yes automatically is subject to release, that could easily result in fighters making bad and maybe even dangerous decisions.

It also seems like the UFC might be sending conflicting messages. Fighters are told that they need to make us care about them. They have to stand out, be memorable, give us a reason to want to see them either win or lose. In their own ways, both Willis and Theodorou did that. But then they lose one fight and they get cut and you’re going to tell me it’s at least partially because their fighting styles weren’t exciting enough?

So you have to be willing to take risks and be exciting in the cage, but you also have to reckon with the fact that one loss could get you cut. Those two things don’t go together very well. The UFC seems to view job insecurity as a motivator, but it seems to me that it could just as easily have the opposite effect.

Downes: That’s a fair point. There are plenty of fighters who have consciously or subconsciously “played it safe” in order to avoid getting cut. This places them in a no-win situation. If you win, but aren’t exciting, they’ll cut you. If you’re exciting but lose, they’ll cut you anyway.

The same idea applies to your health. You perform best when you’re healthy. Fighting injured produces a product the promotion probably won’t like. Turning down a fight to heal up could also anger the promotion.

I understand your trepidation, but you’re making one key mistake here. You want some universal standard in a sport that has never had and doesn’t need them. Regardless of how you feel about B.J. Penn, there’s a reason he’s still on the roster even though his last win was (checks notes) against Matt Hughes in 2010.

Even if he loses a few in a row, Justin Gaethje probably doesn’t have to worry about being cut any time soon. Jon Fitch was released from the UFC despite a 14-3-1 record in the promotion. There were other reasons he was persona non grata at UFC headquarters, but his fighting style was the biggest factor.

This is another example of how lopsided the power dynamic between fighters and promoters is. You can be cut (or be threatened with it) at any moment for totally arbitrary reasons. The UFC has always tried to balance sport and spectacle, but right now it is primarily focused on being a business.

Promoters have always fostered a “race to the bottom” approach for their independent contractors. Recent years have only accelerated that strategy. The question is, will fans and fighters continue to oblige them? Willis, Rodriguez and many others gave the UFC what it wanted. Until that changes, the negotiation tactics won’t.

Ben Fowlkes is MMA Junkie and USA TODAY’s MMA columnist. Danny Downes, a retired UFC and WEC fighter, is an MMA Junkie contributor who has also written for UFC.com and UFC 360. Follow them on twitter at @benfowlkesMMA and @dannyboydownes.

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