It is no secret that the UFC has changed a great deal since being acquired by WME-IMG, from top talent being let go to “money fights” taking precedence over having the best fight the best. Now another trend is taking shape: the mistreatment of less marketable non-English speaking fighters, more notably those hailing from Brazil. Whether or not this is on purpose or a matter of coincidence is unknown, but Brazilian fighters have recently been severely underutilized by the world’s top mixed martial arts promotion. There are a multitude of examples to choose from, but we will start with the most notable Brazilian competitors.
UFC women’s bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes is a highly marketable Brazilian fighter. She speaks English, she hypes fights, and most importantly she performs. However, after dismantling Miesha Tate to secure the women’s bantamweight title around her waist, she still didn’t get the respect she deserved. Because her challenger Ronda Rousey refused to do media the UFC did not allow Amanda Nunes to do media, which prevented her for building on her opportunity in the spotlight across from the most famous fighter in the sport. She destroyed Rousey in the first round, despite the fact that UFC commentator Joe Rogan stated one WME executive didn’t even know who Amanda Nunes was and had dubbed the Brazilian knockout artist as “cannon fodder”. The blatant disrespect and lack of knowledge about one of the very best female fighters in the world provides a clue about WME-IMG management’s stance on Brazil’s top talent.
Consider Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, the masterful middleweight Brazilian jiu-jitsu specialist. With the exception of Anderson Silva, Jacare is the most popular Brazilian fighter on the roster. Yet despite his popularity Jacare has been passed over for a title shot by objectively undeserving fighters such as Dan Henderson and George St. Pierre. Because less-deserving North American middleweights have jumped the line, Souza has been forced to take other top contender fights to stay busy and wait for his title shot – until he eventually loses a fight and loses his place in line, like he did at UFC on FOX 24.
How many wins does Demian need to get a title shot? (Via @EASPORTSUFC)
Widely considered the best Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioner in the game today, Demian Maia is currently on a six-fight win streak against top contenders in the UFC’s stacked welterweight division. That run of form is easily the most impressive in the welterweight division and despite decisively winning a title eliminator against Carlos Condit, Maia still hasn’t received his title shot. Instead he will be forced to face fellow streaking contender Jorge Masvidal at UFC 211, putting him in the same situation as Jacare Souza. This treatment fails to properly acknowledge and reward his accomplishments within the division, as Maia is left to risk his standing in another non-title fight.
At least those fighters have had the opportunity to take on top opponents. Lightweight Brazilian jiu-jitsu stylist Leonardo Santos is undefeated in the UFC at 5-0-1, and the top up-and-comer proved himself with a four-fight win streak that saw him pick up big wins over Kevin Lee and Adriano Martins. Yet despite his winning ways Santos has been denied a ranked opponent as he will now face another tough under-the-radar fight with Olivier Aubin-Mercier. All the while Kevin Lee, who Santos knocked out in the first round, has just picked up his first top 15 win and has been awarded another top 15 fight for his next bout. While a less-accomplished fighter like Lee receives multiple chances at cracking the rankings, Santos is placed in another must-win situation if he has any hopes of getting a crack at a top 15 lightweight in the future.
Like Santos, it took top lightweight Francisco Trinaldo a remarkable seven-fight win streak to earn a top 15 ranking. However, it still didn’t get him a top 15 opponent. Instead he faced off with then-unranked Kevin Lee at UFC Fight Night 106, which resulted in an unfortunate loss. The UFC once again failed to reward a Brazilian fighter for his body of work. Instead they feed him a tough, unranked opponent, seemingly in hopes that he will lose. This is the same situation Leonardo Santos finds himself in at UFC 212.
Nine title defenses wasn’t enough to get Jose a rematch with Conor (via @JoseAldoJunior)
There are many more examples of Brazilian fighters being mistreated by the company, from Jose Aldo not receiving his much deserved immediate rematch like dominant champions before him to former lightweight champion Rafael Dos Anjos not receiving the notable name he wanted for his move up to welterweight. Contrast that with the treatment that fighters like Eduardo Dantas, the Pitbull brothers, and even recent title challenger Leandro Higo have received from Bellator. It’s very easy to see the difference in the way Bellator treats top Brazilian talent compared to how the UFC handles them.
This sad fact is that the new “marketability” era of the UFC is in contradiction with what makes a sport a sport. The fine line between sport and entertainment is one that WME-IMG appears to have no issues crossing. Letting top 10 fighters walk, treating top talent differently based on popularity and marketability, and giving title shots based on nothing but pay-per-view sales is reminiscent of WWE. It is more a circus mentality than that of a sport. If Serena Williams was just handed a spot in the finals of the Wimbledon without earning it would we accept that because of her popularity?
Mixed Martial Arts as a sport should be taken as seriously as every other sport in the world. It is an argument I have argued for many years. Yet as soon as the sport starts to gain a head of steam the owners of the sport’s biggest promotion stop holding their operation to the same standard of sporting integrity as before. Hopefully we will soon see top talent getting treated equally both in pay and opportunity at success, regardless of their first language or nation or origin. Unfortunately the UFC appears headed in a different direction