Why Are More UFC Fighters Testing Free Agency?
Slowly but steadily, ranked fighters are trickling out of the UFC.
Three top-10 ranked fighters, according to UFC’s rankings, either left the promotion or made their new home official this past week.
Ryan Bader, a top-five light heavyweight expected to sign with Bellator MMA imminently, officially became a free agent. His exit is particularly notable, as another victory should have put him in line for a title shot in a light heavyweight division starving for fresh challengers.
Ninth-ranked bantamweight Michael McDonald, 26, followed Bader into free agency by requesting his release, citing UFC’s business dealings with him during an interview with ESPN.
For Lorenz Larkin, the writing was on the wall when he disappeared from UFC’s rankings in February. The former sixth-ranked UFC contender won four of the last five fights in his contract, closing with impressive wins over Jorge Masvidal and Neil Magny. On Thursday, Larkin’s local paper, The Press Enterprise, reported he had signed with Bellator MMA.
The departures of Bader, Larkin, and McDonald hardly signals a mass exodus from the world’s leading MMA promotion – they are just three of 160 ranked fighters and champions in the UFC – nor will it hurt UFC’s bottom line. Although Bader has hung near the top of his division for years and was slotted in for the occasional television main event, he was never a ratings mover. However, three ranked fighters leaving is notable for a promotion that largely kept a tight grip on top talent since purchasing top competitor Strikeforce in 2011.
Partly by design, that tight grip began to slip around two years ago, and has seemed to loosen even more since WME-IMG purchased the promotion in mid-2016. In 2016, there were as many as 600 fighters on the roster. Today, according to a list compiled by BloodyElbow.com, there are just a touch above 500.
The promotion has had some periods of significant roster reductions throughout its history, but never so indiscriminately when it came to its top fighters as today. They released ranked light heavyweight Nikita Krylov in February. Ranked flyweight Kyoji Horiguchi exited the same month after fighting out his contract. For days, it appeared a similar fate awaited Misha Cirkunov, the most promising light heavyweight the promotion has had in years, until a new deal was reached.
While reasons for the exits will vary from case to case, the main causes are somewhat clear. On the UFC’s side, they have major financial goals to hit beginning at the end of this June. Those goals make all but a few fighters on the roster dispensable to varying degrees. Certainly, the UFC would love to have all of the world’s best fighters on their roster, but most have limited individual value to the UFC.
In addition, although its direct impact is mere speculation, UFC has been less keen to exercise its matching rights for free agents since a group of fighters filed an anti-trust lawsuit against them in December 2014 that alleged the promotion was a monopoly among other claims. Since that point, notable stars like Phil Davis, Benson Henderson, and Rory MacDonald have left the promotion for its main competitor, Bellator MMA without UFC invoking its right to match and keep the top-10 ranked fighters under its umbrella. Perhaps the lawsuit was a negligible factor in the departures or simply a coincidence, but it should not be dismissed entirely as a factor at this stage.
On the fighters’ side, we have seen an uptick in fighters completing their contracts in order to test their worth on the free market. In the past few years, Bellator MMA switched to a format more reliant and friendly to established stars, making it a more lucrative destination for fighters like Davis, Henderson, and MacDonald. No longer were fighters forced to go through an arduous months-long tournament to earn a title shot in Bellator, and mid-level stars wouldn’t be facing major pay cuts to go to the “B” promotion. In addition to Bellator, ONE Championship is a stable option that has made offers to name free agents, and Rizin Fighting Federation would be a viable option for some fighters.
Also factoring in are the UFC’s own practices. In July 2015, UFC instituted two major changes for its fighters, but didn’t consult with the vast majority of them or negotiate with any of them. The UFC’s deal with Reebok and the resulting uniform policy stripped fighters of the ability to sell ads on their shorts, banners, and shirts for their bouts. Instead, fighters wore Reebok-branded gear and paid out of that deal based on organizational tenure. For many, it resulted in a significant pay cut.
That same month, UFC’s deal with the United States Anti-Doping Agency went into effect. The program was well intentioned and long overdue, but fighters must constantly check in with their whereabouts and are woken up at odd hours for an unknown inspector to watch them pee, all without having a say in the deal.
Bader, Larkin, and McDonald will not be the last ranked fighters to leave the UFC this year. There are no signs that the promotion is about to become aggressive once again about retaining and signing top talent. However, though done in the name of saving money, waving goodbye to top-ranked fighters may cheapen the brand that WME-IMG purchased for around $4 billion last year.
One of the main appeals of the UFC has been seeing the world’s best fighters compete against each other. The promotion is far from having less than a majority of the world’s best fighters, but it has a busy schedule of 40-plus events per year, and declining roster depth will begin to show on its lower level events. This past weekend, a UFC show headlined by Jimi Manuwa vs. Corey Anderson could have used a Benson Henderson, Rory MacDonald, or Ryan Bader.
The danger is not in falling behind in a race with Bellator, but rather in fans taking notice that the UFC is something less than it had been.