2014 is a year the UFC is probably happy to have in its rear-view mirror. In the absence of longtime stars such as Anderson Silva and Georges St-Pierre, the industry leader was forced to slap old labels on new fighters and hope for the best. Renan Barao was suddenly the pound-for-pound king that Anderson Silva once was and, seemingly out of nowhere, Demetrious Johnson had usurped GSP as the most well-rounded fighter we’d ever seen.
Fans rejected both ideas. Or at least that’s what pay-per-view estimates would suggest. Of the 12 pay-per-views the UFC put on that year, Johnson, Barao, and T.J. Dillashaw (the man who eventually unseated the alleged pound-for-pound king) headlined five of them for a combined 890,000 buys.
In late 2014, changes in the UFC’s promotional philosophies became apparent. They signed C.M. Punk (likely out of desperation) and really went all in on the promotion of Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey as their top stars. They began to promote fighters ahead of their own brand. The decision to do so wound up leading to their most successful year ever. Another example of the Zuffa’s notable shift in philosophy around that time was the signing of Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino.
Prior to bringing her into the fold, UFC President Dana White had done everything he could to diminish Justino as a star after negotiations went south. His campaign against her included some of the more offensive and unsavory remarks he’s ever made about a fighter, but also the idea that without Ronda Rousey as the A-side to a potential matchup, that Cyborg held little value. Given the amount of sway White has over MMA fans, it didn’t take much to get them on board with the idea.
Of course, time proved White and fans who bought in to that line of thinking completely wrong. Cyborg’s UFC debut last year gained mainstream headlines and she got over so big that they’re now cashing in on her star power and having her main event this Saturday’s UFC Fight Night card on FS1.
While the UFC’s change in attitude towards Cyborg is great for fans and the company’s bottom line, things still aren’t as they should be. Neither her debut against Leslie Smith nor her bout this Saturday against Lina Lansberg are contested in the weight class she’s accustomed to competing in. Both fights were signed as 140-pound catchweights. The Lansberg fight being contested at a catchweight is particularly egregious considering Lansberg normally competes at featherweight and was specifically brought into the UFC to serve as cannon fodder for Cyborg.
Video of Justino being brought to tears by the harsh weight cut required of her by the UFC made the rounds and stands out as something that just shouldn’t be happening to star fighters in 2016. Perhaps more than anything else, this year will be remembered as a year in which the UFC made more concessions for star fighters than ever before.
The fact that the UFC is willing to publicly bend over backwards for Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz, but Cristiane Justino is punished for even competing for the organization feels sleazy and wrong. It sends the message that they are stars and she isn’t. McGregor is a featherweight champion who has twice been allowed to compete as high as welterweight in the UFC, whereas Cyborg is a featherweight champion whom we have to see doubled over on her bathroom floor, struggling to cut an extra five pounds for ostensibly no reason whatsoever.
It took years for Dana White to stop comparing Cyborg’s physical characteristics to those of Wanderlei Silva. It took a few more for him to sign her and admit that she’s the star that many always knew that she was. Hopefully it doesn’t take him much longer to realize that fans care more about stars than they do weight.
NOW CHECK OUT AMADI’S PREVIEW COLUMN: AMADI: The C.M. Punk Thing – What happened to his personality and bravado that made him a star in pro wrestling?
(MMATorch columnist Jason Amadi is back after an absence of several years. It’s great to have him back writing a weekly column. Follow him on Twitter @JasonAmadi.)