Ramifications of MMA’s First Trade
Huge precedent setting news reverberated through the MMA world this week when ESPN’s Ariel Helwani reported that the UFC was on the verge of trading former flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson to ONE Championship, a fighting promotion based out of Singapore. In return the UFC would be getting back Ben Askren, their undefeated champion and former Bellator welterweight champion. About five years ago Askren entered free agency as a 12-0 29 year old who looked very Khabib Nurmagomedov-esque, using his overwhelming wrestling to beat anyone Bellator could put in front of him. In hindsight his wins over Douglas Lima and Andrey Koreshkov look pretty good but at the time the big question was “can he do this against the best of the best in the UFC?”. Unfortunately we never got the chance to find out. ‘Funky’ and Dana White got into a war of words with White calling him “boring” and Askren eventually ended up with ONE. He dominated some lesser competition (his only notable win coming over Shinya Aoki, who was very undersized) before announcing his retirement this past November. He has said in interviews that he is still open to fighting but only if it was in the UFC against greats like Georges St. Pierre. At the time that seemed impossible but after the latest news, anything seems possible.
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On the surface it looks like Askren would slide into an already crowded welterweight title picture while flyweight is ripped wide open. But that might not be the case. I think this could potentially cause a ripple effect that leads to major changes in the UFC. ‘Mighty Mouse’ is one of the best pound for pound fighters in the sport and one of the greatest fighters of all time. He only recently lost his flyweight championship after defending it a record breaking 11 times. He seemed unbeatable (and could’ve arguably won his most recent fight against Henry Cejudo in August) but the UFC could never figure out how to capitalize on his greatness and promote him and the division. He was never able to create a real rivalry with anyone which has been a key in launching fighters into the next level of stardom (McGregor/Diaz, Jones/Cormier, Chuck/Tito, the list goes on). Their best chance was with Cejudo taking his belt in a split decision that could’ve gone either way. An immediate rematch to their trilogy would’ve easily been the biggest fight at 125 pounds to date. So the fact that the UFC is trading DJ in midst of that possibility tells me there is more to the story to come.
There have been rumors off and on over the past couple years that the UFC is looking to get rid of their men’s flyweight division. At one point I heard they were looking to sell it off as a whole. Its demise seems inevitable at this point. They’ve just traded the weight classes’ biggest and, apologies to the rest of the fighters in it, only draw. Its been rumored that current champion Henry Cejudo’s next fight will be against TJ Dillashaw for the bantamweight belt. Also, following his loss in what looked to be a number one contender’s fight against Jussier da Silva, Sergio Pettis has a fight booked for December – at 135 pounds. So with the current champion, former champion and biggest draw, and another top contender not around plus persistent rumors of the UFC wanting to eliminate it – I think we’re at the end of its life cycle.
The curious thing about the UFC potentially getting rid of a weight class, and with it a championship belt to promote, is that they’ve been desperate for fights to put at the top of cards. With so many shows they’re obligated to run the topic of over-saturation is almost hack at this point its discussed so much. They’re constantly putting themselves in situations where they have to create interim belts when it doesn’t make sense, strip fighters of belts even when its an interim they just created to headline a show, and rush things together at the last second to save a card from having to be canceled. That last point is on full display in two weeks at UFC 230 when Daniel Cormier fights Derrick Lewis for the heavyweight championship on extremely short notice and both guys not at 100%. And none of that is changing. Starting in 2019 the UFC moves to ESPN and will be putting on even more shows per year than they have these past few.
So why would a promotion desperate for big fights get rid of an entire division? Perhaps if they were planning on adding one with the potential to be more prestigious. Another rumor that has been circulating over the past year or so and has only gained momentum over that time is the addition of a 165 pound division (super lightweight? I’m not exactly sure what it would be called.). That would push welterweight from 170 to 175 pounds and give the UFC a weight class every 10 pounds from 135 to 185 plus heavyweight and light heavyweight. Its been argued that this could help with weight cutting issues since 15 pounds between middleweight to welterweight and welterweight to lightweight limits fighter’s options. But what could be enticing to the UFC is that a 165 pound division would fall right in the middle of the two deepest, most talented, and most promotable divisions. More belts and big fights for the likes of GSP, Conor McGregor, Nate Diaz, etc. Add Ben Askren to the mix, who could slot into either the 165 or 175 pound division and give them even more depth there. I can picture a time early next year when we have title fights of Tyron Woodley vs. Colby Covington, Ben Askren vs. Georges St. Pierre, and Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Tony Ferguson all on the schedule. Not to mention Conor McGregor vs. Nate Diaz on the table for any of those weight classes.
Maybe all this idle speculation is false and this trade is exactly what it is on the surface and everything will go on exactly as it has been but just with a few different faces. But you know what? Its fun. And that is a place the sport hasn’t been in for a while. No matter what this at least sets a precedent that could allow for future trades. And what sports fan doesn’t love trades? Gone could be the days of disappointment that two great fighters in the same weight class can’t fight each other because they’re in different organizations and on long term contracts. Let your imagination run wild. Thats what the fighters involved in this transaction did. Now Ben Askren finally gets to test himself against the best competition in the world and Demetrious Johnson gets to join Eddie Alvarez in cashing in on big paydays from a new market with a new audience that will probably appreciate his skills more. Its sad to see DJ leave the UFC but there will still be ways to watch him fight. I think its a positive result for everyone involved.