A guide to maintaining career longevity in the UFC
There was a time when all you needed to be a successful MMA fighter was one dominant skill set and/or a decent gimmick. Think back to the fighters who emerged from the early years of the UFC and you’ll see a collection of competitors who either had one serious weapon or an unbeatable schtick.
Royce Gracie sure didn’t look like much walking in against guys twice his size, but since nobody knew how to deal with Gracie Jiu Jitsu, a legend was born. Same goes for Dan Severn’s wrestling. Conversely, Tank Abbott played up his “barroom brawler” persona to the hilt, knocked out a couple of warm bodies and rode the gravy train until the wheels fell off.
And who could forget Kimo? Carrying that cross to the cage against Gracie at UFC 3 put him on the map, and he remained there for another 12 years.
Today, being the best character might buy you 15 minutes of fame and notoriety (see Browning, Junie), but that’s about all. One-dimensional fighters very rarely make it into the UFC Octagon anymore, often getting weeded out on their way up the ladder instead.
You’ve got to have more than an interesting angle or a tremendous background in one discipline to excel. Longevity requires a blend of many elements, and we’ve got them broken down for you here.
Option #1: Winning (a.k.a. Captain Obvious)
This one is a no-brainer, at least it should be.
At the end of the day, you could be the most popular fighter in the sport, but if you go on a lengthy losing streak, the chances of sticking around get smaller and smaller.
We’ve seen it up-close and personal over the last few years in the UFC, as guys like Chuck Liddell and Keith Jardine – two wildly popular fighters – both found themselves on the outside of the Octagon after failing to earn enough wins in the cage. Liddell slipped off into retirement and a position with the UFC, while Jardine hit the regional circuit before accepting a late opening opposite Gegard Mousasi in Strikeforce.
Looking at it from the other way around, Nik Lentz doesn’t rate well on the popularity scale, but like DJ Khaled and his cast of contributors, all he does is win. It’s hard to get cut when you’re getting your hand raised more often than naught.
Option #2: Becoming a Fan Favorite (a.k.a. The Gladiator Hypothesis)
To bastardize a quality quote from Oscar-winning Russell Crowe film, if you win the crowd, you’ll win a lengthy career.
Guys like Jardine and Liddell are perfect examples as previously stated; fan favorites who were afforded more chances to right the ship than your average fighter. Perhaps an even better example is Clay “The Carpenter” Guida.
I’m going to be perfectly honest with you: I think Guida is a good, but not great competitor. He’s got solid wrestling and freakish cardio, but it’s not like he’s been smashing serious talents throughout his rise to fame in the UFC.
Until he beat Takanori Gomi, the biggest win on his resume was a split decision victory over Nate Diaz. Every other time he’d faced someone even remotely close to contention, he lost. So how has he managed to remain relevant in the incredibly competitive lightweight division?
Guida has become a cult hero with the UFC/MMA audience, his combination of untamed hair, pre-fight frenetics, between rounds burps and living in an RV doing more for his career than his win-loss record.
Here’s where being wildly popular really is beneficial:
Of Guida’s last nine fights, seven have been a part of the event broadcast. Because people see him frequently, he becomes a bigger name and a better draw.
Despite the fact that he was 5-5 and riding a two-fight losing streak heading into his fight with Shannon Gugerty at the first UC card on Versus, his current three-fight winning streak over Gugerty, Rafael dos Anjos and Gomi has propelled him into a headlining spot at The Ultimate Fighter 13 Finale, opposite Anthony Pettis.
This time last year, Guida was needed a win in a bad way, got handed the dispensable Gugerty and now finds himself being mentioned as a possible title contender if he can beat Pettis. The three-fight winning streak helps, but so does being wildly popular.
Option #3: Becoming Larger than Life (a.k.a. The Tito Ortiz Scenario)
“The Huntington Beach Bad Boy” hasn’t won a fight since 2006, hasn’t beaten someone other than Ken Shamrock since UFC 59, but earlier this year, there was Ortiz, slated opposite Antonio Rogerio Nogueira in the main event of Fight Night 24 in Seattle.
Say what you will about the former light heavyweight champion, but give the man his due: no one has been able to remain relevant while being completely irrelevant for as long as Ortiz.
The fact that Ortiz remains one of the most recognizable mixed martial artists in the world is a testament to his ability to keep himself in the spotlight over the last decade. Even after he lost the light heavyweight title to Chuck Liddell at UFC 44, Ortiz remained one of the top 3 attractions in the UFC, and it stayed that way through his trilogy of fights with Shamrock and into the rematch with Liddell.
Ortiz’s situation differs from Element #2 because, well, a lot of people really dislike him, and dislike might not be a strong enough word. But therein lies the hook:
If you’re not going to be loved, you’re better off being hated, because at least then people are still paying attention to you. They may want to see you get your head kicked in, but either way, they still want to see you.
Being a recognizable and polarizing figure has allowed Ortiz to explore opportunities that aren’t available fighters that fans are indifferent about. You’re not going to see Ryan Bader on Celebrity Apprentice or Stephan Bonnar making numerous appearances with TNA Wrestling, but Ortiz has done both.
Love him or hate him, Ortiz has managed to prolong his career, even without winning fights.
Option #4: Keep Earning Bonus Checks (a.k.a. The Chris Lytle Method)
This one kind of plays into the “If you win the crowd” element, in that the guys who take home bonus checks are usually doing something that gets the crowd on their feet. No one has mastered this tactic better than Chris Lytle.
Since losing to Matt Serra at the close of TUF Season 4, Lytle switched up his style, took a more aggressive approach and collected bonuses in eight of his 13 fights, including five Fight of the Night awards. At one point, he won three straight for his battles with Paul Taylor, Marcus Davis and Kevin Burns.
Now, you can’t just go out there and pile up Fight of the Night losses or else you end up like Jorge Gurgel; he won Fight of the Night in a losing effort against Aaron Riley at UFC 91 and was released two days later with a 3-4 record in the Octagon.
Remember, winning is the most important element, so coming out on the right side of the best battle of the night is crucial. But if you’re going to lose one here and there, try to earn a little extra change along the way.