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155: The Intoxication of Liquid Sensationalism

This MMA ecosystem is a forest full of acorns. At some point, we must realize there will always sprout a new layer of trees, new fields of grass, and new clusters of shrubbery. Promotions go under all the time, but one man’s destitution is always another man’s fortune. When Strikeforce, WEC, and PRIDE were operating autonomously, their elites were able to gain their notoriety outside of the UFC. Their exodus granted both themselves and UFC fighters the opportunity to test themselves against the best in the world. No matter how anyone saw you before the talent influx, it will ultimately expose just how great you were or were not the entire time. The more top guys you beat in your division, the more favorably everyone will compare you to everyone else in the sport.

The division that benefits the most from having such a massive influx of singular talent is lightweight. There, long win streaks are rare; getting stopped means almost nothing, and the title changes hands regularly. Getting finished is not a good optic, but at 155, all losses, at all ranking levels are more forgivable than in any other weight class. 155 is full of demons, each essaying to establish themselves as the prince of darkness in the inferno of talent that scorches from the champion to the unranked. You will not find that assertion hyperbolic if you have been watching 155ers compete from the prelims to the main events.

On top of the conspicuous talent gap, the difference between the lightweight division and others is that we believe almost every new champion will ‘usher in a new era.’ Now that phrase sounds jaded, but it’s perpetuated without fail even though they kept losing inside three defenses. Lightweight championship history still resembles light heavyweight before Jon Jones cleaned it out and built his name off legends in their prime: the Machida era, the Shogun era, etc. Unfortunately, as promotions go under, fewer fighters today have been able to build their names up to the same extent. Make no mistake, though, that these lightweight descendants are even more talented.

The lightweight hype circus started with “The Prodigy” BJ Penn. His appeal was unseen dexterity: killer instinct, flexibility, novel defensive awareness, and BJJ execution all in one. His most significant criticism was that he wasted his talent by not training hard enough, and that’s why he lost a few key bouts. Today’s athletes train year-round. But curiously, everyone in BJ’s lineage has turned out to be a prodigal son… in relation to all the hype they were getting.

A post shared by BJ Penn (@bjpenn) on Jun 20, 2015 at 12:22pm PDT

Along came Frankie Edgar, who “outclassed” BJ and was a part of ‘the new generation,’ ‘the future of the sport.’ His selling point was his movement and transitions between wrestling and boxing. No one believed in Benson Henderson because his wins were controversial, so Anthony Pettis exploded into the spotlight as a champion to be marveled. It certainly helped to have the appellation “Showtime.” This man was on the Wheaties box, ladies and gentlemen. That level of promotion is not only historically reserved for American sports icons, but sports deities. On the MMA Hour, Duke Roufus heralded him as ‘the Floyd Mayweather of MMA.’ Pettis burst onto the scene as this assassin, with unrivaled improvisation (See: Showtime kick).

A post shared by Anthony Pettis (@showtimepettis) on Apr 5, 2018 at 11:35am PDT

When Dos Anjos won the belt, he was “the greatest lightweight of all time,” according to Joe Rogan, which was obnoxious then and still is today. Eddie Alvarez snatched the title from Dos Anjos playground-style: like a frightened child going full “fight” mode after one too many times of getting tried for his lunch money. It was violent and nothing short of spectacular. The kid made sure to get his milk that night. “Goosebumps” describes that entire winning effort.

A post shared by Conor McGregor Official (@thenotoriousmma) on Jul 11, 2019 at 6:32pm PDT

Then came Conor McGregor, who built himself up at 145, knocked out a legend Jose Aldo in 13 seconds, and made himself a rising star within his first two press conferences. He had the same attitude for competition as his predecessor BJ Penn, Dana’s kiss of faith, and boosted his brand further by winning the most elusive title in the sport.

Note that from the day BJ won this belt until today, there have been eight lineal champions in only eleven years. Again, no one believes lightweight champions are unbeatable; they just figure they won’t lose any time soon. They are the shiny, new thing, like fine China in your living room. None of those pieces do anything normal dishes don’t, but the historic preservation of it all makes us put them in a display as if they are something we will never get our hands on again. If you understand this, it’s no surprise that the fanbase is doting over today’s champion after just one legitimate title defense.

Longevity used to count for something in this sport. Legacy used to be more than just a word people throw around. Khabib Nurmagomedov just beat the number one star in the game; we get it! But his pound for pound ranking and the rationale behind it is proof that MMA fans and media are still lining up to buy a ticket to the lightweight hype circus even though the show never goes as planned.

Khabib is a great fighter and is probably better than most other champions. But he has not proven this, and that is the issue. Pound for pound and other evaluations used to be about both the talent you are projected to have, and what you have proven. Jon Jones, at 23 years old, was beating current and former champions in their athletic primes. He was undefeated then and still is. Most thought one day he would be better than both and GSP and Silva, but he still had to wait his turn to earn a spot anywhere near pound for pound king. Khabib is impressive, but his talent level is nothing we have not seen before. Jon Jones has won more belts than Khabib has fights in the promotion. Jones is still undefeated, yet people are saying Khabib is the number one fighter in the world.

A post shared by Jon Bones Jones (@jonnybones) on Mar 1, 2019 at 8:16pm PST

To say Khabib is anywhere above Jones, Cejudo, or Nunes is blithe and unfounded. Conor McGregor held the 145 and 155lb belts at once and the highest he got was number three in the rankings. Khabib beats a top 15 lightweight and is recognized as “champion.” Conor comes back after two years, and all of a sudden, the man that defeats him shoots to number two after one defense. Some are even saying Khabib is number one! That is a credulous evaluation of talent by all standards.

Fighters deserve to profit and get opportunities from popularity, but not pound for pound rankings. If nothing else, this should be sacred. That ranking is not something that should be awarded based solely on sensationalism, recency bias, and unfounded rationalizations. Too many fans are intoxicated by the most recent effort that they perceive to be novel. If years of accruing championship belts and destructive performances do not solidify one’s place in the sport even while they’re competing, then the most senior champions are fighting for nothing. If people are willing to cast you aside for an overall talent level that has been seen before, these martial artists have no incentive to challenge themselves. Belts and legacy in today’s climate clearly mean nothing, so they should just fight for money, just like boxers do in boxing. ■

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