In a bizarre turn of events in the battle of the promotions, numerous fighters have been released from the UFC roster, as well as athletes now seeking opportunities elsewhere.
In the UFC rankings update in early February, we saw two in-form contenders axed and removed from the rankings. The news of these departures was met with a bitter response from the hardcore fan base and holes were quickly picked and discovered on the basis of those decisions.
American welterweight Lorenz Larkin, who recently signed for Bellator MMA, enjoyed incredible success under the UFC promotion, being a top ten contender. One of the more surprising things regarding “The Monsoon”s departure was his form with the Californian having just beaten contenders Jorge Masvidal and Neil Magny.
With these two scalps claimed, it seemed a matter of when, not if, Larkin would get his welterweight title shot. Speaking about the contract offer from the UFC, he quoted: “I just thought the offer they threw at me was kind of a slap in the face and I didn’t want to agree to that.”
The Millennia MMA athlete fought out his final fight on his contract against Magny on August 20, 2016. He was removed from the UFC rankings at the beginning of February, much to the dismay of fans. Despite efforts from the UFC to re-sign Larkin, he chose Bellator instead.
Misha Cirkunov was let go from the promotion, with his contract ending, despite being one of Europe’s hottest MMA talents and a true emerging contender of the light-heavyweight division. Whilst the cut of Larkin was a strange and frankly wrong decision, it was known and expected. The Latvian facing the chopping block, however, was completely unexpected leaving fans outraged.
After winning his debut in August 2015, Cirkunov went on to win his three following fights leaving him a perfect UFC record of 4-0. With his last win coming over Nikita Krylov (another to have faced the chop), the Latvian-Canadian was proving his worth and was cementing his place as a contender in the light-heavyweight division. With limited talent or competition outside the top five contenders, Cirkunov seemed like he could break into the elite and inflate a seemingly dull division.
Dana White insisted talks with Cirkunov would not happen anytime soon as previous talks went sour, quoting: “I’m done. He know’s I’m done.”
This was another case in which UFC president Dana White couldn’t meet the demands of a negotiating fighter. However, a deal was renegotiated and thankfully for Dana, the Latvian signed back.
Flyweight division hits rock bottom
Perhaps one of the less surprising inclusions was that of former flyweight title challenger Ali Bagautinov. The Russian was a top ten contender before his absence from the rankings in late January. Despite being one of the best in the 125lb division with back to back victories over Tim Elliott and John Lineker, “Puncher” has lost three of his last four fights to Demetrious Johnson, Joseph Benavidez and Kyoji Horiguchi.
However, not only did the Russian hit bad form, he also tested positive for banned substances against “Mighty Mouse” at UFC 174. With both poor performances and the drug test failure, Bagautinov didn’t have a leg to stand on when it came to staying with the promotion and an offer wasn’t handed to the Dagestani.
Kyoji Horiguchi, the Japanese ‘giant’. What Horiguchi lacked in height, he made up for in the size of his fan base and unlimited potential. MMA has been on the rise in Asia for some time now with the South Korean pair of Chan Sung Jung and Dong Hyun Kim leading the line.
Horiguchi has undoubtedly been the highest profile athlete to have been axed in recent times, having been the No.3 contender in the flyweight division. After making his UFC debut in October 2013, the Japanese sensation has finished life under the promotion with a record of seven fights and one loss, the only loss coming to pound-for-pound number one Demetrious Johnson.
Due to the pedigree and popularity of Horiguchi, interest was immediately high and after being released on the weekend of February 18, he signed with Japanese kingpins Rizin FF just two days later. He is set to make his debut later this year against Yuki Motoya on April 16.
Poor presidency or stringent stars for the UFC?
Whether the fighters are being too demanding with new contracts or whether Dana White is not offering a fair amount of money or fair set of terms is open to interpretation. Until deals are made public, it is difficult to fairly judge or form opinions on who is being unreasonable and who is the victim of unrealistic offers. But in an organisation worth $4 billion, why is it so hard to meet contenders needs and maintain the gulf in class between UFC and it’s counterparts?
Not only are the fighters that are being axed of the contender status, but other than Rick Story, they are also in their prime. With Larkin in his prime at 30-years-old, Horiguchi at just 26 years of age and Cirkunov in impeccable form at 29, it is hard to see why White hasn’t done what it takes to keep such fighters on the roster.
Bellator – the emerging MMA powerhouse
Whilst the reputation of the UFC is somewhat declining with the constant cuts from the ever-decreasing pool of fighters, Bellator is capitalising.
Whilst the UFC keep losing stars, Bellator keep acquiring them. Michael Page debuted for the promotion in March 2013 and has since gone on to be one of the most highly touted British fighters on the planet. His explosive power, incredible technique, and entertaining personality have all led to the huge following the Londoner enjoys. With constant links to signing for the UFC promotion, it seems Bellator are doing a good job of keeping their star man.
With a career as legendary as his name, Fedor Emelianenko has been dubbed the greatest of all time by former heavyweight champion Junior Dos Santos, featherweight legend Jose Aldo and another G.O.A.T. contender in Georges St. Pierre. Despite never fighting under UFC, the heavyweight legend amassed an incredible 27 win streak including notable wins over Heath Herring, Mirko “Cro-Cop” Filipovic, Mark Hunt and Andrei Arlovski. The Russian signed a multi-fight deal with Bellator on the November 19 last year and whilst people missed his debut due to the late pull-out of Matt Mitrione, the acquisition shows huge intentions of what the promotion are aiming to achieve.
With the mistreatment of fighters in the UFC and constant roster cuts, we could well see Bellator sign them on deals which suit the fighter. They can give into their demands, but also significantly raise the profile of the promotion, thus attracting more potential fighters to join Bellator in future. Expect Bellator to eventually bridge the gulf in class. I believe MMA will have a spread of organisations competing to sign the best MMA talents and the UFC will have a competitive rival.