In the last two years (2015-2016) there have been 17 different champions. That is 17 champions across every single weight class for men and women (barring men’s flyweight). Contrast that to the four years prior where there were only 13 different champions. With new stars emerging in every division toppling champions off their perch, we take a look at why there has been a shift in the longevity of UFC title holders.
Before, let’s take a look at when UFC titles have changed hands since 2011, baring in mind interim champions have not been included.
So why have the belts been changing hands so frequently?
1. Level of competition
The exponential growth of the UFC had led to more events and more fighters, which naturally leads to a larger talent pool. In the last 20 years – as the UFC has helped legitimise MMA as a sport – MMA gyms have been opening up all over the world, facilitating the demand for people wishing to emulate and train like their favourite stars. This has birthed a generation of fighter trained as a Mixed Martial Artist as opposed to mastering an individual discipline. This generation has now emerged onto the big stage setting the precedent for the ability of championship level fighters.
Gyms have been the catalyst in the rise of competition. Examples such as the American Kickboxing Academy, Jackson-Wink MMA, American Top Team etc, not only home some of the best fighters in the world but also have the best coaches in the world. The combination of top athletes getting the very best out of each other with the guidance of expert coaches constantly elevates the standard to the next level.
So keeping the belt is so much harder than it used to be. With more fighters with more skill sets, winning streaks at championship level are nearly impossible. A stark difference to back in 1999 when Frank Shamrock vacated his Light Heavyweight belt due to a ‘lack of competition’. Imagine that now?! There are several beasts in every division queuing up for a belt.
2. Evolution of MMA
The sport has rapidly evolved over the years and fighters need to constantly adapt their game to keep up. It is no longer striker vs grappler, as all of the fighters are now trained as genuine Mixed Martial Artists. In years gone by, fighters could excel specialising in one discipline but now fighters have evolved ensuring they are equally competent on the ground, standing and in the clinch. They have also evolved to learn aspects of certain martial arts to compliment their strengths. For example, Damian Maia is now an accomplished wrestler to utilise his world class Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and the decorated Olympic wrestler Yoel Romero has developed lethal striking to set up take downs when he pleases.
Every champion now has to be extremely well rounded and any weakness will eventually be exploited. There are simply more ways to win and more ways to lose. The results of this evolution are like lab experiments gone completely right and helps explain why it is so hard to achieve long winning streaks let alone retain a UFC belt.
3. Fighter mileage
The brutality of the sport gives fighters a shorter shelf-life compared to other major sports; in short, these athletes put their bodies through hell. They not only have to have immense cardio but learning several disciplines and adapting them to MMA requires an unholy amount of training, stressing the body and mind. What really reduces the career of a fighter however, is the combination of sparring and fights due to the sheer number of blows to the head they suffer.
So with the level of competition in the UFC and toughness of the sport, fighters need to be at their physical peak to become a champion but with a shorter career, fighters only have a small window when they are fighting at their optimal performance. It is fair to say all of the UFC champions in the last two years captured the belt at their peak. However, with a lot of miles on the clock you need to be a freak to stay on top of the pile; Georges St. Pierre, Jon Jones and Demetrious Johnson fall into this category but winning streaks are rare at any stage of a UFC fighter and is why we are seeing champions being picked off by the next fighter in their prime.
4. Media pressure
The spotlight on the UFC and their stars has never been brighter. There was a time when, to see an event, you had to go down to the local video store, discreetly bypass the adult section and root around until you found the UFC videos. Now, every media outlet is flooded with the latest UFC news, rumours and press conferences. From interviews on the Conan O’brien show to trash talk on Twitter, everything is reported and scrutinised. Inevitably, it is the champions that receive the most and are contracted to commit to a hefty amount of promotion leading up to a fight. If the fight camp wasn’t gruelling enough for champions, they have to juggle copious media obligations including world tours, countless interviews and appearances on various shows. This is not only very tiring for a fighter but it takes up a lot of time when in the past they could dedicate more time to training, rest and work on game plans.
We’ve seen the effects of this pressure with two of the UFC’s biggest stars, Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey; McGregor who infamously fell out with the UFC due to not attending press conferences as he felt he needed that time to prepare for his fight and Rousey, who many believe losing the belt was a result of the amount of work and distractions outside of the octagon. So taking all of the above factors into account as well, defending the belt requires so much more today both physically and mentally.
5. Stricter drug testing?
Has the work by the US Anti-Doping Agency in recent years made MMA more of an even playing field? A controversial topic but with the introduction of stricter drug testing, the sport has undeniably changed from the early days. We like to think that today all of the fighters are natural and not aided by performance enhancing supplements but, is this a reason why the championships have become so volatile? If so, that would suggest that previous long reigning champions may have been dirty but that doesn’t mean contenders weren’t either. What is hard to argue with however, is that several fighters throughout the years have indeed, been roided up to the eye balls. The fact that this advantage has been taken away has made for a fairer playing field; it may not be a coincidence that the stricter the testing - the more frequently belts have changed hands.