In 1961, the second year of his nascent career, Muhammad Ali decimated seven opponents. In 1985, his first year as a pro, Mike Tyson convinced fifteen adversaries to rethink their choice of boxing as a career. In 1978, his sophomore year, Sugar Ray Leonard girded his loins for battle eleven times. In 1995, in his freshman year, Manny Pacquiao donned the gloves ten times. Floyd Mayweather Jr. battered that same number of opponents in 1997, his first full year of professional combat.
As these storied gladiators thundered up the ranks, they fought less frequently. As champions they typically limit(ed) themselves to a couple of choice fights a year, for obvious reasons: the Championship is a lucrative pinnacle, to be rarely risked and risked only for the highest paydays. But one thing is clear- for most of their careers, top-tier boxers fight. A lot. Top-tier UFC fighters? Not so much.
UFC heavyweight king Junior Dos Santos has fought only seven times since 2008, an average of only twice a year. Ratings crown jewel Brock Lesnar, now on the verge of a number one contender position, has graced the Octagon a mere seven times in five years, and this pitiful tally represents his entire MMA career. Anderson Silva has a respectable thirty-two duels under his jockstrap, but this was accrued over eleven years. At his age, if he were a boxing champ, a tally of only thirty-two fights would be considered feeble (Marvin Hagler retired with 67 fights, Tyson with 58, De La Hoya with 45, and Manny Pacquiao has notched up 59 so far).
Another example of making much of little combat experience is LHW champ Jon 'Bones' Jones, who has faced only 10 opponents in the UFC. Furthermore, after fighting only four times in 2011, much fuss was made about how the poor, overburdened soul had endured such a 'heavy' fight schedule during the year, and desperately needed a vacation to recover from his exertions. For context, the typical K-1 champion fights three times in one night. Just ask Overeem.
So why are UFC fighters so combat shy, compared to their brethren in boxing? We can assume they are not lacking the stuff courage is made of. The answer is simply that the UFC has too small a talent pool. There are simply not enough people to fight. I made this point in my post calling for the UFC to massively recruit the best talent from traditional martial arts to boost the quantity, quality and credibility of the UFC roster. None other than Frank Mir buttressed my point recently, when he stated that the new Strikeforce heavyweights joining the UFC would "add much-needed depth to the UFC roster" (emphasis mine).
So the problem is clear: the UFC needs more fighters. However, unlike my post referenced above, this one is not to call for more high-quality fighters. It is to call for more low-quality ones. There has been talk of using Strikeforce as a 'minor league' or 'feeder league' to the UFC, which would then comprise only the creme de la creme of the sport. Indeed, Dana White's current policy is to cut weak and failing fighters from the UFC. On the contrary, I think the opposite approach is called for: a massive influx of fighters of moderate and low quality are needed in the UFC. We need more tomato cans for the good fighters to demolish for our amusement.
Why? For three reasons. First, tomato cans build up the image and reputation of the good fighters, because they enable them to fight more often, and achieve more spectacular victories. Mike Tyson's legend would not have been forged without images of him knocking hapless tomato cans across the ring like something out of a Marvel comic strip. Tomato cans make champions look good. I ribbed Jones earlier, but to be fair to him, all his 2011 fights were against top notch opponents. The poor boy needs a few sacrificial lambs to demonstrate just how awesome he is when pitted against average men. The more often top fighters fight, the more valuable their brands (and that of the UFC) become, in the eyes of fans. Highlight reels build legends.
Secondly, tomato cans help fighters get better. They are a form of target practice. The more opponents a fighter encounters, the better he becomes, due to the more frequent training and greater Octagon experience he accrues. By the time a typical top-tier boxer fights for a championship belt, he has probably been in 30-40 fights, and is a battle-hardened veteran. More frequent fights will raise the general quality of UFC fighters, and the top tier in particular. Kimbo Slice is currently applying this principle to his own professional betterment.
Thirdly, tomato cans create the rare and tantalizing opportunity for dramatic upsets. This not only brings excitement to the sport, it creates the fan-pleasing potential for 'Rocky'-like stories of underdogs vanquishing supposedly invincible champions. James 'Buster' Douglas was supposed to be a mere footnote in Tyson's unstoppable rampage through the heavyweight ranks. However, he didn't get the memo telling him he was supposed to fall down at the first flurry. It was a great upset and a great story, one that is still being told today and will always have a place in the annals of boxing. Imagine if some no-hope, washed-up underdog KOed Anderson Silva or 'Bones' Jones. That kind of drama is what sport is all about.
So in summary, while recruiting more top fighters is definitely an important goal, this should not exclude recruitment of more low-quality ones as well. The UFC should open the cage doors to every backyard brawler and trailer park Bruce Lee with a lust for glory. The result will be more fights, more impressive W-L-D stats, more spectacular highlight reel demolitions, and more improbable upsets. Bring it on.