If you ever want a clear illustration of what, at its core, Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) is all about, look no further than the case of the promotion's refusal to sign former Bellator MMA Welterweight Champion Ben Askren.
Not only does Askren sport a superlative 12-0 record in mixed martial arts (MMA) competition, he's a two time NCAA Division I champion in wrestling who possess perhaps the best takedown in all of MMA. One would think that after "Funky" became a free agent last month, the world's leading fight promotion would have snapped him up in less time than it takes Roy "Big Country" Nelson to demolish a rack of ribs from Famous Dave's.
But that's not what ended up happening. Instead, UFC passed on Askren, who according to promotion president has "got some work to do" and needs to "fight in another organization and work his way up" to the UFC level. His repeated overtures rejected by "the Baldfather," Askren ended up signing a two-year, six-fight contract with Asian promotion ONE FC, effectively exiling himself from the consciousness of mainstream American MMA fans.
If you ask the mop-topped member of the 2008 US Olympic team for his take on the situation, he chalks his inability to get a UFC contact up to White's ongoing public feud with Bellator and its CEO Bjorn Rebney.
As Askren said on this past Monday's edition of The MMA Hour:
When you think that Dana is so immature that he's letting a little bitter rivalry between him and Bellator/Bjorn get in the way of the main point of their business, which is to put the best people in the world in the Octagon and let them fight it out to see who the best is, it's kind of crazy.
And, yeah, it is kind of crazy if you buy into Askren's claim that "the main point" of UFC business is to "to put the best people in the world in the Octagon and let them fight it out to see who the best is."
The thing is though, UFC's modus operandi has nothing to do with trying to help hardcore fans solve the vexing question, "Gosh darn it, just who is the best fighter in the world at 170 pounds?" If it was, then UFC would be Bellator circa 2009-2012 -- a promotion handicapped in its ability to make money match-ups thanks to a strictly meritocratic booking strategy.
Or to put it another way, if UFC was a meritocracy, there's a good chance the company's biggest star in history, Brock Lesnar, wouldn't have gotten a chance to fight for the UFC heavyweight title just two fights removed from losing his promotional debut. Think of all the millions of dollars in pay per view (PPV) revenue UFC would have left on the table if they hadn't given Lesnar a title shot he didn't "deserve" based on his limited in-cage achievements.
At the end of the day, "the main point" of UFC business is putting on fights fans want to see and drawing money. That's it. "Finding out who the best is" only enters the equation, if at all, as a marketing soundbyte that could be used to reinforce UFC's brand as the number one MMA promotion in the world. It has nothing to do with UFC's promotional philosophy.
Simply put, UFC is a business, not a financially disinterested sanctioning body that exists for the sake of pure sport.
Unfortunately for Askren, those in charge of that business believe fans aren't interested in watching wrestlers grind out grappling-centric decision wins.
Which makes it a headache for UFC brass if a fighter fans consider "boring" starts stacking up "W's" while knocking off more marketable contenders in the process.
Call this the "Jon Fitch Dilemma," if you will.
For years the workman-like Fitch, in some ways the patron saint of grinders everywhere, was undeniably the number two welterweight in the sport. He went 5-0 after getting beat down by division champ Georges St-Pierre in his lone shot at the title, but -- considering his fights were often duller than reading an accounting textbook -- the last thing UFC wanted was to put him in another PPV main event.
Eventually the company was forced to bow to the two-ton elephant in the Octagon that was the former Purdue wrestling captain's win streak by booking him in a title eliminator bout against B.J. Penn. However, when that fight ended in a controversial draw -- with Fitch rightfully winning the fight on most observer's scorecards -- UFC deviated from its SOP in such cases and didn't book an immediate rematch.
Simply put, White was no doubt breathing a sigh of relief worthy of a guy who just heard Maury Povich utter the words "You are not the father," after realizing he no longer had to hear the argument how UFC wasn't a "real sport" if Fitch wasn't granted another title shot.
Just two years later, Fitch found himself bounced from UFC after dropping a decision to Demian Maia for his second loss in three fights. In contrast, entertaining fighters whose records were never as sterling as Fitch's was, such as Dan Hardy and Leonard Garcia -- the latter of whom lost five fights in a row before eventually earning a pink slip -- have been granted multiple chances to get back on the winning track inside the Octagon.
When Askren openly bragged on Twitter about how he would "lay on GSP for as long as I damn well please," he may have been showing the braggadocio necessary to make oneself a star in this crowded marketplace, but the content of his message was about as tone-deaf to what UFC wants to hear as a high school senior bragging to his prom date's dad about how he plans to impregnate her and put video of the sack-sesh up on the internet.
That may not be fair from a pure sporting perspective, but UFC didn't get where they are today by worrying about what's "fair."
Askren may be the best in the world at what he does, but until he adds some more crowed-pleasing tools to his arsenal, we may never get a chance to find out how he would fare against the best competition on the planet. After all, even though he was a great fighter in his prime, the last thing UFC wants is another Jon Fitch on their hands.
Whether that's a good thing or not is entirely up to whether you see MMA primarily as a sport or primarily as a business.