Resident MMA windbag here.
Even the top tier of MMA promotions sometimes need a fighter to step in to the Octagon, ring or whatever at the last minute but these fighters are mostly pulled from a fight lower down in the card as they will have usually had the opportunity to go through a full training camp in preparation for their scheduled fight and be ‘in-shape’ enough to provide fair competition. That doesn’t mean that some mismatches haven’t previously occurred but it’s far less common now that the sport is finding its feet (see the recent, stringent rules introduced concerning PEDs, 2 year bans for a first offence etc). The commissions will actually refuse a fighter permission if they don’t believe they are on par with the other competitor but so far as journeymen go, yeah, there’s all sorts of talent at all sorts of levels in the various leagues.
Some world class competitors choose to stay in the lower organisations, big fish in a small pond style, rather than taking the step up to the top where, often, many flounder when met with other competitors that can match their super-human output. You can make more money at the top of an established 2nd tier org than you can at the bottom or middle of the UFC (for instance (it’s the tippy-top)).
Throw in complications like the UFCs recent restructuring of official sponsors by banning all others than Reebok and you have even more of a reason to stay put on the lower tier orgs and soak in the money from various non-official sponsors they still allow, although this will probably change over time as well as branding and official sponsorship deals become more common. This has the effect of stifling the mid-tier fighters slightly more but the beauty (or horror I guess based on your opinion) of MMA is that if your striking game isn’t world class, you can still use wrestling or other forms of grappling to balance out your capability to win. I should also mention that MMA fights, on the whole, will be stopped much earlier than would a boxing fight. Some referees are criminal and will let fights go on for far too long but the general idea is that once you have sustained a concussion, once your eyes flicker and there is even a moment where you are not capable of defending yourself, the fight will, or at least should, be stopped. Although I’ve seen some fights in boxing where the (probably corrupt) ref is basically looking for an excuse to hand the fight to one particular fighter, it’s more common for a concussed boxer to be stood up, gloves wiped off and sent back into the fight against a non-concussed killer.
In boxing, if you reach the top of your game and find yourself to still be mid tier, you’ve not really got anywhere to go and the reality of trading your neural plasticity for money sets in hard. These are the fighters who sometimes can’t pronounce their own name in their late 40’s, early 50’s and it’s criminal what the commissions will allow to go on. (Although I acknowledge that, based on fighting style, this can happen to even the very best boxers.)
Boxing will probably never go away and as such you’ll always need tough, hard-headed folk to stand in the way of the truly athletic, talented up-and-comers but with stricter regulations concerning the awful standing eight count rule and attempts to prevent multiple concussions by stopping the fight earlier, combined with longer and longer lay-offs between fights, the old days of boxing are for sure on their way out.
How this translates to the longevity or even viability of ‘journeymen’ boxers is unclear at present, the commissions are as corrupt as it is possible for organisations to get, they don’t have the swing of FIFA but with the very top super fights earning the participants 100’s of millions of dollars in pay and sponsorship deals the sport isn’t going to completely evaporate any time soon.
An interesting corollary, I neglected to mention, is that because MMA is becoming more popular, and more lucrative, better athletes are starting to compete in it. This has pushed many previously top-tier fighters into the lower ranked organisations. There have been some very sad cases where people who everyone sees should have retired decide to plod on, because of ego, maybe because of hope, sometimes they want that last, elusive win before hanging up their gloves. They’ve tasted the lucre from the top and can’t give up on that dream, but because of the lower pay and the more stringent rules about being allowed to compete after KO losses, MMA just doesn’t pay well enough to promote the journeyman lifestyle. Better to open a gym or get a job as a coach if you can. There’s not much incentive, or even really possibility of fighting all the time for small amounts of money. Unless you go underground. And there is still, believe it or not, a large underground and highly illegal fighting scene.
LOL, another thought, MMA is focused very strongly on excitement as a way of building their viewer base. If you are not an exciting fighter, and choose to stifle your opponent with grappling, rather than go for the kill, it’s likely that people will associate you with boring fights and wont pay to see you. See Ben Askren, who could easily be a world champion at the very top if given the opportunity, but because he’s such a good wrestler, and usually chooses to make use of only that one technique, he’s been repeatedly ignored by the UFC. I suppose this does mean that there is a class of ‘boring’ Mixed Martial Artists who employ mainly grappling and are capable of taking many fights because they avoid head trauma. It’s an interesting thought and one I’ve not previously paid much attention to. Hmm. To the boards!
Of course boxing has always been a corrupt sport in which the middle tier are palookas and in which most non-championship results are prearranged. Not prearranged in the “pro wrestling” sense of being scripted, or in the movie fashion of forcing superior fighters to take dives, but by arranging matches with inferior opponents to run up victory counts and to inflate purses.
And with no serious oversight, no proper organization, and domination of the sport by a few elite promoters all of whom are crooks, naturally the whole enterprise is a crock. This wasn’t news in the 20th century, and I doubt it was news in the 19th, either.
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