It happened again at UFC 196 in March, UFC 197 in April, UFC 198 in May, UFC 199 in June, at UFC 200 in July and at UFC 201 in Atlanta on Saturday. Title changes haven’t been limited to pay-per-view cards, though. In January, Dominick Cruz won the bantamweight title at UFC Fight Night in Boston, and earlier this month, Eddie Alvarez captured the lightweight title at UFC Fight Night in Las Vegas.
Beginning with Ronda Rousey’s defeat at the hands of Holly Holm on Nov. 14 at UFC 193, defending champions are 6-10 (That record doesn’t include the two interim title fights, which Jon Jones won at UFC 197 and Jose Aldo won at UFC 200).
Since UFC 193, the only champions to successfully defend the belt have been Joanna Jedrzejczyk over Valerie Letourneau at UFC 193; Rafael dos Anjos over Donald Cerrone at UFC on Fox in December; Demetrious Johnson over Henry Cejudo at UFC 197 in April; Cruz over Urijah Faber at UFC 199 in June and Jedrzejczyk over Claudia Gadelha at The Ultimate Fighter Finale in July.
Put another way, Cruz and Jedrzejczyk are 2-0 in title defenses and all other champions are 4-10.
That can’t be just coincidence.
The sport is one with so many ways to win that it’s hard to reel off a long winning streak. But the turnover in the last nine months, with champions winning at just a 37.5 percent clip, has to speak to something else.
The sport has grown significantly in the last 18 months. In the last year, there have been 13 pay-per-views. Nearly half of them – UFC 189, 190, 193, 194, 196 and 200 – have been at or over 1 million sales.
That kind of interest puts a great demand on the biggest stars. And who are the biggest, most in-demand stars? The champions, of course.
Rousey’s schedule prior to UFC 193 was insane. She literally was traveling the world prior to her fight. She was selling her book, doing movie appearances, talking to MMA reporters and scores of others.
It’s not the reason she lost, but it had to have some impact. It would be foolish to think otherwise, and her near-total media blackout since seems to be evidence of that.
When a fighter under the current circumstance becomes a champion, he or she is yanked from the familiar rhythm that led to success in the first place. There are appearances on network television, on ESPN, on radio stations everywhere. They’re brought to other UFC shows, where they’re worshiped by the fan base and pestered by reporters.
It’s all good, until the back slaps and good wishes and personal appearances cut into the preparation they need to stay at the top.
Champions earn a cut of the pay-per-view and in the UFC, that’s no small thing. It’s why an inordinate amount of the pay goes to the title-holders.
The UFC expects a lot of work for that extra pay, and the huge additional demand takes fighters off schedule. They either don’t get the same amount of work in they once did, or it’s not of the same quality.
Challengers have the luxury of focusing solely on the upcoming bout. For them, the upcoming title fight is their personal Super Bowl. It’s the biggest fight of their life.
For champions, even if they say that, it’s hard to top the day one first captured the title. There’s only one first time and you know that once you’ve done it, you’ll be in the history books forever.
So perhaps their intensity isn’t quite the same as it was. Many of them do meet and greets with their sponsors and often pick up new sponsors. That adds another level of demand to their schedules.
At the end of the day, of course, it’s about two people climbing into the cage and fighting. The UFC is signing the best fighters in the world and they compete in a sport in which there are a variety of ways to win, so upsets happen more than in other types of combat sports. As a result, the champions are going to lose their fair share.
It’s stunning, though, to see champions losing a bit better than six of every 10 title fights, particularly quality fighters like Rousey, Chris Weidman, Luke Rockhold, Miesha Tate and Robbie Lawler.
Some of them may regain the belt down the line. As we’ve seen, it’s the nature of the best.
If they do, don’t be surprised if they’re just a little less accessible during their upcoming reigns than they were during the previous ones.
It will be proof they’ve identified a major issue in their downfalls.