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Understanding how the UFC runs the title ladder

I’ve been reading a lot of people’s blogs and forum posts regarding GSP and why they think he shouldn’t get a title shot any time soon, that he should ‘go to the back of the line’ now. Well, that’s not really the way the title ladder in the UFC works, and I’ll explain it here:

GSP spent the past year and a half on a divisional tear, climbing the ladder and convincingly beating all of his opponents. The list of fighters he defeated is a who’s who of the welterweight division, and through his rise he has set back the title ambitions of all these guys. Jason Mayhem Miller still hasn’t returned to the octagon. GSP was also Frank Trigg’s last UFC fight. Sean Sherk dropped to lightweight after getting pummelled by GSP. And BJ Penn only got his shot against Hughes because Georges was injured. That injury was a blessing for the UFC, who got a Penn-Hughes fight that everyone wanted to see but the company couldn’t justify until GSP had to pull out.

And there’s the crux of the situation. If the UFC listened to these forum posters and bloggers and put GSP to the back of the line, there’s no doubt that he’d tear his way back up again, defeating a number of rising stars and sending the title ladder back into disarray. The UFC wants to create big money title shots. They want their top contenders fighting eachother only when the belt is on the line. While a fight between Diego Sanchez and Georges St Pierre for #1 contender is something every fight fan would love to see, on the business end it only leaves one of the two in a position for a title shot.

I often call Joe Silva a crackhead for his retarded booking decisions, but the title ladder is a tricky thing to book around. It’s easy to book for the lower levels of each division, matching fighters up against eachother in a sort of crucible to weed out the weak. Winning fighters get put up against their stylistic opposites to further narrow the pool to well rounded contenders. Some succeed (Evans vs Salmon was a test to see how Evans would fare against a better wrestler than him), others falter (Kongo vs Marerro pointed out that Kongo didn’t have the ground skills).

Once a fighter has shown his promise, the UFC starts to position them in the title ladder. Diego Sanchez is a perfect example … while his list of wins in the UFC is definately impressive, you’ll note that he was put up against fighters who were stalled or slipping down the ladder – Nick Diaz, Karo Parysian, and Joe Riggs. And that’s how the title ladder works : you’re building a fighter up as a commodity while not destroying the value of other commodities on the upswing. That’s why Matt Hughes was put up against Chris Lytle and not a more competitive opponent. That way Hughes can be positioned by the company into a title shot without risking a loss or destroying the respective title rise of a Diego Sanchez or a Karo Parysian.

So many of the bookings in the UFC revolve around the title ladder. Every time you see a match that makes you scratch your head, try to put it into the context I’ve laid out and I’m sure you’ll see it makes more sense. Obviously, this formula doesn’t always apply and there are often factors behind the scene that change how things get booked. But my title ladder hypothesis is based around the idea that title fights make the most money, and the more compelling title matches you have, the more money you’ll make. While the uFC doesn’t exactly protect it’s fighters, it does book based on an upswing/downswing approach to hedge it’s bets and keep a healthy flow of contenders moving through the divisions.