The relationship between fighters and promoters is a tenuous one, uneasy and desperate.
There are a hundred ways a promoter can screw a fighter. Only one or two fighters have the infrastructure and relationships necessary to promote their own fights; they need promoters to get their fights sold. Oscar De La Hoya made more money promoting fights through Golden Boy Promotions than he ever did in the ring… and he was no slouch in there. Promoters are a necessary evil for fighters in the same way agents and leagues are for elite athletes, but it doesn’t mean they have to like them. Promoters can be exploitative, shady, or simply inept. Especially in MMA, the contract a fighter has now may not be worth the paper it’s written on a year later if the promotion can’t market them, can’t schedule fights, or goes out of business.
There are a hundred ways a fighter can screw a promoter. Fighters are the commodity that promoters trade in, and they make for a volatile portfolio. When you promise your fans a fight, you expect to deliver, but maybe the fighter gets injured. Maybe he backs out. Maybe he does something stupid in the media, commits a crime, shoots your public relations straight to hell and makes your sponsors queasy. Or the week before the fight, he fails a drug test, or doesn’t make weight. Maybe he even avoids all these things but is boring, or a pain in your ass, or an underachiever. You market around your blue-chip fighters, but it’s the guys on the undercard who are the foundation of your promotion. Without them, you can’t fill cards, can’t develop challengers, can’t stay afloat.
I think if either could replace the other, they’d do it in a heartbeat, but for now fighters and promoters have to forge an alliance of necessity. That’s what makes the stories of Nick Diaz and Jay Hieron from this past weekend’s Strikeforce card so disappointing. Here were two solid fighters who would likely have produced a good fight at 170 pounds for the first Strikeforce Welterweight Championship. That belt still lies unworn, because a fighter let a promoter down… and vice versa.
Nick Diaz knows his way around a cage; he’s been in one since he turned 18. A champion in his second professional fight, in the IFC, he’s seen the promised land. He had ten fights in the UFC, and while his record wasn’t stellar, he went the distance with a few big names in the division including Sean Sherk and Diego Sanchez. He’s won in EliteXC, in DREAM and Strikeforce. Diaz, indisputably, has talent. It’s a shame that the weakest part of his fight game is his head.
Here’s a litany of Diaz’s prior offenses: out-of-cage altercations with Diego Sanchez, KJ Noons, and Joe Riggs, the later of which he took a swing at in the hospital after the fight. A six-month suspension and a vacated win against Takanori Gomi in Pride when Diaz tested positive for excessive levels of THC. You’d think after all that, with a promotion going to give him a title shot and a big televised break, he’d have it together? Right?
You’d have to ask Diaz. He hasn’t opened his mouth since the week before the fight, when he skipped town on a mandatory drug test that forced Strikeforce to drop him from the card. Knowing his prior history with pot use, it’s pretty easy to put two and two together, but Diaz hasn’t given an official statement on the reasons for his departure. Various wild rumors have come out of his camp: Diaz has signed a boxing deal, or Diaz will fight in DREAM in October… but the only thing is certain that when he gets back, there’s yet another chance waiting for him. Strikeforce, with their backs against the wall in a talent-light division, still has Diaz in line to fight for the title, in spite of all his idiocy.
Diaz has had plenty of breaks and has wasted them all. Jay Hieron, meanwhile, can’t catch one.
If you’re going to blame Diaz’s repeated transgressions on a rough past, how do you explain the 33-year-old Hieron? Kicked off the wrestling team at Hofstra for his own smoking habits, Hieron faced a felony drug dealing charge before turning to MMA. Since then, though, he’s been Mr. Reliable, grinding his way to an 18-4 record. Sure, his list of opponents isn’t stellar; the biggest name on his resume is GSP, who took him out in less than two minutes during the first of two cups of coffee with the UFC. But Hieron has stuck it out.
He stuck it out through the demise of IFL, where he was the welterweight champion with a successful defense on his belt. He had a fight bumped off pay-per-view for Affliction in January; was rescheduled for August on the undercard of Fedor/Barnett against Paul Daley… and then Barnett failed a drug test and Affliction collapsed.
Finally, it looked like a breakthrough for Hieron. Strikeforce picked up his contract, and when Joe Riggs went down, Hieron was set to fight Diaz for the title this past weekend. Instead, a chain of events led to the viewing public never getting a look at Jay.
First Diaz blew his chance and had to be replaced by another hothead, Jessie Taylor. As a result, the fight was changed to non-title. Then, an hour before he was set to fight, Strikeforce decided — in spite of the advertised card — that the possibility of three title fights going the extra distance was too much. Hieron was notified he’d be going on before the cameras were rolling.
For an undercard fighter, that is a massive blow. Gone is the opportunity to get your face in front of the public and create some buzz. All the relatives who couldn’t make it out to the arena but wanted to watch the fight? Now they can’t. Most importantly, it meant the loss of Hieron’s sponsorship money. Sponsors care about getting their brand in front of the millions of eyeballs at home, not the 10,000 in the arena. Hieron — a professional — went out anyway and ground his way to a three-round decision over Taylor, but the top contender for one of a promotion’s titles should never be treated like that by the promoter. In an interview with Fanhouse after the fight, Hieron was emotional, and for good reason; it’s hard to fight when simply getting on the card is a battle already.
Promoters screw fighters; fighters screw promoters; the cycle continues. Strikeforce didn’t deserve what it got with the Diaz/Hieron fight, but neither did Jay Hieron.
The original fight may yet happen. When it does, know what you’re watching: a fight between a man who’s been given every opportunity, and a man who’s had to earn each one.
Image from YorkBlog.