It’s a drooling fever dream for MMA fantasy bookers: an epic tilt between Anderson Silva and Lyoto Machida. The Spider versus The Dragon. The Muay Thai master against the Shotokan superstar. A battle between the UFC’s Middleweight and Light Heavyweight champions, likely at 205. A Silva win would make him the first UFC fighter ever to hold two titles at the same time and put him on the short list of the greatest fighters in history. Machida triumphant would convince every serious MMA fan that he is the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world and vault him from UFC champion to UFC superstar.
Truly, a great fight, and both fighters are under UFC contract. But as of right now? It’s not going to happen. In fact, Silva has said that “there’s no point in even asking.”
It’s not that the weight disparity is too much or that the fighters are ducking each other. Rather, it’s a growing problem in the UFC that threatens to give matchmakers fits: friends and teammates refusing to fight one another.
Sportsmanship, not friendsmanship.
Silva and Machida are far from the only fighters under a nonaggression pact. In an interview with MMAJunkie Tyson Griffin stated that it was “an unwritten rule” that fights between training partners should only be for titles, and said that there were plenty of other lightweights to face that weren’t fellow contender Gray Maynard. Fighters from American Kickboxing Academy, including welterweights Mike Swick, Josh Koscheck, and Jon Fitch have all expressed that they will not fight each other. When pressed on the question by MMA Fanhouse, Swick dodged, framing it as something that would happen only if absolutely necessary.
This puts the UFC and matchmaker Joe Silva in an awkward spot. While it’s a great accomplishment when camps have multiple contenders, fans want to see a contender step out and prove themselves instead of bouncing a line of guys off the champion and seeing who’s capable of putting on a good match. It also gives camps undue leverage when pushing for matches. Why should a similarly talented welterweight have to fight an AKA guy to get a shot at GSP when those guys won’t fight each other?
Putting aside logistical problems, the refusal to fight speaks to a more philosophical problem in mixed martial arts that you don’t see in other sports. In tennis, you would never see people dodging matches because they are friendly with one another; the Williams sisters seem to play at a number of Grand Slam events without trouble when the matchmakers tell them to with little regard for what it means to the other’s career to get a win.
Of course, an important distinction is that the Williams’ sport doesn’t require them to punch each other repeatedly in the face. While it is true that it’s certainly hard to hurt somebody you like (either physically or from a career perspective), it’s not without precedent. Take for example the Miami NFL summer workouts, where past players from the U. get together every summer to work on conditioning. These are guys that have all been on a team together and fought the same battles on the NCAA gridiron, and they seem to be friends and training partners away from the field. But when the NFL season rolls around and Frank Gore is rushing up the middle of the field as Jonathan Vilma blasts through a hole, do you think they’re going to slam on the brakes at the line of scrimmage and throw dice to determine the outcome of the play peacefully? Hell, no.
Fighters who won’t fight teammates are attempting to have it both ways. The rise of MMA’s popularity – and thus, the larger exposure and paydays for top fighters – is directly tied to efforts to make MMA more than an angry rumble. You don’t need anger and rage or a desire to hurt your opponent to get up for a fight. Mixed martial arts is a sporting event now, and sometimes in sports you have to beat people you don’t necessarily want to see lose. That is the zero-sum game of athletics. The Lakers and the Cavaliers can’t get together before the NBA Finals and decide that they’d rather chop the trophy in half and take the next two weeks off.
The nature of sport dictates that the best face each other, and the nature of MMA matchmaking dictates that if there’s an exciting fight to be had, the fans should get to watch it. The UFC has a talented roster and so far has been able to avoid the hard choices. When their booking backs are against the wall, they can’t make anybody fight, but they can cut contracts if they have to.
Sometimes friends fight for reasons far worse than settling a contendership or putting on a great show. Anderson and Lyoto might be two elite fighters in MMA, but the best competitors want to be number one. As fans, we have to hope that someday they get the desire to test themselves against each other: and that we get the chance to watch.
Image from sportbet.com.