Last week, UFC president Dana White said the organization has to make some serious cuts when it comes to the size of the roster. After shaving 16 fighters from the UFC ranks last Wednesday, White admitted the that plenty more cuts are coming, saying they are currently more than 100 fighters over the maximum they would like to have under contract.
Part of the reason for the surplus is the excessive number of injuries that decimated the roster last year. Fighters were falling out early and late, with some cards needing a replacement for the replacement of the replacement. Each of those new additions that stepped up on short notice earned themselves a spot on the roster for at least two fights — the one they took late, and the obligatory “thanks for helping us out” second fight the vast majority receive in that situation.
But another factor that has contributed to creating a swollen roster is the UFC’s continued international expansion.
Since January 2012, the UFC has promoted 36 events, starting with UFC 142 and including this weekend’s event at the Saitama Super Arena. One-third of those events have been held outside of North America: four in Brazil, two in Australia, Japan, and the United Kingdom, plus an event in both Sweden and Macau.
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While bringing events — and versions of The Ultimate Fighter — to other countries is great for expanding the UFC’s reach, and gives fight fans in those areas a chance to enjoy the action live and in person, they also carry expectations as far as the make-up of those events are concerned that undoubtedly contribute to the company having a bloated roster.
Every time the UFC enters a foreign market — whether it is the first time or a return trip — one or two new fighters from those regions are added to the roster, and as many fighters with ties to those areas are placed on the fight card as possible.
This weekend, a trio of newly signed Asian fighters — Kazuki Tokudome, Kyung Ho Kang, and Hyun Gyu Lim — make their debuts, while Strikeforce holdover Mizuto Hirota steps into the Octagon for the first time as well. Of the 11 fights taking place, nine feature Japanese or South Korean fighters.
Catering to the audience that is going to be filling the seats makes complete sense, but there is no denying that it also contributes to the current swollen state of the roster as well. A look at the composition of the international events of the last 14 months bears that out.
Brazilian fighters have accounted for more than 60 per cent of the line-up in the three events held there over the last 14 months, and that doesn’t include UFC 147, which was essentially the finale for The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil and boasted a 20:2 Brazilian: Non-Brazilian ratio.
While fighters from Australia and the U.K. made up 55 per cent of the line-up for the finale of “The Smashes,” that has to be somewhat expected, and still pales in comparison to the make-up of the card for the TUF: Brazil finale. Additionally, just three of the 20 fighters who competed in Sydney last March were from Australia.
European fighters have accounted for slightly more than half of the make-up of the two cards held in the United Kingdom and one card held in Sweden since Janaury 2012, while 28 of the 64 openings on the events in Japan and Macau have been filled by Asian fighters.
For the sake of comparison, there have been three events held in Canada during that same span, with Canadian fighters occupying 19 of a possible 70 openings, or just a tick above 27 per cent of the three cards combined.
The problem with stocking these international events with as many fighters from each “host region” as possible is that the talent pools aren’t always as deep as they are in North America, and it leads to a situation where it appears as if some fighters are being kept on the roster in order to fill out those events exclusively.
Tiequan Zhang seems to have survived a three-fight losing streak, and an overall mark of 2-4 since signing with Zuffa, because he’s the only Chinese fighter on the roster, and the UFC is making a sustained push to break into that market.
Stockholm resident Papy Abedi has been finished in each of his two appearances so far, and despite being 34 years old and entrenched in the lower third of the deep welterweight division, he’ll be back in action next month when the UFC returns to Sweden.
Innumerable members of the cast of The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil remain under contract, but have yet to compete outside of their home country. It makes sense because they are much greater draws in Brazil than they are anywhere else, but keeping fighters specifically to fill out fight cards in specific markets limits the opportunities available to other fighters, especially when one-third of the UFC’s events in the last 14 months have been international shows.
Because specific fighters are needed to fill out large portions of these international fight cards, their job security seems to be a little greater than that of your average North American-based fighter. It’s “supply and demand” applied to elite mixed martial arts competitors, so it makes sense that in areas where the supply of UFC-calibre athletes is low, those who do crack the roster tend to stick around a little longer.
There are always going to be injured fighters that need replacing, and up-and-coming competitors who earn a spot on the roster. With the additions and subtractions that take place organically, keeping a cadre of fighters specifically for filling out international fight cards makes maintaining a reasonable roster size even more challenging.
Just as Canadian events no longer feature “Canada vs. The World” fight cards, the UFC needs to start taking the same approach with their international events as well. As much as bringing “local” talent to international markets makes sense, the practice of tailoring fight cards to the specific markets they’re in when the UFC takes its show on the road is one of the reasons why the roster is currently in need of significant trimming.
Sign the best fighters, keep the best fighters, and make the best fights, regardless of where they’re from and where they’re taking place.