By Iain Liddle | April 14, 2008
Buried amongst the YAMMA headlines on Saturday morning came the news that the UFC have released Jake O’Brien from his UFC contract with Palace Fighting Championships likely to be his next destination.
The 10-1 heavyweight who is fresh off a loss to Andrei Arlovski had two fights remaining on his contract and was widely considered one of the best heavyweight prospects in world MMA. The reported reasoning for the decision is that the company simply had too many athletes under contract and he was purely one of the unlucky few chosen for the chop.
Until this news broke, and even now, I have no strong opinion on O’Brien as a fighter. I have seen maybe one non-UFC fight of his and have never interviewed him. I can’t even say that based on what I have witnessed that I could class him as a particular favourite of mine. His style is often derided as boring (sometimes unfairly) and there is no apparent charisma radiating from him to instantly grab a viewer’s attention.
Despite this however the news of his release was greatly disappointing without being too much of a shock. In fact it serves as a perfect microcosmic example of an issue that plagues the entire company. Quite simply, they aren’t a sporting league or entity and no longer can they have any claim to be so.
The aim of a sport is to determine who has the most legitimate claim of being the best in the world in their specific field / division. It’s impossible for the UFC to claim that this is their objective and must now be classified as an entertainment company rather than a competitive fighting league.
O’Brien has all the potential you could ask for. Bursting onto the scene boasting a decorated amateur wrestling pedigree he finished his first eight fights within six minutes. Two more dominant wins followed including a victory over a Heath Herring before he sustained what was a described as a potentially career threatening injury.
He suffered his first and only loss last month when returning from having his body re-built to take on a former UFC heavyweight champion in Andrei Arlovski. Ironically he was chosen as The Pitbull’s opponent in the hope that he would give the Belarussian a loss in the last fight of his contract – thus lowering his stock to any potential suitor.
It should be noted that O’Brien is still only 23 years old. Regardless of your opinion on his fighting style you cannot diminish his accomplishments in such a short space of time.
I’m not saying that every young fighter deserves to receive the Roger Huerta treatment where they are nurtured to stardom with a carefully selected list of opponents designed to test every facet of their game before moving on to fight a high level of talent.
Similarly the UFC do not owe anyone a contract. They could have as many or as little athletes under their control as they choose. However when the reason given for releasing someone is that you have too many competitors and yet people like Antoni Hardonk have an upcoming fight booked then it becomes clear that there is a massive case of double standards afoot.
Total MMA currently ranks O’Brein at number seven in their heavyweight rankings. There are only two people ranked above him in this weight class that are currently available to the UFC. One is belt-holder Rodrigo Noguiera and the other is Fabricio Werdum. Whilst these lists are obviously not official it illustrates the point that there are far more deserving candidates to face the boot.
The simple reason for his departure is that his face doesn’t fit. His style is not aesthetically pleasing in the way that say a Brandon Vera’s is and so he is considered dispensable. That he could beat the majority of the other heavyweights under Zuffa control is deemed irrelevant. It boils down to personal favouritism in much the same way that Dana White has twice reneged on his promise that the winners of supposed number one contenders fights would be in line for a title shot.
Arlovski defeated Werdum by unanimous decision at UFC 70 but did not fight again until nearly a year later with his stoppage of O’Brien. His performance in Manchester received the Dana White equivalent of a gladiatorial thumbs down and his recent bout was buried in the prelims and never shown on UFC programming due to an ongoing squabble over contracts.
Similarly the winner of the Gonzaga / Werdum fight in January was scheduled to face the UFC heavyweight champion in their next contest. Werdum stopped ‘Napao’ in the second round but now finds himself taking on Brandon Vera in June. It seems that number one contenderships are only valid if the person you want to win does so and even then it has to be in a fashion personally pleasing to the decision makers.
Those who have suggested that a few wins on the independent scene will see O’Brien return to the octagon should run that particular theory past Matt Lindland and see if he agrees.
It would be grossly unfair to apply the tag of being unprofessional solely to the UFC and maybe it is sometimes easier to choose the companies that do not fall victim to it. Elite XC, for example, are set to headline the biggest show in their short history and what will likely be the most viewed MMA card of all time with Kimbo Slice against James Thompson.
In the undercard of the same event Phil Baroni will face Murilo Rua. Both men are coming off at least one loss yet are given prominent placing on network television. Once again the message is loud and clear – if we like you then it doesn’t matter if you win or not as we’ll look after you anyway.
Whilst I understand the need for entertainment, depressingly it sometimes feels as though asking two poorly-skilled pugilists to stand in front of each other is all the men in charge feel the sport has offer.