Yoel Romero's title shot at UFC 248 reflects changing standards in UFC championship matchmaking
Romero's fight with Israel Adesanya is one of three high-profile situations that have some questioning the UFC's direction
In recent decades, boxing's worst sins began driving fans away from all but the biggest fights. The fights fans wanted to see too often failed to materialize while many of the sport's best fighters stood across the ring from unworthy challengers and sanctioning body mandated contenders.
In steps UFC, taking advantage of boxing's stumbles, in large part by providing high-quality matchmaking and going by Dana White's own slogan of "the best fight the best."
Inside the Octagon, with all but a few exceptions, champions faced challengers who had earned their shot and built up the "better than boxing" argument while boxing was sticking Jean-Marc Mormeck in the ring with Wladimir Klitschko and pretending the fight was anything other than a farce.
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While the UFC hasn't slipped to Mormeck vs. Klitschko levels of matchmaking, the previously established standards for title fights in the Octagon do seem to be crumbling in 2020. The first indication of this is Saturday's UFC 248 main event between middleweight champion Israel Adesanya and Yoel Romero. While Romero is well established as a top-tier fighter at 185 pounds, he will enter the fight with a 1-3 record since 2017, including a current two-fight losing skid. The only other time in UFC history a fighter entered a title shot on a two-fight losing skid came at UFC 15 in 1997, when Tank Abbott challenged Maurice Smith for the heavyweight title.
Equally concerning to Romero's merits as a challenger are his weight cutting struggles. In his recent 1-3 run, he has fought for a version of the middleweight title three times. That is certainly a point in Romero's favor as having an incredibly high "strength of schedule," but he missed weight for his two most recent shots at the belt, leaving him ineligible to become champion even in victory -- as was the case when he knocked out Luke Rockhold in what was planned to be a battle for the interim middleweight belt.
When Adesanya first floated the idea of fighting Romero, UFC president Dana White initially said Romero would need to pick up a win to earn a title fight, but quickly changed his tune, stating he respected Adesanya for wanting to fight such a dangerous opponent. In White's view, a champ wanting to fight a tough fighter "nobody else wants to fight" is a good move, and one that immediately legitimizes the fight.
There's a need to acknowledge another piece of the puzzle in Romero's championship opportunity: Paulo Costa's injury. The undefeated Costa beat Romero in his most recent outing and seemingly locked up a title shot only to be sidelined by injury. Adesanya has been an active fighter, fighting seven times since his 2018 UFC debut, and that activity level may give more reason to get back in the cage and keep doing that which has been working.
As a standalone fight, Adesanya vs. Romero is simply a curious footnote in the history of UFC title shots. But it has become directly tied to the UFC 250 bantamweight title fight between champ Henry Cejudo and Jose Aldo.
After an incredible run that established him as the greatest featherweight in history, Aldo's lengthy title reign ended with a 13-second knockout loss to Conor McGregor. After mixed success, including two losses to Max Holloway in attempt to win back the featherweight title, Aldo made a controversial decision to drop to bantamweight despite struggling to cut to 145 for years.
Aldo put in a good performance against Marlon Moraes at UFC 245 but ultimately lost a split decision. The loss dropped Aldo to 3-5 since 2017 and was his second consecutive defeat. Unlike middleweight, where an argument could be made for Romero as the best acceptable option in the immediate, bantamweight is filled with fighters who have done enough to earn a title shot. Petr Yan, Aljamain Sterling or Cory Sandhagen could have been granted a shot with no resistance from fans and media.
Instead of the division's established challengers, Cejudo called for a fight with Aldo and White delivered, basing the decision on the premise that he and the champ both felt Aldo had won the fight with Moraes.
"A lot of people think Jose Aldo won," White told the media around the time of the booking. "A lot of people think he didn't. I told you guys the night of the fight, Henry Cejudo hit me up and said, 'Aldo won that fight, that was bulls---.' He wants that fight. Israel Adesanya wants to fight Yoel Romero. How does that make sense? It doesn't make sense. You know what makes sense? Israel Adesanya is such a bad ass he wants to fight the guy nobody wants to fight."
Likewise, a compelling and deep lightweight division has established challengers who have been succeeding in the choppy 155-pound waters waiting to see who emerges victorious when champ Khabib Nurmagomedov puts his belt on the line against Tony Ferguson at UFC 249. But White has already stated that Conor McGregor earned a lightweight title shot by beating Donald Cerrone in a welterweight contest at UFC 246.
McGregor is a former lightweight championship, but his title win is also his only career UFC win in the division and came in November 2016. His only other lightweight fight in the promotion was a one-sided loss to Nurmagomedov at UFC 229 in October 2018. So, it's easy to see why some take issue with a win in a different division over Cerrone -- who is 4-7 since 2017 and has been knocked out in three consecutive fights -- jumping him ahead of someone like Justin Gaethje in line for a title shot. There's no denying McGregor's past success or unmatched drawing power, and that seems to be all the justification the UFC needs.
"C'mon guys, look what Conor's done over the last however many years," White told ESPN in December. "Then he loses to Khabib in a fight that was -- when you talk about bad blood -- it's like the next level of bad blood. Gaethje was on his way up, too. We've offered Gaethje a lot of fights that Gaethje hasn't taken, either. So Conor's in line next for (a title) fight if he beats 'Cowboy.'"
The UFC had dipped its toe in the "popularity over merit" title shot before with Chael Sonnen's shot at Jon Jones in his first light heavyweight bout in eight years after losing twice to Anderson Silva at middleweight, and when rushing Brock Lesnar into a heavyweight title fight with Randy Couture. Lesnar proved himself as a championship-level fighter against Couture, but Sonnen was predictably destroyed by Jones.
But to see these situations popping up with increased frequency in such a short time has raised plenty of eyebrows. But the most powerful man in the UFC isn't buying the concern and has a simple solution for those who take issue with recent matchmaking decisions.
"Then don't watch it," White told TMZ about those questioning Cejudo vs. Aldo. "People are full of s---. People are full of s---."
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