Here's an MMA riddle for you: How can a talented, but unpopular fighter transform himself into a fan favorite almost overnight, and without ever stepping in the cage?
Answer: By going and getting himself cut from the UFC a little prematurely.
Granted, the popularity bump he receives will be short-lived and probably of shallow comfort to the guy who just lost his job, but at least it's dependable.
Yushin Okami is just the latest example. If you had asked most fight fans about him last week, they would have told you that he was a suffocating wrestler who was only fun to watch when he was getting knocked out. At best, they might have been willing to admit that he was a pretty damn good fighter, a genuine problem for all but the top five or six middleweights in the world, and a man deserving of a certain begrudging respect, if not admiration. At worst, they'd call him a lay-and-pray specialist and leave it at that.
But that was before the UFC cut him. That was back when those same fans assumed they'd always have Okami to kick around, especially because, while he might drop one here or there, he's too good to go on the sort of losing skid that would result in a near automatic ejection from the UFC.
When the UFC decided to release Okami (29-8 MMA, 13-5 UFC) after his TKO loss to Ronaldo Souza – his first loss in four outings, and just his fifth in seven years with the UFC – that's when we were reminded that, for a certain kind of fighter, the end can come swiftly. It's also when a whole bunch of fans suddenly became major Okami fans, even if they wouldn't have walked across the street to watch him fight a few days earlier.
The same thing happened with Jon Fitch. Before he got cut, he was just another boring wrestler, clogging up the welterweight division. When the UFC released him, suddenly he was a rebel with a cause, proof that the UFC was trying too hard to shape strategies and styles at the expense of true sport. As it turned out, we liked him more as a symbol than we did as a fighter.
There's some merit to that. Especially in the case of Okami, you can't deny that he seems to have been held to a different standard than, say, Dan Hardy or Matt Brown, who both survived worse losing streaks than anything Okami endured. What's less clear is whether we should really be so outraged about it.
When Fitch was cut, I admit I was surprised. When UFC President Dana White explained that it was due in part to how much money he was making after nearly eight years with the UFC (and it wasn't even really all that much), I mostly felt sad for aspiring fighters everywhere. But White's explanation of Okami's release sounds a lot like what I heard from UFC matchmakers Joe Silva and Sean Shelby, both of whom feel the strain of the UFC's roster bulge firsthand.
As White told Yahoo! Sports' Kevin Iole, "We have a lot of guys coming in and I've been saying this all year: We have a full roster and there are guys who deserve opportunities. When you bring guys in, someone has to go. That's why these fights are so meaningful."
Sound familiar? It's the same explanation Silva gave when he acknowledged that, while unpleasant, cuts were essential to the health of the organization. "Nobody new can come in until somebody old goes," Silva said. "If you're tired of seeing rematches, then you've got to clear space and bring in new people."
As Shelby put it, the role of matchmakers is not just to fill fight cards, but to bring challengers to the champions.
"It's not like looking for someone to come in and work for some company and just be average," he said. "We're not looking for that. We're looking for the single best person on the planet in their respective weight class. You're obligated to cycle through in search of that person, to find these challengers."
When viewed through that lens, Okami's cut makes a terrible, Darwinian sort of sense. Dude is ranked No. 7, according to our USA TODAY Sports/MMAjunkie.com MMA middleweight rankings, but does anyone really believe he was on his way to becoming UFC champ? He already had his shot at that, and he didn't even come close. You could argue that merely remaining a top 10 middleweight should have entitled him to some job security in the UFC, but that misses the point of the organization, and maybe even the sport.
Fighting is a struggle for supremacy that's stripped all the way down. Sports without the metaphor. We put two people in a cage to find out who's better, and after enough of those experiments, we eventually find out who's best, at least for the moment.
That's fine when you think about it as a dream, but it's harder to swallow when you think of it as a job. If Okami were a software engineer, being the seventh best in his category would probably ensure him gainful employment for years to come. Even being the seventh best shortstop in Major League Baseball would make him a millionaire, though the pool of willing participants tends to be a lot larger when the most dangerous part of your job is fielding indifferent grounders as opposed to dodging menacing, well-aimed punches.
The point is, the UFC is looking for the best fighters in the world. It's also looking to make money, which is why you can survive slightly longer if your unsuccessful attempts at climbing to the top of the heap are entertaining enough to sell tickets and pay-per-views. But even those fighters get cut eventually. They have to, because somewhere out there is a fighter who might become the best, who hasn't yet bumped up against the jagged ceiling of his own limitations, and he's coming for somebody's spot. If you don't want it to be yours, you have to make your case over and over and over again.
It's the kind of employment environment that most of us couldn't stand. Maybe that's also why it's so compelling to us. It's the rare arena where really, really good isn't good enough, and the years you've already put in don't amount to seniority, but rather strengthen the case against you. In the end, the judgment it leads to is brutal and harsh and inevitable.
But that's fighting for you. And, honestly, what did you expect?