Thursday, August 6, 2020

It’s Time to Create A New Top Fighter Award

In a year of new champions and new stars, none shined brighter than Jorge Masvidal in 2019. Both inside and outside of the cage, Masvidal did everything he possibly could to have an A-letter year, and the praise and recognition he is earning from fans and the media is well deserved after a lifetime of blood and grind. But while all the acclaim from 2019 fits like a fresh-pressed cream suit on Masvidal, the award of “Fighter of the Year” is being placed on him by those who, unbeknownst to themselves, are thinking of a different award that currently does not exist.

Congratulations, you are now on a panel to determine the 2019 Fighter of the Year, no check-mark verification needed! Now consider strictly the résumés and pretend you have no idea the identities of the fighters:

Fighter #1:

  • First-round TKO of Top 5 P4P at the time)
  • Third-round TKO of #1 bantamweight contender at the time) in arguably the comeback of the year to become a two-division champion.

Fighter #2:

  • 50-45 shutout of #7 P4P at the time as a healthy underdog, setting striking output records for a welterweight championship fight.
  • Defeats #2 ranked welterweight and former interim champion who arguably did not lose a round during seven-fight winning streak in a Fight of the Year contender and one of the best title fights of all time.

Fighter #3:

  • Highlight-reel 1st round TKO of #3-ranked welterweight
  • Fastest (and arguably greatest) KO in UFC history over undefeated fighter with a controversial 1-0 record in UFC. Both wins thus far came as an underdog.
  • 3rd round TKO (doctor’s stoppage) over #7-ranked welterweight in a dominant performance in which he was pitching a shutout before the stoppage.

Fighter #4:

  • Defeats #15-ranked middleweight in highly acclaimed fight via unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 29-28)
  • Defeats #4-ranked middleweight) in Fight of the Year contender and instant all-time classic for the interim championship belt.
  • KO’s #9 ranked P4P at the time in the second round after a dominant 1st round.

Of course, there’s only so much anyone can be expected to divorce themselves from the reality that each of the above fighter’s identities is no secret, so allow me to cut to the chase and point out the biggest difference between fighter #3 and the others: buzz.

 In terms of buzz, the rankings between the four would probably look like this:

  1. Jorge Masvidal
  2. Israel Adesanya
  3. Henry Cejudo
  4. Kamaru Usman

In terms of pure merit, the rankings are very close, and I could see a very strong case for Adesanya, Cejudo, or Usman, but it would probably look like this based on the quality of the wins and performances during the victories:

  1. Israel Adesanya (Quantity of three, two belts, two highly acclaimed fights, two highly acclaimed performances)
  2. Henry Cejudo (extremely slight edge over #3 due to double-champ status. Plus, one of the two wins was against a contender for bantamweight GOAT status who was ranked very high on P4P list)
  3. Kamaru Usman (Depending on how much respect you give Covington, that fight plus what he did to Woodley could legitimately put him at #1. Yet his name was rarely mentioned along with Adesanya/Masvidal because buzz was the separator)
  4. Jorge Masvidal (Buzz aside, all three wins were against ranked opponents and of the four, he is the only one to have all victories by stoppage)

This is not a slight on Jorge Masvidal. Even from a purely merit-based perspective, he still would have earned the letter grade of an A for 2019. Not a B, not a B+, not an A-, but a legitimate A. But what separates him from Adesanya, Cejudo, and Usman is that he generated the most buzz.

His knockout of Darren Till made waves because of where it happened, right in Till’s backyard of England, and also because of the pure devastation of the KO. His KO of Ben Askren took on a life of its own and deservedly so, as it is on the shortlist for greatest KOs in UFC history and stands alone in terms of time clocked in. Plus, Ben Askren is a big wavemaker, so he brought a lot of eyes to the fight, which only made the KO all that more buzzworthy. But what really set Masvidal apart from, say, Israel Adesanya, who also was a massive wavemaker in 2019, was UFC 244.

UFC 244 was not just the biggest event of the year but easily one of the biggest events in UFC history, with The Rock and the president in attendance in what was the second-highest MSG gate at over $6.5 million. This event catapulted Masvidal to superstar level. And for him to perform the way he did with the brightest lights of the year shining down upon him, he became the Star of the Year. And with all due respect to those who named Jorge Masvidal 2019 Fighter of the Year, this is the award you are thinking of.

To be named “Star of the Year” for some would be more prestigious than being named “Fighter of the Year,” so this isn’t to diminish Jorge Masvidal’s year. The MMA community, some very consciously, others completely unwittingly, has deep ties to professional wrestling. Many of the media members of all levels grew up watching professional wrestling (myself included) and a great portion of the community, whether publicly or closeted, either were pro wrestling fans or are to this day. So when you look at someone like a Jorge Masvidal, it’s easy to overlook how the merit of his résumé might not be the best, but since he was the biggest star of the year while also having a lot of merit, that makes him the Fighter of the Year.

But if we are looking at this purely from a sports lens, he was not the “MVP” any more than someone who generates the most headlines would be the MVP of the NFL or the NBA. If LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo had very close statistics, but Antetokounmpo’s team had a better record and his stats overall were slightly better than LeBron’s, those who vote for NBA MVP wouldn’t say, “Yeah, but LeBron was a bigger star and sold more jerseys. Let’s factor that in and give it to LeBron.” The reason why they don’t do that is because the NBA, though it obviously is entertainment also, is primarily a sport.

Because of the pro wrestling ties in the MMA community, there will always be some confusion or sometimes even open debate over whether MMA is primarily entertainment or a sport. Factually speaking, as long as the outcomes are not predetermined it is primarily a sport. The UFC being picked up by ESPN instead of the E Network speaks to that fact. So go ahead, celebrate the entertainment side of MMA! Doing so, like the awards themselves, are all in good fun! Create a Star of the Year award…you could name it just that or you could name it “Most Valuable Fighter,” which speaks to a fighter’s drawing power as well as his accomplishments. The same way MVP awards look at who had the most value to their team while also factoring in results, the MVF award would factor in who had the most value to the promotion while also factoring in results. The MVF award does not neglect merit, but it looks at the holistic year the fighter had in terms of both results and value, which is the true award Jorge Masvidal has been given by many.

Here are the nominees for the title of this award:

Star of the Year

Most Valuable Fighter

Buzzworthy Fighter of the Year

Newsmaker of the Year

For now, the winner is….”Most Valuable Fighter.” But any outlet can run with whichever of the above titles they prefer and select their own winner.

Winning the “Most Valuable Fighter” award would possibly be a bigger accomplishment to winning “Fighter of the Year” to the majority of the MMA fanbase, and it would still allow a purely merit-based “Fighter of the Year” award that continues to help project and elevate the perception of MMA as a legitimate sport. By having two top fighter awards, the fighters with the best résumés wouldn’t be overlooked for things they cannot control, i.e. facing opponents who are more popular on social media and have greater drawing power, and purists can feel a sense of closure at the end of the year by reflecting on who accomplished the most in the cage. Meanwhile, those who lean toward the entertainment side or consider the entertainment/sport dichotomy to be symmetric can continue giving recognition to the year’s biggest star by bestowing an award with just as much, if not more perceived value than the Fighter of the Year award. Everybody wins.

MMA media members, I present to you the Most Valuable Fighter (aka Star of the Year) Award.

Please, step up to the stage and accept it.

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