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Trading Shots: If Colby Covington gets skipped for the title shot, is it proof the UFC has a problem keeping promises?

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What does the promise of a UFC title shot mean when executive minds have been known to change in a hurry? And why do fighter keep taking the boss man’s word for it? Retired UFC and WEC fighter Danny Downes joins MMAjunkie columnist Ben Fowlkes to discuss in this week’s Trading Shots.

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Fowlkes: For the sake of today’s column, Danny, I’m going to need you to pretend you’re Anderson Silva. Not the Silva of yesteryear, mind you, but the 43-year-old version of the present. Say you’re sitting there one day when UFC President Dana White comes to you with an offer to fight undefeated phenom Israel Adesanya. You ask why you should take this fight. He tells you because you’ll get a middleweight title shot if you win.

And hey, that sounds good to you. You still dream of championship glory. You’re all about fights that will move you in that direction. Contingent on this promise, you agree and the fight is made.

Now skip ahead a couple days. You’re perusing MMAjunkie.com, your favorite MMA website, when you see White talking about how he might go ahead and give Colby Covington’s welterweight title shot to Kamaru Usman because, in his words, “Nothing’s guaranteed in life, man.”

Hold up. What about your thing, though? That’s … that’s still guaranteed right? Or are you maybe starting to wonder…

Downes: Let me see if I fully understand this little thought exercise of yours. You’re suggesting that I, Silva, should be suspicious of White? That perhaps the UFC president has a strained relationship with the truth and often reneges on his promises?

Well Ben, all I have to say is that you really cracked the code here. We should put a “BREAKING NEWS ALERT” bulletin at the top of this column.

If I’m Silva, I cross that bridge when I get to it. White has already publicly confirmed that Silva will earn the title shot with a win. There’s nothing more you can really do if you’re Silva. Your goal has to be to see if you can find any of that old magic to defeat a 29-year-old up-and-comer.

Outside this specific instance, it’s worth asking if White’s tenuous relationship with keeping his word to fighters is something to worry about. As you noted, Covington’s title opportunity appears to be fading away. Is that really such a bad thing? Not because of how fans may personally feel about Covington, but because it shows that White (and the UFC by extension) are willing to strike while the iron’s hot.

Sure, it makes White the promotional equivalence of the “distracted boyfriend” meme, but there’s no harm in looking, right? Gotta keep your options open …

Fowlkes: If I’m a fighter and the fulfillment of the promise is really the only motivating factor convincing me to take the fight, then White’s track record alone would be enough for me to insist on seeing something in writing before I take it seriously. The cautionary tale of Colby Covington isn’t the only reason, but it could end up being the newest one.

And it does seem like a significant issue. Fighting is such a fickle business anyway. Fortunes rise and fall in a matter of seconds. It’s so hard for fighters to plan their futures, or even their next few months. If the guy in charge of the whole show tells you that if you do x, you will receive y, you need to be able to believe that. But if you’ve been paying even a little bit of attention these last dozen years or so, you also ought to know better.

At this point, part of it is on the fighters. Stop taking White’s word for it. Get some of these promises in writing. You know, what lawyers sometimes refer to as “contracts.” And no, don’t assume that a shiny gold belt will save you. Covington got one of those when he beat Rafael dos Anjos. Then the UFC took it away, just as it is now threatening to take his promised title shot away, all so it can give the latter to Usman as a reward for him beating (wait for it …) yep, dos Anjos.

Do you think there’s something in the nature of pro fighters that makes them more likely to keep believing each new promise dangled in front of them, no matter how many times they see that same strategy backfire on others? Is it a microcosm of bigger labor issues in MMA? Do they all think this is just something that happens to other people, but surely the promoter will keep his word when he gives it to me?

Downes: There’s an element of all the things you mentioned. For the most part, a lot of fighters fall into the myth of meritocracy. If I win all my fights, there’s no way they can deny me what I’ve earned, right?

First off, it’s extremely difficult to have an undefeated MMA record. And, even if a fighter were to win all his fights, there’s no guarantee he’ll get a fair deal. There are a lot of other factors (just ask Ben Askren). It’s similar to the fighters who say, “I don’t worry about talking trash. I let what happens inside the cage do the talking.”

It’s a fine sentiment, but if you think fighting is the only thing that matters in the fight game, I hope your gimmick is “Polyanna.”

As much as we’d like to blame it on fighter’s personality deficiencies, there are structural issues at play. You say that fighters should get these promises in writing. How do you propose they do that? Outside Conor McGregor, who else has the leverage to earn concessions in negotiations?

If becoming the biggest MMA star in the world is the only path, it’s not that equitable of a system. Not only that, but fighters know not to question White’s decisions. That’s the quickest way to getting publicly dragged through the mud.

It doesn’t matter if you’re Covington or Donald Cerrone, nobody is safe. Furthermore, if you’re a “good little soldier,” it’s really easy to get back on his good side. Look at T.J. Dillashaw. He could have pushed the MMAAA, or he could do what he’s told and earn a reported [boatload] of money to kill a division. Which would you choose?

It may suck to lose a title shot, but it would be even worse to lose your job.

For complete coverage of TUF 28 Finale, check out the UFC Events section of the site.

Ben Fowlkes is MMAjunkie and USA TODAY’s MMA columnist. Danny Downes, a retired UFC and WEC fighter, is an MMAjunkie contributor who has also written for UFC.com and UFC 360. Follow them on twitter at @benfowlkesMMA and @dannyboydownes.



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