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Trading Shots: What can we learn from Yair Rodriguez's UFC firing and subsequent reconciliation?

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The firing of Yair Rodriguez turned out to be short-lived, so what does that episode tell us about relations between fighters and UFC management when it comes to tricky negotiations? MMAjunkie columnist Ben Fowlkes and retired UFC and WEC fighter Danny Downes discuss in this week’s Trading Shots.

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Fowlkes: Remember how Yair Rodriguez got fired from the UFC, Danny? Remember how Dana White said he just had no use for a guy like that? Yeah, well, turns out maybe that’s not true after all.

Rodriguez is back in the UFC after a sitdown with matchmaker Sean Shelby. He’s even agreed to face Zabit Magomedsharipov just like the UFC wanted, only at a different event. Happy ending all around.

But is this really how you do things if you’re the biggest promotion in the sport? You “fire” people until you get your way, and then you unfire them like it never happened? And what about all those fans who jumped up to agree that Rodriguez was a useless shirker who needed to go? What do they tell themselves now?

Downes: I’ll answer your last question first because it’s the easiest. They’ll tell themselves that Rodriguez came back with his tail between his legs. They might concede that he’s fun to watch, but he “doesn’t sell pay per views” and therefore shouldn’t cross the boss.

This is an aside, but I’m constantly surprised at the number of MMA fans who take the promoter’s side in any disagreement. We constantly tell fighters that “the promoter is not your friend.” I wish some fans would realize the same advice applies to them.

As far as your first question, of course it’s how you do business if you’re the promoter. Why? Because there are no repercussions.

You could understand why Rodriguez might be upset with how things went down, but he completely capitulated. He blamed it on a big “miscommunication” and bad timing, and said he’s happy to be back in the UFC. Do you think he’ll be turning down any more fights? Not likely. So the UFC keeps its talent and holds even more leverage over him. Sounds like a win-win to me.

Perhaps I’m being a little too hard on Rodriguez. There’s this tendency to think of every UFC vs. disgruntled fighter battle as a proxy war for the systemic issues in the sport. There are a number of labor issues we both have with how the sport is conducted, but it’s not fair to place that burden on him. He had his best interests in mind when he was offered those fights, and he used the same calculus for this decision.

Leslie Smith was willing to suffer the consequences for her actions and should be commended. Is that a reasonable expectation of every fighter, though? Why should they sacrifice their livelihood to make a point? The greater good doesn’t pay your bills.

Fowlkes: I’m not sure how much Rodriguez capitulated, if his original version of events was accurate. The way he explained it, he offered to step up against Josh Emmett, then against Ricardo Lamas. The UFC wanted him to fight Magomedsharipov at UFC 227 in Los Angeles. Rodriguez wanted to either negotiate the price, fight him in Moscow instead, or fight anybody from the top 10 without further discussion. That’s when the UFC “fired” him.

So now he’s getting Magomedsharipov at a different event, and who knows if he got the pay raise he was after. I don’t see how people can criticize him for “ducking” Magomedsharipov and then also criticize him for taking the fight once the “miscommunication” got sorted out. You have to choose one.

As for the broader question of why any fighter should be willing to stick his or her neck out for the greater good, I refer you to Chuck Liddell.

The former UFC light heavyweight champion seemed opposed to any organizing efforts back when he was fighting. He even actively worked against them at times. But now that he’s no longer getting that check from the UFC just to stay out of the cage, he suddenly thinks it’s a good idea.

How many times have we seen this? When fighters are in a position to actually exercise some pull, they seem to feel like they’re in one of those game show dollar bill wind tunnel things, trying to grab as much cash as they can before time runs out. Then, years later, they decide they want to fix the system that set up the wind tunnel in the first place.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand why this happens. I also understand that this is exactly how you end up repeating the same cycle for decades on end without ever getting anywhere.

Downes: There are two different ways to view Liddell’s change of heart. The first is the cynical (some people are calling it Fowlkesian) interpretation. When “The Iceman” was at the top of the game, he had no use for a union and even had a cushy post-retirement gig ahead of him. Now that he’s faced with the prospect of being 48 years old and fighting again to make some money, the thought of an MMA union doesn’t seem so bad.

The other possibility is that Liddell truly has evolved on the issue. When I was in my early 20s, I told everyone who would listen that I’d never get married (including girlfriends). I had my reasons (some good, some bad), but I thought there was no way I’d sign up for a matrimonial union.

As I got older (and met the woman of my dreams), I changed my mind. I also changed my mind on having children. I bet your buddy Chad Dundas never thought he’d be living that minivan life, but he eventually saw the practicality of a multi-purpose vehicle.

Whether Rodriguez got played or not, it doesn’t really matter. It also doesn’t matter if Liddell is a greedy old fighter or the next Samuel Gompers. What matters is that the most popular MMA organization in the world has a disproportionate amount of power. It matters that the newest revenue avenue for ex-UFC fighters is bare-knuckle boxing.

I don’t know how we stop the cycle from repeating itself, but I do know there are still a lot of people who don’t recognize we have a problem in the first place.

Rodriguez’s situation may have not been the most egregious example, but it’s emblematic of how fighters are expected to shut up and do what they’re told. Until more fighters decide to do the opposite, nothing will change.

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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