Fighting to the Middle

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Mid-carder. Gatekeeper. Preliminary fighter.

These are all common terms tossed around the mixed martial arts world, and to most they are seen as a slight towards a competitor fighting in the UFC.

The goal for every fighter on day one in the Octagon seems to be gunning for a world title. Everybody dreams of being a champion. But what about those fighters who continuously compete in the UFC, but never quite reach that goal?

Does that make them any less valuable to the promotion than the top two or three guys in each weight class that are vying for a belt?

The easy answer is no, but is there something to be said for the acceptance of that fact and appreciating the job some fighters have as the fourth or fifth fight on the card, taking home bonuses, and always having a job with the UFC.

Chris Lytle was a fighter who never quite made it to a world title, but it was the championship race that caused him to change who he was forever. After making it to the finals of The Ultimate Fighter season 4, Lytle was positioned to face Matt Serra with a shot at the UFC welterweight title hanging in the balance.

What resulted was one of the few performances where Lytle just didn’t feel satisfied with his effort, where he fought not to lose instead of always gunning for a win, and the final tally was a loss to Matt Serra. Looking back on that fight, Lytle remembers that as the moment in which he said no more.

He wouldn’t go out and fight not to lose or look to eke out a decision. Lytle wanted to finish fights, he wanted to be exciting, and he wanted fans to enjoy every single time he stepped in the cage. And while that never took away his championship dreams, he knew there was something to be said for always having a job and always being a favorite of both the fans and the UFC brass because they knew when Chris Lytle was fighting, there was going to be a show.

“A title would have been fantastic, that would have been awesome, but do I feel incomplete because it didn’t happen? Absolutely not,” Lytle told MMAWeekly Radio.

“I feel like every time I went out there, I went out there with the right mentality and the right mindset. I knew when I retired from this sport I wouldn’t look back and be like ‘man I wish I would have done this.’ I feel like I did everything I could have. I did the way I should have.”

Former Ultimate Fighter winner Mac Danzig had a different kind of pressure on him when he first entered the UFC. As a champion from the long running reality show, there were certain expectations already laid at his doorstep on day one, and Danzig was forced to live up to them.

Since winning the show, Danzig has gone 4-4 in the UFC, but still remains a fan favorite and still has a job competing in the Octagon. It’s something he holds near and dear because he spent the first 21 fights of his career outside the UFC, always trying to get the chance to compete in the biggest MMA organization in the world.

Danzig is a realist. He knows that fighting for a title isn’t in his immediate plans, but he still gets to fight in the UFC, he still gets a paycheck at the end of every fight, and those are things that any fighter can appreciate.

“It all depends on your motivation for these type of things and you also have to be a realist,” Danzig told MMAWeekly Radio recently.

Mac Danzig at UFC Fight Night 15“A lot of these guys put that out there like a broken record, ‘yeah, you know I want to get the title and everything,’ but I’m a realist. It’s after I beat Efrain, I’ll need six solid wins in a row, and then they’ll be like, ‘hey you’ve gotten back on track, we’re going to put you in a No. 1 contender fight,’ or something like that; otherwise it’s not even on the horizon.”

Raising and providing for his daughter is the driving force in Danzig’s life right now, and while he’ll never deny that a title run would be fantastic, he’s not going to feel lesser if he never gets there. If he fights for the rest of his career in the UFC, that’s an accomplishment in and of itself.

“Yeah, it is okay to be a UFC fighter that’s working hard and competing and not really worried about (the UFC title). I’ll worry about that when it comes. This whole thing is a journey for me. I do what I can every single time out, I learn from my mistakes, and I learn from my experiences; and if you don’t learn and evolve, then you just don’t. You get pushed along to the wayside but I’m just doing my thing,” said Danzig.

“My motivation right now is to become better and to support my kid. That’s a means to support an end right there, like making the money to support my kid. It’s not just a job for me; I’m doing this because I love it. I don’t want to go back to doing a job from nine to five and I don’t ever want to do something like that. As hard as this job is, and being a professional fighter for so many reasons is one of the hardest jobs in the world, and raising a kid while you do it is hard, but this is what I chose and I’m glad I chose it.”

Ask any fighter that was once in the UFC that has since been released what their ultimate goal is and generally speaking you won’t hear many of them say “I want to fight for the title.” Their goal is just to get back to the UFC because that is the promise land of MMA.

Fighters like Patrick Cote and Tim Sylvia, who either competed for titles or were at one time champions in the UFC, both worked tirelessly in recent campaigns just to get back on the radar of UFC matchmaker Joe Silva. Of course both fighters would love to reach the pinnacle again and fight for gold in the UFC, but during their time outside the promotion their ultimate goals were only to get back to the show.

Chris Lytle was no different once upon a time.

He first competed in the Octagon back in 2000, left after one fight and came back in 2003. He exited again and then returned in 2004 and it continued like that for the Indiana native until his run on The Ultimate Fighter in 2006.

Sure, Lytle never got a title shot in the UFC, but he did manage to earn over a half a million dollars in post fight bonuses, the most by any fighter in UFC history. He was constantly at or near the top of the cards he fought on, and people knew that when Chris Lytle was in a fight, they were going to be entertained.

Chris Lytle retired as a UFC fighter on Aug. 14, 2011. Some may try to define him as a “mid-card fighter” or a “gatekeeper,” but in reality he was one of the most well paid and well respected fighters to ever step foot in the Octagon. He was a 20-fight veteran of the UFC, and it’s a guarantee that there are a lot of “title hunters” currently on the outside looking in that would love the chance to spend 20 fights inside the Octagon.

Being a champion doesn’t define everyone… just being in the UFC is sometimes good enough.

Follow @DamonMartin on Twitter or e-mail Damon Martin.
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