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Trading Shots: What's a fighter to do when an opponent comes in heavy?

Accepting a fight with an opponent who misses weight by a mile has risks, but so does turning it down, as we saw at UFC on FOX 26. In this week’s Trading Shots, MMAjunkie columnist Ben Fowlkes joins retired UFC and WEC fighter Danny Downes to discuss the pros and cons of a tough situation.

Fowlkes: Help me understand something here, Danny. Two fighters failed to make weight for UFC on FOX 26 on Saturday night. One was Pietro Menga, who didn’t even weigh in, reportedly because was so overweight that his opponent, Tim Elliott, refused to accept the fight. Naturally, that led to Elliott taking some heat from fans, especially after he took to Twitter to complain about not getting his win bonus.

Then there’s Josh Emmett, who stepped up as a short-notice replacement against Ricardo Lamas and came in two and a half pounds over. Lamas clearly didn’t like it, but he took the fight anyway. Then he got knocked out cold in the first round.

I’m not saying the extra couple pounds is what beat Lamas, but it does seem to me that fighters face a tough choice when their opponent comes in heavy. If you take the fight and lose, who’s going to remember the extra weight? But if you don’t take the fight you get paid as if you’d lost, plus you make fans and the UFC mad at you.

What’s a fighter supposed to do? And does the answer change if it’s five or six pounds instead of two or three?

Downes: If a fighter wants to be a “company man,” he’s supposed to take the fight no matter what. But as Elliot pointed out, being a company man doesn’t get you much.

There are a lot of factors to take into account when making this decision. The first is, how will it affect the fight itself? Is your opponent a grappler? Are you planning on a wrestling heavy attack? If so, the extra weight could have an effect on the match-up. Especially in the case of Elliot, five or six pounds is a huge difference when you’re already fighting at 125 pounds, whereas a couple pounds to a middleweight might not mean as much.

Along the same lines, you have to think about your job security. If you’re a loss or two from getting cut, you might want to be more conservative. Certain fighters in the UFC have a place on the roster no matter what their record might be. Elliot doesn’t have that luxury.

The same phenomenon we’ve noticed with champions being more conservative in their matchmaking/strategy applies to fighters on the bubble. Being a UFC fighter is more important than being someone who fights “anytime, anywhere.” When that’s the case, you’re willing to take some heat from fans to preserve your roster spot.

What the Elliot situation again highlights is how much of UFC policy is by feel. There’s nothing stopping the UFC from giving Elliot his win money, but it doesn’t have to and so it won’t. Pass out during a weight cut and miss a fight? Well, you’re out of luck. Better hope you can float another couple months of training expenses.

Be careful what you say, too. If you read Elliot’s interview, he wants to make it clear that he doesn’t want to “make the UFC angry.” The culture of fear makes it difficult for fighters to speak up. I suppose fans would just call that “good management,” though.

What about you Ben? I’m sure you played a rec league hockey game with a boo-boo one time, so you know all about competing hurt. Anytime/anywhere may be a dumb way to organize your career, but is it the only way to stay in fans’ and management’s good graces?

Fowlkes: I did play through a killer hangover last week, so yes, thank you for recognizing my sacrifice.

But you’re right that there’s no reason not to pay a fighter his show and win money when he shows up ready to fight and his opponent doesn’t. No reason, that is, except for a possible fundamental misunderstanding of life from the fighter’s perspective.

Because, see, if you asked most people why a fighter shouldn’t get all his money when his opponent comes in heavy and he turns down the bout on those grounds, I suspect they’d cast it as a matter of incentive. What reason is there for anyone to take the fight in that circumstance if they can get the same money without doing the work? Wouldn’t most of us rather get paid without showing up to our jobs, if given the choice? And wouldn’t that be even more true if our jobs involved getting punched in the face?

That’s the way a normal civilian thinks. We don’t want to fight, so a chance to avoid it without financial penalty sounds too good not to take. What that ignores is that fighters are only there because they really do want to fight. They want to go out there, get in a scrap, then win and move forward. They wouldn’t be at the UFC level if they didn’t think that way.

But it also seems to me that we can’t talk about this without talking about the issue of short-notice replacements.

Emmett took the fight with Lamas after Jose Aldo was pulled to face Max Holloway. Menga accepted the fight with Elliott after Justin Scoggins pulled out hurt. In your favorite story about your own worst weight cut, I seem to recall a short-notice offer being the catalyst.

Does the UFC need to do more to ensure that it’s finding replacements who can actually make the weight? Is that even possible? Because it seems to me that, whether you accept an overweight replacement or don’t, it’s the guy who did everything he agreed to do who usually ends up getting screwed in these situations, one way or another.

Downes: I understand the argument for why fans might not like fighters getting paid for doing nothing. It always amazed me how people are willing to take up the moral vanguard to make sure another person doesn’t make some extra money. If fans weren’t out there protecting the UFC’s finances, who would?

People find it “unfair” that a fighter could be compensated for not competing, but I wonder what they find fair about the current system. Elliot and others have to take all the risk. They front all the costs of their training camp. Outside short-notice fights, that means at least eight weeks or so of investment.

The fighter endures all those costs because of a contact he signed at the beginning of camp. Then, 24-48 hours before the contracted fight, the whole agreement gets ripped up. Now if you don’t acquiesce to this last-minute deal, you lose out. Who benefits from this?

As far as ensuring replacement fighters make weight, I don’t see how you could come up with a system to protect against what we saw this weekend. That is, unless you pay a couple “reserve” fighters to stay ready at all times. That would require more money, though, and the reason we’re debating this in the first place is because promoters don’t want to spend money.

As I know firsthand, replacement fighters are desperate to make the roster, so they’ll put themselves in less than ideal situations. Also, do you want to turn down your first UFC fight because you’re a little heavy when the phone rings? Good luck with that.

Again, the biggest problem is the arbitrariness of it all. The fact that every possible scenario and corresponding payout isn’t codified gives the UFC flexibility, but it also causes unnecessary drama. If fighters knew the consequences (both monetary and in terms of their roster spot) and were given some guarantees (or not), then they could make more informed decisions. Instead, they’re stuck guessing and then begging to the media for some money.

That’s a bad look for everyone involved. Fans may not want fighters to get handout, but the UFC could hand out a little more information.

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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