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Trade Secrets

Breaking down the trade that sent the UFC flyweight legend Demetrious Johnson to One Championship for coveted welterweight Ben Askren … and contemplating other trades that we’d like to see

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Last Wednesday, the UFC made a trade with the Singapore-based promotion ONE Championship, sending the former flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson to Asia for Ben Askren, a welterweight who, after destroying all seven of the opponents he faced overseas, “retired” last year out of sheer boredom. The first thought that came to mind when the trade was announced was something along the lines of: This shit never happens. MMA promotions just don’t swap fighters with each other. The UFC traditionally just buys up competitors when they become threats. It’s especially novel given that the UFC is so high-handedly talent rich, possessive, and contract controlling that it doesn’t usually deign to deal with the lesser players in the industry—or even acknowledge their existence.

But upon further reflection, the trade makes a lot of sense. Johnson, the man who broke Anderson Silva’s record for most title defenses between 2012 and 2018, was undeniably great but ultimately devalued and disgruntled. He wanted the kind of money that should accompany his level of greatness in prizefighting, but he couldn’t draw the crowds and viewers to justify that kind of raise. In fact, the UFC had a hard time pushing him as an event at all, even when he was right in the thick of making history. For his record-breaking defense against Ray Borg at UFC 216, the pay-per-view buy rate was a modest 200,000—and Johnson wasn’t even the featured bout of the night. He was the co-main, an added value attraction to bolster Tony Ferguson’s fight with Kevin Lee for the interim lightweight title. Compare those numbers to Conor McGregor’s fight with Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 229, which did in the vicinity of 2.4 million buys, and you can see how Johnson might be considered expendable.

As for the former Bellator and ONE champion Askren, he is the greatest welterweight to never fight in the UFC, and therefore the most coveted. Even when UFC president Dana White tweeted that “when ambien can’t sleep, it takes Ben Askren”—a knock on his suffocating brand of ragdoll pummel-wrestling—he secretly wanted him in the octagon. Askren’s contract with ONE Championship was the only thing keeping him away. So shipping a problem child like Johnson off to gain a marketable fighter was a win-win.

Upon even further reflection, with a little confidence you can trace all of this back to Nate Diaz. It was Diaz, along with his counterpart Dustin Poirier, that began lobbying for a main-event spot on the upcoming UFC 230 card in New York—a card at the time in desperate need of a headliner. Because neither man was in contention at lightweight or welterweight and therefore had no business fighting for a title, Diaz proposed the UFC introduce a “superfighter division,” a new weight class carved out from the bottom half of the stacked 170-pound welterweight division, suggesting that his bout with Poirier become a five-round affair for the inaugural 165-pound belt. (The fight was scrapped, by the way, due to an injury that Poirier sustained, thus completing the chain of chaos that only the UFC can deliver).

MMA fans ate it up. People began talking about the logistics of a 165-pound division and how the UFC has sorely needed such a thing to bridge the gap between lightweight and welterweight. Fighters—including Conor McGregor—expressed enthusiasm for its creation. With Diaz working the controls of the fight-game imagination, the mere mention of the possibility of a 165-pound division was enough to make it feel imminent.

Dana White, of course, hated the idea, but in much the same way that he hated Askren—he acted like he hated it while secretly (if figuratively) twirling his mustache in joy. The problem is that even though there are moments—like UFC 230—when there don’t seem to be enough, there are already too many divisions. To create a new division, one might have to go. The only division that could be easily lopped out of the picture was flyweight, the lowest men’s weight class and the same one that Johnson ruled up until he lost his title to Henry Cejudo at UFC 227 in August. If it was ever going to go, this would be the perfect time to phase out the 125-pounders. After he took Johnson’s title, Cejudo expressed interest in going up to challenge bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw at 135 pounds, thus leaving flyweight unmanned. The only thing left is to evict the lingering tenants of the UFC’s least glamorous division.

So the UFC trading Johnson to ONE Championship is the first big movement toward that end. Johnson will be united with his longtime coach, Matt Hume, who doubles as vice president of operations and competition at ONE, and who will attempt to make him the cult hero of the Eastern theater. Current UFC flyweights who never got a crack at Johnson are welcome to track him from Kallang to Pasay City, and all the ports in between on the Asian circuit. Johnson may be the first in a flyweight exodus. In trying to hype up his own career, Nate Diaz may have inadvertently dropped a mushroom cloud on the entire UFC flyweight world.

The Askren-Johnson trade was out of left field, but it makes sense for all parties involved. It even got Bellator president Scott Coker to tweet the word “trades?” with a little thinking man emoji and a light bulb. And it got me to thinking about a few other trades I’d like to see in MMA, namely between the UFC and Bellator, that might benefit everyone.

MMA: TUF 27 Finale-Tavares vs Adesanya
Israel Adesanya
Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

UFC’s Israel Adesanya, Sage Northcutt for Bellator’s Dillon Danis

This might seem one-sided for Bellator upon first glance, as Adesanya (14-0) is being cast as a kind of savior in the UFC given his prowess in the cage and his audacity outside of it. He has the look of a future champion. But after Khabib Nurmagomedov talon-swooped Dillon Danis from the top of the cage to kick off the post-fight melee at UFC 229, Danis’s shadow could probably sell 500,000 PPVs.

The brash jiu-jitsu player Danis is the kind of entertainingly delusional guy that the UFC could use. A buddy and training partner of McGregor’s, he travels around on the private planes and finds himself sampling the very same aspics that appear before McGregor’s nose. Just by being a part of McGregor’s inner faction, he becomes an event—even though he’s just 1-0 in his MMA career.

Danis is a young jiu-jitsu phenom who believes he is a God Among Men. Last week he even tweeted that he’s the best grappler in MMA, a laughable claim, before hollering at the aforementioned Ben Askren, “I’ll put you on your back faster than a prostitute with a mortgage.” Given that the UFC is making baby steps toward the WWE model, I’d consider Danis a “must get” for the UFC at this point. Even if you have to give up a commodity like Adesanya, who lifted a leg in his UFC debut at UFC 221 and pretended to mark the cage.

Sage Northcutt is thrown in just to balance out the bleach. Northcutt is a happy-go-lucky Texas-based health food juggernaut that would sound right at home saying the words, “Mr. Coker.” Though he’s still young, he’s never quite lived up to his early-career hype, and could use a change of scenery. Maybe he’s too polite for the UFC. Plus, Thackerville, Oklahoma—a favorite landing spot for Bellator—is a straight shot up the interstate from Northcutt’s home in Katy, Texas.

Bellator’s Aaron Pico for UFC’s Henry Cejudo

To get a stud like 22-year-old wrestling standout Pico, the UFC would have to give up something good—maybe a champion like Cejudo? Pico stumbled out of the gate last June when he got choked out by Zach Freeman, but has since gone 4-0 with four first-round finishes (all KO/TKO). In every fight he makes the collective hair on the spectator’s arm rise. And in the UFC, he would be like a blood-dimmed tide at featherweight, which is already one of the deepest roster pools in the UFC.

Pico is perhaps the best prospect in all of MMA right now—and well on his way to being a star. Cejudo, on the other hand, is a freshly realized champion in a division that doesn’t look long for the world (or at least the UFC). As a former Olympic gold medalist, he would be the big man on campus in Bellator’s bantamweight division, which is where he’s looking at competing long term. A fight with current Bellator champion Darrion Caldwell would carry a cautionary label for explosives. Bellator would inherit a marketable fighter that the UFC isn’t all that interested in promoting.

UFC Brisbane
Mark Hunt
Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images

UFC’s Mark Hunt to Bellator for Cash, Future Considerations

The truth is, Mark Hunt has become counterproductive for the UFC. Each time he is booked into a high-profile fight he begins talking about that cheater Brock Lesnar, who beat him at UFC 200, and answers questions about the lawsuit he has against the UFC for being complicit in Lesnar’s cheating.

Like all sports, fighting is escapism for a fan, and the 44-year-old Hunt is making it damn near impossible to escape anything. He is anxiety with heavy hands. And as a stressed fighter, he is better suited for Bellator, where there’s a flourishing oldies circuit among the heavyweights right now. Imagine a Mark Hunt versus Quinton “Rampage” Jackson battle in 2019, or Hunt in a rematch with Cheick Kongo. Hunt could have a nice fresh start by jumping leagues, and here’s guessing the UFC would send up a valet to help him gather up his belongings.

Bellator’s Fedor Emelianenko for UFC’s Stipe Miocic

Miocic is also disenchanted with the UFC right now, namely for treating him like so much minced meat after he lost his title to Daniel Cormier. As a distinguished record holder for the most title defenses at heavyweight, Miocic believes he has earned the right to a rematch. Instead, the UFC booked Cormier against Derrick Lewis for UFC 230, and the plan is to have Cormier fight Brock Lesnar in his next—and perhaps last—fight in the UFC. Beyond that Cormier is looking at segueing to the WWE.

The fine print in all of this: The UFC has no interest in putting Miocic anywhere back near a title. His run as a champion was like the bookend to Demetrious Johnson’s; he was the unmagnetic heavyweight record-setter. Diehards of MMA loved him, while casual audiences didn’t even try to pronounce his last name. So where does that leave him? As a kind of monster gatekeeper who will kill off contenders with bloodshot vengeance.

If the UFC traded Miocic for a living legend like Fedor, it would be a sentimentalist’s dream. Emelianenko, considered by many the greatest heavyweight of all time, has never fought in the UFC. There would be a thrill in seeing him forced to wear the Reebok fight kit, walking toward the octagon. It wouldn’t matter who Fedor fought, because the UFC’s promotional machine would be behind him. A decade ago the biggest fight possible was Fedor versus Lesnar. Here’s where we are in 2018: It could still happen.

At 42 years old, Fedor is no longer the fighter he was during his run in Pride. But he’s actually in the midst of a renaissance, via the Bellator Heavyweight Grand Prix. He knocked out Frank Mir and Chael Sonnen to punch his ticket to the finals against Ryan Bader. If he is able to put Bader on the dream flow with a timely overhand right? He’d be big business for the UFC. And it might be our last opportunity to see him there.

UFC Fight Night: Overeem v Arlovski
Germaine de Randamie
Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

Bellator’s Ilima-Lei MacFarlane for UFC’s Nicco Montaño, Germaine de Randamie, Sijara Eubanks

The UFC just got its women’s flyweight division up and running, and should therefore have the very best flyweights in the world. MacFarlane is the current Bellator champion, but she’s also a charismatic Hawaiian fighter who is marketable enough for the promotion to hold an event on the island in December. The UFC would love to have her. But to get her, it would have to give up some pretty decent names.

So how about the relish tray of recently stripped UFC flyweight champion Nicco Montaño, former featherweight champion Germaine de Randamie, and the firebrand Sijara Eubanks, all of whom are borderline pariahs within UFC? If ever there was a need for a fresh start, Montaño—who fell out of her UFC 228 title fight with Valentina Shevchenko at the 11th hour with a botched weight cut—and de Randamie—who went on the lam when it came time to defend her title against Cristiane “Cyborg” last year—could use it. Each could reinvent themselves in Bellator, while Eubanks could throw a middle finger at the UFC for temporarily making her the main event of UFC 230 and then taking it away.

PFL’s Ray Cooper III for Bellator’s Benson Henderson

Because he’s been competing under the Professional Fighters League (PFL) banner, not everyone is familiar with Ray Cooper III. But if you go look at the year he’s had in 2018, you’ll realize that “Bradda Boy” is on a mission. He is 4-0 on the “season”—as the PFL uses a traditional sport’s structure of having a season, playoffs, and a championship in each weight class—with all coming via TKO. He avenged his father’s loss to former Strikeforce champion Jake Shields not once but twice, which is some true Inigo Montoya shit. Now he’s punched his ticket to the PFL welterweight championship, where he’ll face Magomed Magomedkerimov on December 31 in New York.

After that? The Hawaiian wants to conquer middleweight. Then light heavyweight. Then heavyweight. That’s the kind of attitude Bellator could get behind, if it was willing to shop, say, a name like Benson Henderson. The former UFC lightweight champion Henderson, who is 34 years old and constantly in need of new challenges, has had a fairly run-of-the-mill go under the Bellator banner. As an “anytime, anywhere” man himself, he would be a compelling addition to PFL’s seeding structure. If anything, Henderson would spice up the brackets come playoff time.

And “Bradda Boy” Cooper, who is only 25 and can fight in multiple weight classes, makes matchmaking easy. You only need to call him and let him know what time his flight is, and he’ll be there.