Many of us who love mixed martial arts like to think of it as something pure.
It’s a competition which pairs two athletes looking to impose their will on one another, and the fans get to enjoy the interplay of their martial arts styles. You can think of that in a poetic sense and make metaphors about it, but it’s really something literal. What sets MMA apart is the literal imposition of will.
It’s two men, or two women, facing off in a fight with as few rules and as minimal equipment as possible. HBO commentator Max Kellerman made the point to British magazine Boxing Monthly, where he described boxing as “tennis without the ball.” If anything, it’s more true of MMA.
We like to think of the fight game as an art and a science. We don’t like thinking of it as a business.
Simply put, money changes hands, and money changes everything. The sport is run by promoters who invest large sums of time and money to make these fights happen… and at some point a promoter will expect a return on their investments.
Take the case of Hector Lombard, whose days at the top of the MMA world take a critical turn this weekend at UFC 166.
Lombard was a decorated judo competitor in his native Cuba, representing the Caribbean power in the 2000 Olympics. His MMA career has its roots in Australia, where he defected in 2006 — cutting his teeth in promotions like CFC. His ledger includes appearances in major Asian promotions like PRIDE, DEEP, and Spirit FC. Lombard quickly amassed a reputation as a murderous puncher with some great grappling to back it up, along with Olympic level conditioning and an imposing “fireplug” build.
By March of 2010, he had amassed an impressive MMA record of 24-2-1, including wins over solid regional-level fighters like Brian Ebersole and Art Santore. (He has a no-contest to a guy named Chris Brown, too. Wouldn’t it be great to see him in the cage with the “Deuces” singer?) Lombard’s career would really take off, however, with a spectacular run for Bellator.
Lombard, by now affiliated with American Top Team in Florida, was undefeated in six fights for Bellator. In a span of less than 18 months, he cut through the middleweight roster like a buzz saw: stopping Trevor Prangley, Falaniko Vitale and Joe Doerkson with punches, and winning a decision against their current middleweight champion Alexander Shlemenko. He set a record for fastest Bellator knockout along the way, dropping Jay Silva in just six seconds. He was hailed as best middleweight in the sport by Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney.
UFC responded by making a startling offer: reportedly, Lombard would receive a $400,000 signing bonus with a $300,000 starting purse per fight.
Unfortunately, the UFC hasn’t seen much of a return yet. Lombard’s UFC debut last July was a clunker of a bout which saw both he and opponent Tim Boetsch lapse into long periods of inactivity. Lombard would blame the ensuing loss and overall poor showing on a sternum injury.
In his old adopted home of Australia, Lombard bounced back to defeat Rousimar Palhares last December, but that bout was seen more as a result of Palhares’ mental lapses than a return to form. After his next bout, a loss to Yushin Okami in Japan back in March, Chael Sonnen would remark on commentary that Lombard should be cut from the UFC roster.
It’s not a nice thing to say, to say the least. However… it’s true that Lombard hasn’t delivered on the promise the UFC saw in him.
The promotion has now forced Lombard to move to welterweight where he will fight Nate Marquardt, a former contender who has also struggled of late.
The pairing would have seemed almost a dream match just about a year ago. Now, it’s a must win for both.
Business, like art, can change quickly. Here’s hoping the undeniably talented Lombard, along with the money and interest he’s supposed to be generating, gets back on track Saturday.