Ben Fowlkes over at MMA Junkie has a great piece on the fallout with TJ Grant pulling out of his UFC lightweight pairing with Anthony Pettis. Go read it now, and then come back. I’ll wait.
I had forgotten about the conspiracy theorists who suggested Dana White paid TJ Grant to pull out of his title shot with Ben Henderson to make the “more attractive” fight against Pettis. I had mostly dismissed them the same way TJ Grant did. However, they are back, and while it makes no sense to me why Dana White and the UFC would pay someone not to fight (a job I’d jump at the opportunity to do; I have references), I do understand that a lot of that conspiracy nonsense is a product of the expectations that fans have where an earned title shot is a key to maintaining the integrity of the sport. I can barely make sense of that last sentence too, but essentially, TJ earned the title fight more so than Vitor Belfort or Chael earned their title fights. If someone who earned that opportunity is bowing out of a guaranteed title shot, something more nefarious than an injury must be afoot since no one would be crazy enough to miss his/her opportunity not only once but twice. I mean it’s only an injury, and not one of those injuries that’s noticeable to the outside world, it’s of the brain variety. I mean you could totally just tell the doctors, “No concussion symptoms here” and fight anyway, right?
Also, when you take into consideration Dana White’s penchant to switch out contenders (see Dana’s recent “Daniel-Cormier-gets-a-light-heavy-shot-against-Jon-Jones-a-week-after-I-said-Glover-Teixeira-gets-the-next-shot-at-light-heavyweight-against-Jon-Jones” example), I get how paranoid MMA fandom is regarding title shots. And Fowlkes asks a brilliant question that I think speaks to the expectations we put on fighters: will TJ Grant’s decision to take extra precautions with his health and forgo a title shot have an affect the way fighters and fans look at the fighters’ health? For every fan I hear argue that a fighter’s health is paramount, I hear just as vocal a group argue that fighters should have a “Come back with your shield or on it” mentality. Fans applaud the ability to take punishment. Dana White himself has rewarded guys like Pat Barry, Leonard Garcia, and Chan Sung Jung for their ability to “lay it out on the line.” So is it not unreasonable then to look at TJ Grant’s decision and ask, “WTF, Bro?”
I don’t think I have an answer. Fighters fight for different reasons, and they can’t all be painted with the same brush. Those tales about Donald Cerrone being split open in a racing accident, having to have his intestines unwound in the ER two weeks prior to a fight, and still fighting Jeremy Stephens make for great tough guy fodder, but all I can do is imagine the kind of performance Cerrone could have put on if he had waited and been at 100%.
If a fighter feels as though he/she only gets one shot at the title and takes a fight with an injury, I can’t say he/she is in the wrong for taking it. But I don’t think fans should expect that an injured fighter to take a fight because that fighter owes it to himself, herself, the promotion, or the fans. It’s his/her opportunity. It’s his/her life. Fowlkes is right in his assertion that TJ Grant’s decision to wait is a sensible choice. But it demonstrates more than just a reasonable choice. It shows that TJ Grant is confident enough in his skills that even if he has to be shuffled back into the murder’s row that is the UFC’s lightweight division, he’ll get his shot. There’s something not only admirable about that kind of attitude, but there’s something just a little scary about that kind of confidence as well.