(“Look, Andy, you’re clearly still upset about the pool party thing, but I swear, the Evite must have gone to your junk mail folder or something, because we totally included you on the-oh God noooooo NOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!” Photo via Esther Lin/MMAFighting)
“Perennial contender” is a back-handed compliment — it means you were always good enough to hang in the top ten, but never good enough to hold the belt. It suggests a kind of career limbo, in which you’re forever in the mix, highly regarded, but ultimately unsuccessful. Jon Fitch was a perennial contender, and when he was fired by the UFC in February, fans who never liked him in the first place criticized the UFC for getting rid of their #9-ranked contender — as if rankings held any sort of accurate measure of a fighter’s value. Fitch may have been more talented than most welterweights in the world, but he had outlived his usefulness, from both a competitive and promotional standpoint.
And so it goes with Yushin Okami, the latest medium-to-high-profile UFC fighter to be axed by the promotion, who is still listed as the #6 middleweight contender on UFC.com. UFC president Dana White confirmed Okami’s release today, telling Yahoo!’s Kevin Iole:
“He’s been with us forever. He was always a tough guy and was right up there, but it’s almost like he’d become a gatekeeper. I like Okami, and you’ve heard me say this many times, that a win over Yushin Okami meant something. But he was never able to get over the hump and win one of those [significant] fights. We have a lot of guys coming in and I’ve been saying this all year: We have a full roster and there are guys who deserve opportunities. When you bring guys in, someone has to go. That’s why these fights are so meaningful.”
Okami was already a 16-3 veteran when he joined the UFC, with appearances in Pancrase, Pride, Hero’s, and Rumble on the Rock, where he scored a bizarre DQ victory over Anderson Silva in January 2006. “Thunder” made his Octagon debut later that year at UFC 62, and began to steadily rise up the middleweight ranks, winning his first four fights — including decision victories against Alan Belcher and Mike Swick — before losing a #1 contender fight against Rich Franklin at UFC 72.
The rest of Okami’s UFC career would play out the exact same way. He won three fights in a row following his loss to Franklin — until a decision loss to Chael Sonnen bumped him back down the ladder. He won three more consecutive fights after that, including a decision win against Nate Marquardt — and was completely blown out by old rival Anderson Silva at UFC 134, during Okami’s first and only UFC title fight. He lost to Tim Boetsch after the Silva fight, in a come-from-behind shocker at UFC 144, but then cobbled together yet another three-fight win streak in the Octagon. Take a wild guess what happened next.
Theoretically, Yushin Okami could have continued his “win three, lose one” pattern forever, but would anybody care to watch it? Like Fitch, Okami’s grappling-based no-flash style gave him a limited ceiling of fan support. (His limited English didn’t help, either.) He had gone as far as he could go, and the UFC felt it was the right time to pull the plug on their investment. It’s hard to blame them for that. Okami is now a top-ten ranked free-agent, and between Bellator and the World Series of Fighting, guys like him don’t stay unemployed for long.