(“Based on the odor, I would say this man’s been dead for three days.” / Photo via MMAFighting)
Our old bro Ben Fowlkes has written an in-depth double-interview feature-thingy on the UFC’s dynamic matchmaking duo of Joe Silva and Sean Shelby. If you want to learn more about how these guys operate, where they came from, and what they consider to be worst part of their job, give it a read. Personally, our favorite part is this bit in which Sean Shelby reveals the truth behind a baffling UFC mystery — how the hell was the epic UFC 148 squash-match between Chad Mendes vs. Cody McKenzie booked in the first place? Dig it:
[W]hen McKenzie wanted to come down [to featherweight], initially Shelby wasn’t sure he could use him. Then Bart Palaszewski pulled out of a fight with Mendes, and suddenly the situation changed.
“What people don’t understand is, it’s not like I could just remove Chad from the card and say, ‘Sorry, I can get you a fight four months from now,’” Shelby said. “We understand. You spent money on a camp. You’ve got bills to pay. We will do our best to find you a fight. I bend over backward to keep guys in fights, to keep the machine moving. You have to.”
That’s another part of the process that outsiders don’t always get, Silva and Shelby said. Fighters are promised a certain number of fights within a certain number of months. Keep them on the sidelines too long, and the UFC could be in breach of contract. Beyond that, they’d also risk turning the UFC into the kind of promotion they hate.
“You hear fighters [in other organizations] complain, ‘I haven’t fought in eight months, and they won’t return my calls,’” Silva said. “We don’t want to be like that, but to do that we have to keep a tight rein on how many people you have under contract.”
Ideally, the UFC would like to have most fighters stepping in the cage once every four months or so, for an average of three fights a year. Injuries only complicate the picture, especially when you’re trying to find a replacement to face one of the division’s top fighters, which was exactly the situation Shelby faced with Mendes.
“I can’t pull people out of other matches to fix this one,” Shelby said. “Then you’re just kicking the can down the road. But imagine trying to get someone to fight Chad Mendes on two weeks’ or even a month’s notice.”
Then Shelby’s phone rang. It was McKenzie.
“He called me, and I remember this very well, and he said, ‘I want to commit to 145 (pounds),’” Shelby recalled. “I told him I didn’t have any room, but I do have this one opening. I told him, ‘I don’t think you should take this fight, but…’”
You can imagine where it went from there. McKenzie’s a fighter, after all. He jumped on the opening, all but pleading with Shelby to give him the fight. Shelby was reluctant at first, he said, but, “I had nobody.”
“I mean, nobody,” he said. “It’s not like I can sign some random guy. I’ve already got all the top 10 in the world [at 145 pounds]. I had no other choices.”
And so the fight got made, McKenzie got dropped with a body shot, and Shelby got the blame. That’s how it goes when you’re a matchmaker. With the benefit of hindsight, everyone’s an expert. They’ll all say they knew exactly how it was going to go down and you’d have to be an idiot to make that fight in the first place.
We’d imagine that Mendes’s follow-up booking against Yaotzin Meza must have resulted from a similarly desperate situation, but that, friends, is a story for another day.