Henderson, Machida, Gustafsson and the Curious Case of No. 1 Contenders

Damon MartinContributor IFebruary 22, 2013

For most fighters in the UFC, earning a shot at a title is the most coveted moment in their careers, and championship bouts rarely happen for the majority of those under contract.

So it's a special time whenever the headline reads "Fighter promised next title shot with victory," and just about everyone gets hyped up about the added bonus attached to an upcoming bout.

The problem is those promised title shots are never guaranteed, and a great many times, something different happens that completely turns the situation on its head.

Back in 2010, just days before Jon Fitch battled Thiago Alves on the main card of UFC 117, UFC president Dana White declared that with a win, Fitch would move into the No. 1 contender's position and face the winner of the scheduled fight between welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre and Josh Koscheck. 

Fitch did his part and beat Alves soundly over three rounds, but when the night was over, and more importantly after St-Pierre beat Koscheck, the promised title shot disappeared like a puff of smoke. Now just under three years later, Fitch finds himself out of a job.

The same can be said for the hype surrounding the events at UFC on Fox 4 in August 2012. Without a title fight headlining the card, White upped the ante by declaring that the most impressive fighter of the evening's two light heavyweight main and co-main events would slip into a title shot against champion Jon Jones.

The four names included former UFC light heavyweight champions Mauricio "Shogun" Rua and Lyoto Machida as well as Ryan Bader and Brandon Vera. When the night was over, Machida had the most impressive performance after knocking out Bader, and he was declared the new No. 1 contender.

The only problem is UFC light heavyweight champion Jones had no desire to face Machida less than a year after suffocating the Brazilian with a guillotine choke and depositing him in a heap against the cage in a bout in Toronto at UFC 140.  

Technically, Machida did get offered a fight with Jones a month following his fight with Bader after Dan Henderson suffered a knee injury that forced him out of his bout at UFC 151. Machida was offered the fight with Jones, but he ultimately turned it down because he would only have about three weeks to prepare for the championship rematch.

Since that time, Machida has just returned to the pile of contenders hoping to land a title shot in 2013.

The latest attempts to crown a No. 1 contender have left the light heavyweight division in a state of confusion.

Just a couple of weeks ago, White announced that if Henderson is victorious against Machida at UFC 157 this weekend, he would receive the next shot at the title. Then, just two weeks later, White proclaimed that with a win at UFC on Fuel 9, Alexander Gustafsson would be granted a shot at the belt.

Then on Thursday prior to UFC 157, White again shifted gears and threw Henderson vs. Machida back in the mix as the real No. 1 contender's fight.

"I think the fight is going to be a great fight, and this fight is all about the winner,” said White during the UFC 157 pre-fight press conference. “The winner gets a shot at Jon Jones."

Listen, I get it—title shots are big business, and whenever the label "No. 1 contender's match" is attached to a fight, it gets more attention. Title-shot stories make splashy headlines and get everyone buzzing about what's coming next.

The problem is more often than not title shots aren't determined until after a fight happens, and it's really not guaranteed until the ink is dry on a contract.

At the heart of it all is the issue with declaring anyone a No. 1 contender before all of the fights necessary in the division play out. 

Even if Henderson goes out and smashes Machida in the first round of their fight at UFC 157, Jones and Chael Sonnen don't fight for the UFC light heavyweight title until late April.  By then, Gustafsson will have faced former Strikeforce champ Gegard Mousasi, and a whole other scenario could play out.

As reporters, we love to hear White declare this guy or that guy getting a title shot next because it's a good headline and great writing material. The expectations rarely live up to the reality of any situation, however. 

In a perfect world, the fights would speak for themselves, and fighters are welcome to shout to anyone that will listen that they should be next in line for a title shot but that's where it should stop. There is no gravity in the fight game until bout agreements are issued and signed by both fighters.

It doesn't matter if one fighter is in line for a title shot because two days later a deal could be struck completely out of left field that will leave both the fighter and everyone at home scratching their head wondering what happened.

No. 1 contender fights should be approached as just fodder for conversation and nothing more. Winning alleged No. 1 contender fights have often not resulted in a shot at the gold, and that trend will likely continue.

So this weekend when Henderson battles Machida at UFC 157, think of it as a great fight between two of the best light heavyweights in the world. When it's over, the winner will undoubtedly call out for a shot at the title, and that's fine. Until that winner has a contract in hand, however, we should all sit, wait and just appreciate the fights.

Damon Martin is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report