When WME/IMG purchased the UFC for over $4 billion in 2016, even the most diligent observers won’t have envisaged quite how painful the teething problems would be.
They certainly won’t have predicted that the UFC’s ultimate company man, longtime flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson, would be the one to bite them the hardest.
Indeed, it’s indicative of just how poorly this year is playing out for the company that it is Johnson of all people who is the latest to speak out of term.
The narrative of 2017 has been one smeared by weak pay-per-view sales, injury-hit cards and a growing tide of roster discontent as athletes continue to voice their dissatisfaction at how they are treated or how much they are paid.
But the latest most explosive example is deeply concerning for the owners on a number of levels.
To paint the entire picture, Johnson’s swelling anger is aimed squarely at UFC President Dana White and matchmaker Sean Shelby who he accused of “bullying tactics” over his next opponent.
After decimating Wilson Reis in April to knock off yet another 125lbs contender, ‘Mighty Mouse’ moved level with the great Anderson Silva on a record 10 straight title defences.
In doing so, he not only cemented his status as the No1 pound-for-pound fighter on the planet but he also added credence to his GOAT claim as attentions turned to possible opponents for his record-breaking bout.
No3 ranked Ray Borg, bantamweight champion Cody Garbradnt and former 135lbs title holder TJ Dillashaw were all suggested, but it’s the latter’s inclusion on that list which has drawn the ire of Johnson and sparked the dispute.
His anger it seems has stemmed from White’s appearance earlier this month on the UFC’s ‘Unfiltered’ podcast where he labelled Johnson’s refusal to fight Dillashaw as “insanity”.
He responded by releasing a lengthy and impassioned statement released via MMAFighting.com last week, in which he wrote: “For years, I have been a company man and kept quiet, accepting fights, doing as they asked and always remaining humble and grateful for the opportunities provided to me through mixed martial arts.
“Unfortunately, UFC’s mistreatment and bullying has finally forced me to speak out.”
No matter how you unpack Johnson’s chagrin, his vexation is not a good look for a promotion obsessively seeking legitimacy among other prestigious sports leagues like the NFL and NBA.
One week they are opening up a $12 million performance institute in Las Vegas but then the next they stand accused of mistreating the most talented fighter on their books.
And it raises plenty of questions for White’s hostile and oppressive approach because it’s difficult to imagine the NBA disparaging LeBron James or the NFL vilifying Odell Beckham Jr. in the way he has Johnson.
Ultimately, the champion feels disrespected and he has every right to because his reasons for turning down Dillashaw are perfectly valid.
After all, Dillashaw has never fought or even wrestled at 125lbs and if he can make weight, it’s not a healthy process to be advocated.
Mini Mouse or Mighty Mouse? Dont be scared! This is the fight game, I've takin title fights on 24hrs notice. I'm already waking up at 143lbs pic.twitter.com/5TMS8zbXAX— TJ Dillashaw (@TJDillashaw) June 5, 2017
Miss weight and Johnson’s shot at history disappears, make weight and beat him then the division will be left in disarray because you can guarantee Dillashaw won’t remain at flyweight.
It’s a fight which makes little sense and White’s aggression may have been accepted in the past but it’s no longer useful.
The friction doesn’t appear to be easing off anytime soon with the UFC supremo firing back yesterday by questioning his bully tag and claiming Conor McGregor as the No1 fighter on the planet because, “he’ll fight anybody, anywhere, anytime”.
Something has to give and money is the answer. If the UFC is so intent on matching Johnson and Dillashaw up then they should dig deep into their wallet and pay the man.
If he hasn’t earned the right to pick his opponent then he at least has earned the right to be paid.
Light-heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier suggested the UFC fork out $1 million for Johnson and make the fight.
In the short term, paying that sort of money will be a kick in the teeth but the long term side effects of continuing this public spat could be far more wounding.