Five reasons why mixed martial arts today feels so mundane...and the one thing the UFC can do to change its trajectory.
Over the weekend, Zuffa asked would-be PPV purchasers to shell out in excess of $50 USD to watch a show headlined by two 125 pound jockies. I was not one of those people. In fact, I've only watched two UFC shows all year round -- the absolute fewest I've seen in more than a decade.
And judging from the ever declining PPV buyrates, apparently, I'm not the only one going through a serious case of Ultimate ennui.
As literally a lifelong fan of MMA (I recall listening to the first UFC event on scrambled PPV), I have to say I'm not too big a fan of the sport at the current. After nearly a decade of growth, it looks like the sport is headed towards its second dark age ... and unlike the UFC collapse from 1998 to 2004, there's no international alternative to whet our mixed martial arts appetites.
The modern UFC era began in 2005, reached its zenith in 2010, and appears to be headed towards a nadir in 2015. Oddly enough, the thing that should have made UFC an established mainstream sport in the U.S. may have been the thing that derailed it, as ever since the Fox television deal was signed in 2011, the trajectory of MMA has been on a decisively downward one.
With virtually zero competition in Japan and only one TNA-sized rival in the USA, the UFC basically holds a worldwide monopoly on MMA. Despite being virtually synonymous with the sport, however, the Ultimate Fighting Championship product has never felt as stale to me than it has at the present.
Ultimately (pun, intended?) I think there are five primary reasons why, more than ever, Ultimate Fighting just doesn't feel all that ultimate any more...
There’s no star power in the UFC anymore
When you look at the headliners for the ten highest grossing UFC PPVs of all-time, you’ll see a who’s-who of MMA icons --Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz, Randy Couture, Brock Lesnar, Quinton Jackson and Anderson Silva among them.
Therein lies the problem. Of those headliners, all but one bona-fide draw -- Rashad Evans -- remains on the active UFC roster. Arguably the two greatest proven assets for the company, Anderson Silva and Georges St-Pierre, sat out 2014 altogether, leaving Jon Jones and Johny Hendricks to pull in PPV numbers that barely eclipse 300,000 buys.
While the UFC definitely has a plethora of entertaining, talented fighters on their roster, the new wave of champions clearly aren’t connecting with viewers the same way the old guard did. Cain Velasquez has failed to garner the same mainstream publicity Brock Lesnar did, Jon Jones (despite his P4P status) has yet to outdraw a slew of Bellator has-beens and the current Middleweight and Welterweight champs are literally drawing half what the former-champs were.
The inescapable reality? The UFC, simply put, doesn’t have any real “stars” anymore.
With a paper-thin Heavyweight division, Velasquez has yet to capture the hearts of either MMA purists or casual fans. Even more troubling from a marketing standpoint, he really hasn’t connected with the Hispanic audience either, which has traditionally been one of the biggest demographics for boxing PPVs.
Although dominant in the cage, Jon Jones has failed to transcend the sport the way Lesnar, Silva or GSP did. In spite of his athletic abilities, hardcore MMA nerds and casual observers alike utterly despise the man who ought to be the face of the sport. They see him as cocky instead of charismatic and inauthentic instead of personable -- and of deep concern to marketing strategists, he doesn’t seem to be making a connection with the African-American audience at all.
Even worse for publicity are Hendricks and Weidman, who don’t even have the meager personas or auras that the underperforming Heavyweight and Light Heavyweight champions have. To the casual observer, Weidman is just a generic farm boy who beats up on Brazilians and Hendricks is an Avenged Sevenfold roadie with a heavy left hand. To steal a term from boxing, neither are what I would call “Great White Hopes” for the sport.
I’m not sure how much more mileage the UFC can get out of St-Pierre and The Spider, but those the only guaranteed moneymakers the company has on staff. The Silva / Diaz Super Bowl show will almost certainly outdraw the Velasquez / Werdum tile bout and the Jones / Cormier championship contest … if not outdraw both combined. What that tells me about the sport is simple: championships don’t matter, personalities do.
And when the closest thing your company has to a breakout media star is a 145-pounder from the Emerald Isle, I’m not quite sure what kind of serious investments you expect anyone to make in the sport’s short-term future.
No one cares about the lighter weight classes
While the 155-pound and under set have given us countless memorable throwdowns over the years, the truth is that hardly anybody outside of the truly hardcore care about watching them.
UFC 174, headlined by Demetrious Johnson, drew the lowest PPV buyrate since the mid-2000s boom. The numbers for UFC 177, headlined by TJ Dillashaw, are presumably even worse. This chart summarizing UFC on Fox ratings tells a similar story, and that narrative is that Ben Henderson and Mighty Mouse ain’t putting proverbial asses in the metaphorical seats.
This is the inverse of pro boxing, where the lighter divisions are pretty much the only real PPV draws anymore. Whereas Manny Pac and Money are considered the pound for pound best fighters on the planet, their 135-pound analogues in the MMA world are considered B-level, at best.
A fighter like Jose Aldo may have niche appeal to the rabid Brazilian base, but outside of the afore-mentioned Conor McGregor (who, to his credit, has the kind of charisma and built-in fan base to possibly make him a Brock Lesnar type “Great White Hope” sensation), hardly anybody 155 pounds or under seems to have the makings of a breakout star.
As difficult a time as the UFC is having getting over their heavyweight and light heavyweight roster, their ability to sell their lightweights, featherweights, bantamweights and especially their flyweights is an even greater uphill battle … and unlike the 200 and heavier set, that implicit appeal to body size isn’t even available for mass market leverage.
Women’s MMA isn’t a draw
Don’t believe the hype Dana White keeps selling us on Ronda Rousey.
Yeah, she may have been on the undercard of a one million buy show, but that had more to do with Anderson Silva than some sort of emerging cultural interest in women’s fighting. The half million buys for UFC 175 are semi-impressive, but again, I believe that had less to do with her mass media appeal than it did the UFC just spending a ton of advertising cash in what is clearly the deadest time in all of American sports.
All you need to do is look at the relatively puny 340,000 buys for UFC 170 … the only PPV this year in which Ronda Rousey was explicitly marketed as the headliner … and you’ll realize just how much drawing power she really has. Beyond Rousey, there are NO marketable female MMA grapplers out there, save two wash-ups who apparently have no interest in making an easy UFC payday. And on top of that? The annexation of females to the UFC roster hasn’t seemed to have increased female viewership by any great shakes, either.
There are too many damn shows going on
At this point, the market isn’t just oversaturated, it’s damn near ready to drown. There aren’t enough high-caliber fighters on the roster to warrant three dozen shows a year, and with Dana’s highfalutin international ambitions (like the NFL, he wants 16 cards going on at once), the sport is in danger of being watered down quite literally to death.
The problem with this deluge of shows is two-fold. Number one, I don’t know any fans hardcore enough to WANT to watch a bunch of underperforming 135 pounders in China tussle at 3 in the morning, let alone any who would be willing to pay $50 a month to screen such on Fight Pass. Secondly, running so many damn shows effectively lessens every show that’s put on, because you need at least one semi-consequential divisional bout to make even an FS1 show airable. As the recent slate of cancelled PPVS have shown us, when you sell one fight only shows, you’re one meniscus tear away from disaster.
More and more, the Zuffa brass seems to want to turn MMA into boxing. You see this with the promotion of regional talents (TUF Brazil, TUF China, TUF India, etc.) and shows anchored around a fight as opposed to an entire card, which traditionally, has been the big selling point of any UFC show. To their credit, the UFC hasn’t gone full on race baiting with their product yet, but it’s probably only a matter of time before they start marketing the sport as literal ethnic warfare a’la Golden Boy.
We all know piracy is a big deal, and the Fight Pass thing makes more than enough sense. The thing is, with forty plus shows going on annually, it actually increases the likelihood of individuals hitting up the torrents instead of purchasing PPVs. Fans will pay good money for two or three stacked shows a year, but you honestly expect people to shell out $50 for a main event starring Joe goddamn Soto?
As we were discussing earlier, it’s the personalities that sell MMA, and with hundreds of generic, indistinguishable fighters on the roster … necessary, to fill up all of those damn shows … it’s never been easier to lose interest in fighting than it is at the present.
As a fan, there’s hardly anything to get excited about anymore
Probably the biggest change I’ve observed about the sport of MMA since the Fox era began in 2011 has been the slow erosion of the sport’s mystique.
Simply put, nobody in MMA right now has the same larger than life, mythical aura that Fedor or Cro-Cop had, circa 2005, or Silva or GSP had as recently as 2010. Instead of inspiring awe, today’s champions inspire yawns -- even Jon Jones and Cain Velasquez’s most dominant performances are more ennui-inducing than breathtaking.
Interdivisional rivalries today are lackluster, and the prospects of any real mega-fights seem entirely off-the-table. Nothing today matches the Wandy/Jackson trifecta, or even the Ortiz/Liddell bad blood, and nobody’s clamoring to see Chris Weidman do battle with Robbie Lawler the same way fans were slobbering for Silva vs. GSP, or even GSP vs. Penn.
Many UFC shows remain enjoyable, from top to bottom, but do you really feel like you’re getting shows as memorable as you were three years ago? Even watching DREAM and Strikeforce cards from this decade, I’m spotting something that’s missing from today’s UFC product -- a sense of excitement and significance, that this card actually matters in the long haul.
So, what can the UFC do to reverse the ongoing suck?
Contrary to what Mr. White thinks, there can indeed be too much of a good thing, and when I think of the UFC product today, the first thing that comes to my mind is excessive.
Too many pay-per-views, that cost too much money. Too many cable shows, that feel all too watered-down. Too many goddamn fighters on the roster, in too many weight classes,who feel too indistinguishable from one another (like you could tell Rafael dos Anjos from Raphael Assuncao, either.)
Needless to say, somebody needs to school these UFC people on the "Iron Law of Scarcity" real quick. MMA, as a personality-driven sport, hinges on quality and exclusivity as opposed to quantity and ubiquity. There are a finite number of fighters people care about, and hardly anybody outside of the hardcore MMA dorks care who the champions actually are.
To paraphrase something the Great Paul Heyman once said, the trick in roping in the casuals is to a.) establish who the fighters are, b.) explain why they are fighting and c.) build up that animosity so that you actually want to see the two motherfuckers scrap.
Simply put, the UFC is failing on all three fronts. There are hardly any real personalities, or champion-caliber fighters with crossover appeal, on the roster. There really aren't any true rivalries in the sport at the moment, either -- nobody is buying the Jones / Cormier beef as authentic, and dos Santos / Velasquez? Puh-leeze.
Without some kind of compelling storyline, it's just two guys in a cage, beating each other up, for no good reason. The upcoming Velasquz / Werdum bout has virtually zero history behind it, and the "out for blood" angle behind Lawler / Hendricks II doesn't cut it because, hey, nobody cares about either fighter.
The company used to be so good at it, too. Just look at the angles from 2007:
- Company hero Randy Couture comes out of retirement to take on the much-loathed, much-larger Tim Sylvia. A fighter that relies upon sheer size, Couture takes the battle to Sylvia, drops him early in the first, and outgrapples him for five rounds in what, to this day, is the greatest feel-good moment in the sports' history. The heavily hyped Japanese import Mirko Cro-Cop ... expected to be an automatic contender to Couture's throne ... gets knocked out by Brazilian sensation Gabriel Gonzaga, utilizing his own signature kick against him. A dreaded knockout artist, Gonzaga is expected to pound out the elder Couture, but when they finally meet up, "Captain America" shocks the world again, utilizing his technique and experience to vanquish his larger adversary.
- Overseas sensation Quinton Jackson makes his long-awaited jump to the UFC, where he goes toe-to-toe with the literal face of the company, Chuck Liddell. In a virtual repeat of their first battle in Japan, Jackson manages to knockout Liddell, who floats into a free spin afterwards, losing an eliminator bout later in the year to journeyman Keith Jardine. Meanwhile, long-time PRIDE middleweight champion Wanderlei Silva loses the strap early in the year to multi-division phenom Dan Henderson, whom winds up losing to fellow PRIDE grad Quinton Jackson in a long, long awaited UFC/PRIDE Light Heavyweight championship unification bout. At at the very end of the year, Chuck Liddell and Wanderlei Silva -- both in dire need of a career resurgence -- put on a match of the year candidate clinic, giving people the showstopping dream bout they had always envisioned and raising the stock of both competitors.
- Newly crowned Welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre goes into battle against Matt Serra, a heavy, heavy underdog. Unfocused, GSP gets dropped by Serra in what remains arguably the biggest upset in MMA history. St-Pierre vows revenge, trains like crazy, and bests Josh Koscheck (a heavily touted up-and-comer) to put himself in a position to do battle with arch-nemesis Matt Hughes at year's end for a shot to regain his strap. And by the way, that fight was on the same card as the all-time classic Liddell/Silva throwdown.
And that's not even considering the emergence of Anderson Silva as a bona-fide P4P sensation, the return of lightweight icon BJ Penn, the ancillary growth of the WEC (and especially, the 145 pound division with its star attraction, Urijah Faber), AND all of the post-PRIDE fallout in Japan.
Simply put, all of that shit was reason to get excited, and it unfurled gradually over the year. Each card built upon the previous card, and as with the case of college football and the NFL, each individual match-up felt like it had an impact on the sport as a whole.
That importance just isn't a part of the sport anymore. With more or less a UFC show going on every week, it's impossible to retain that special aura -- it's just fightin' nowadays, with hardly any kind of gravity.
With the Fox deal and Dana's internationalization plans, the company has gone to far in its current trajectory to reverse course. There's only so much train track left, and the locomotive is speeding beyond what the rails allow. In short? There's going to be a huge MMA crash in the upcoming years, with the UFC likely to be relegated to paid YouTube events and the aberrant Fox Sports One Wednesday night special. The "Fight Pass" deal is no solution to overpriced, unfulfilling PPV shows, which has actually given more people a reason to pirate the broadcasts.
There's an old business principle about adding by subtracting. At this point, the absolute best thing for the UFC, and the sport of mixed martial arts, is something very simple ... namely, the fact that there should be less of everything, across the board.