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UFC 225 is now available on Amazon Prime.
One bad apple spoils a bunch. Now extrapolate that to several million. There’s more than a few bad MMA fans out there, stinking it up to high heaven. I have argued that cashing out on money fights will irreparably hurt the Ultimate Fighting Championship in the long run. It was a criticism among a sea of criticisms directed at the promotion. The fighters, on the other hand, have their own judgment to bare, both from the promotion and the fans -- the ones safely nestled behind the screen doling it out. How quickly we would shrink, though, if the lens was turned back on us. Let’s do that for a moment.
This sport once survived mainly by the Internet, which still plays an important role today. New levels of connectivity and interaction give fans new choices to consider. Pay to watch or stream? Encourage fighters or kick them when they’re down? Have actual online discussions or revert to “Kill yourself”? Falling to the lesser side of these individual choices may seem minor, but collectively -- Give me a Ric Flair “Woo!” -- they become something worse than annoying and something also capable of driving MMA into the rocks.
Let’s start with the most obvious of the three choices: illegal streaming vs. paying. When streaming is so easy, it begs the question. Why should I shell out my hard-earned money to another company run by greedy executives? Why be a good little fanboy when the UFC makes its product so difficult and expensive to access? Such are all easy justifications for stealing. Unfortunately, though, it’s still not a victimless crime.
Rumors have it that UFC 224 was the lowest-rated Ultimate Fighting Championship pay-per-view in the last decade. Terez Owens, the same guy who broke news on the ESPN-UFC deal, recently reported that the Amanda Nunes-Raquel Pennington headliner did an estimated 85,000 PPV buys. No such estimate exists for how many people illegally streamed it. Here’s what we do know, though: In August, the Floyd Mayweather-Conor McGregor boxing match did 4.3 million PPV buys, and according to Irdeto, nearly three million watched via illegal stream. While we cannot extrapolate from this that the “money fight” should have been in the seven million buy rate range, we know it could have been higher. More importantly, this figure tells us that many combat sports fans have no qualms about streaming. Illegal streaming, apart from just being illegal, turns great ratings into good ratings, good ratings into OK ratings and, in the case of UFC 224, bad ratings into abysmal ratings. While no one is losing sleep over the thought that this hurt McGregor or Mayweather’s bottom line, it shouldn’t be ignored that it also hurts the far greater number of those smaller fish.
There is a reasonable and affordable solution: UFC Fight Pass. For now -- We’ll see what the ESPN deal brings -- UFC Fight Pass makes most events, except PPVs, available the next day. While sports are best enjoyed live, next-day viewing has its own advantages. It can mean getting through a six-hour fight card in one hour and not putting up with constant pop-ups for local singles or male enhancements. Nothing but high-definition fights and actually supporting something you enjoy.
Sherdog founder Jeff Sherwood had the pulse on our next fan problem on the “Savage Dog Show” all the way back in 2011: “That’s what everybody in the world wants to see is train wrecks. That’s why they watch this sport.” Long even before that, much of the early success of the UFC was predicated on morbid curiosity. Today, the new heights to which MMA stars like McGregor and Ronda Rousey have taken the sport have brought with them another kind of sadistic curiosity, one that throws into question the very reasons we follow the sport.
Somewhere between God, family, gym and sponsors, fighters invariably thank their fans in post-fight interviews. Because MMA is an individual sport with so much more on the line than scoring points, the athlete-fan relationship in mixed martial arts is unlike that of any other sport. More than just athletes, we invest in the fighters the same way we do in characters in a good story. We live vicariously through them, celebrate their victories and, just as often now, their undoing. If love from the fans serves as deep motivation for fighters, then it stands to reason that fan hate does the opposite.
While no one else but McGregor is to blame for tossing a dolly through a bus window, Jon Jones for his hit-and-run and other incidents and Rousey for ingratiating herself the way she has, injecting some modicum of appreciation for their unique pressures would ensure that these things don’t happen as often as they do. Promotional hype has done its part to make us expect the ultimate fighter, only to be reminded time and time again that we are dealing with mere humans. Instead of showing our humanity in these instances, too many fans delight in the fall of fighters. Just take a look at their social media. The more fans enjoy MMA like TMZ, the more likely MMA will turn into something like it.
If there’s one thing fans hate more than certain fighters and UFC President Dana White, it’s other fans. Which brings us to our last subject: the online MMA community. If the Sherdog forums are any indication -- and they are -- there are great numbers of us who are not so much interested in the sport itself as we are in using it as a platform to practice our own sport: trolling.
In some cases, the race for the most devastating comment is downright entertaining. Following his ho-hum win over Damian Maia, Kamaru Usman made the mistake of taking to Twitter to call for a title shot. Instead of the support for which he was probably hoping, Usman was met with suggestions for new nicknames. They included “Snooze-man” and “Excuse-man.” Not all of it is so pointed, though. Much of what makes up online commentary is the same reactionary and hateful dribble that has been clogging up MMA’s sphere for years; and sadly, there are many still dedicated to it.
The solution here, in addition to simply getting a life, is to get yourself familiar with the sport to which you are supposedly dedicated. Just taking one intro Brazilian jiu-jitsu class or cardio kickboxing class is enough to give fans pause before criticizing those who do it at the highest level; and if it doesn’t, stick with it longer. Eventually it will. Martial arts has that effect, and it used to be part of the reason we were fans.
In light of criticizing so many, yours truly must also confess to sometimes also being part of this problem, and I suspect many of those reading this -- who also care about the sport -- have been, too. It is often hard to make these better choices, especially when the UFC and Company do their part in tempting us into choosing the lesser ones. Such is the nature of all relationships. It’s a two-way street, as they say. It’s about give and take and sometimes acknowledging that it’s us, not them.
M.G. Myers is a freelance writer from Ottawa, Ontario.
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