Illustration: Ben Duffy/Sherdog.com
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“If a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it, does it make a sound?”
UFC 225 offered fight heads a frontrunner for “Fight of the Year” in the form of an epic 25-minute dust-up between Robert Whittaker and Yoel Romero. Whittaker-Romero 2 offered much of what I watch this sport for: momentum swings, lots of offense and the kind of story-within-a-fight that really only happens in five-round bouts. The sheer gameness, grit and physical courage on display from both men was stunning. Whittaker began favoring his right hand in the second round. The hand would later turn out to have been broken, but rather than wilt, “Bobby Knuckles” simply spent the remainder of the fight throwing more kicks and left hands. Meanwhile, whatever you think of Romero’s failure to make championship weight -- I certainly don’t let him off the hook for it -- for a man who looked as drawn and drained on the scale as the “Soldier of God” to win the fifth round in the manner he did was extremely impressive. Romero dug deep and found something, even if it didn’t end up being enough to win him the fight.
That’s the good news. Some not-so-good news came out in the days following the event, when early reports placed UFC 225’s pay-per-view buy rate below 150,000. Never fear; in the midst of an interview about something completely unrelated, Hunter Campbell, an attorney for the Ultimate Fighting Championship, went out of his way to assure us that the sub-150,000 estimate was a “material misrepresentation” and was lower than the actual figure by “something in excess of six figures.”
I couldn’t help but laugh at the tone of his quoted remarks, which managed to come off as supercilious and defensive at the same time -- not to mention evasive, as Campbell declined to provide the “real” number. In other words, he sounded exactly as you would expect an attorney for the UFC to sound. While later reports would bear out his claim, I’m still laughing. To make a point of insisting that one of the UFC’s most loaded fight cards of the year sold 250,000 PPVs rather than 150,000 is like serving customers a shit sandwich and then angrily pointing out that it comes with free lettuce and tomato. You aren’t helping your case as much as you seem to think you are.
The precipitous crash of the UFC’s pay-per-view business since the sale to Endeavor has been analyzed and diagnosed exhaustively. Nonetheless, it jars me that the UFC’s best offerings in 2018 draw sales that would have been considered disastrous during the salad days of just three to five years ago. Snide references to flyweight king Demetrious Johnson as a walking Mendoza Line of pay-per-view sales have lost all relevance, as there doesn’t seem to be anybody who can consistently do better than what we once called “DJ numbers.”
It is especially discomfiting in the wake of UFC 225 because that card seemed to offer most of the ingredients in the organization’s traditional recipe for a successful event. Multiple title fights, even if one was downgraded the day before? Check. A headline fight featuring one of the 10 best fighters in the world against, at worst, one of the 30 best? Check. An outsized, studiously villainous character, in the guise of Colby Covington? Check. A sideshow fight to put a few extra butts in seats at Buffalo Wild Wings and perhaps ping the mainstream media’s radar a couple of times? Check, in the form of Phil Brooks-Mike Jackson, a meaningless matchup of sub-UFC-level fighters that I am already on record as supporting. The list goes on and on. UFC 225’s lineup featured several heavyweight bangers, multiple fighters with casual-fan name value in the likes of Rashad Evans and Clay Guida, two women’s fights with major divisional implications and serious prospects for the serious fan in the form of Mirsad Bektic and Sergio Pettis. Short of a truly transcendent star -- a Brock Lesnar or Conor McGregor -- this card checked all of the boxes. Even without one of those stars, my gut feeling is that an event with this same level of quality would have sold close to half a million pay-per-views five years ago. It promised on paper, and it delivered in the moment; UFC 225 was one hell of a fun card, with few snoozer fights and many “wow” moments.
I’m not here to wag a finger at my fellow fans for the failure of UFC 225, unless you happened to stream it. I don’t condone stealing pay-per-view events, but I can never condemn skipping them. Choosing which events to watch live is part and parcel of being an MMA fan today, even for those of us who are nominally “in the business,” and I refer to myself in those terms with tongue firmly in cheek. Frankly, if I hadn’t been on duty for Sherdog that night, I might have passed on ordering UFC 225 on pay-per-view myself, content to watch highlight clips until it became available on UFC Fight Pass later this year; and that would have been my loss. I would have missed out on one of the best events of 2018, or at least missed out on sharing in the esprit of the moment with other fans who were watching it live.
So why was I tempted to skip this one? For the same reasons many of you might have been, if the responses and messages I see are any indicator. Saturation. Fatigue. Expense. The UFC simply throws so many events at us, with so many fighters, and the cost of buying them all would be so exorbitant in terms of money as well as leisure time that we become numb. In the pre-“Ultimate Fighter” era, being a hardcore MMA fan might mean being a near-completist. Not only could we plan to take in every single UFC event, but we would anticipate those events for months in advance, with time left over to keep up on overseas goings-on and perhaps some local shows. Today, that is simply not feasible for most people, and in general I am not lamenting that fact. The sport has grown, worldwide. We have more and better athletes, from more parts of the world, taking part in mixed martial arts. That’s a good thing. The level of athleticism, technique and competition has inarguably gone up. Both of the principals in UFC 225’s main event would crush any version of Anderson Silva that ever stepped into a cage or ring.
All right, while half of the people reading this column are furiously scrolling to the comment section, let’s move on. My main takeaway from UFC 225 and the rest of the major MMA events I’ve consumed in the last year or two is that the old formulae for MMA success simply aren’t working anymore. So far, none of the major players in the sport seem to be taking the hint. The UFC’s primary strategy continues to be waiting for the next McGregor or Ronda Rousey to appear organically, while transparently pushing their own pale imitations into the spotlight. For a company with a business model that ebbs and flows with its individual stars, the UFC actually has an abysmal track record of creating those stars in-house. Rousey and Lesnar came in already famous; McGregor, Chael Sonnen and Georges St. Pierre came in unheralded and made their own stardom on a combination of natural charisma and in-cage success.
The UFC’s clear runner-up in the west, Bellator MMA, continues to frustrate. On one hand, the Scott Coker-led promotion keeps doing a sensational job of finding top-notch young prospects and bringing them along in a sensible manner. For as much as some fans and media snickered at wunderkind Aaron Pico stumbling out of the gate, there’s no accounting for chance. Pico’s debut opponent had been a logical choice, and Pico dusted himself off and went on to prove his believers right ever since. Bellator has a bevy of similarly promising up-and-comers, as well: Ed Ruth, Logan Storley and A.J. McKee, just to name three. At the same time, Bellator continues to offer bizarre and probably unsustainable purses to ex-UFC fighters with any iota of name recognition. Their much-ballyhooed heavyweight grand prix features eight fighters, six of whom are UFC veterans and five of whom will be over 40 by the time it’s done. That is not a recipe for any kind of long-term success, or even a clear next step. Worse, Bellator is reportedly on the verge of offering Quinton Jackson $300,000 to show and $300,000 to win for a fourth fight against Wanderlei Silva, whose last victory was in a game of hide-and-seek against the United States Anti-Doping Agency. Not only is Jackson rapidly fading from competitive relevance, but it has been nearly half a decade since his last exciting fight. What is the goal of offering him an exorbitant purse for what is all but assured to be a dreadful fight to watch?
Old Trojan Horses Aren’t Working
I firmly believe that there are not -- and probably never will be -- enough serious hardcore fight fans in the world to draw a million pay-per-view buys based purely on competitive excellence. There will always need to be some storyline, some mass appeal, to draw in people who otherwise would not be interested in cage fighting. I think of it as a kind of Trojan Horse, a way to sneak great fights into the living rooms of non-fight fans and maybe make a few converts in the process. If that Trojan Horse comes in the form of celebrities -- like Rousey or Lesnar -- who also happen to be very good fighters, great. If it comes in the form of great fighters who also happen to be compelling personalities, like McGregor or St. Pierre, better yet. If it takes the form of sticking a pro wrestler with no aptitude for real fighting in the middle of an otherwise stacked card, I’m fine with that, too … if it works. Pride Fighting Championships threw ’rasslers -- and plenty of other people with narrative hooks but no MMA credentials -- into the ring with good results. However, it doesn’t seem to work anymore. Neither of “CM Punk’s” UFC appearances moved the pay-per-view needle in a manner commensurate with his World Wrestling Entertainment superstardom.
I tend to think that the problem can’t be fixed by adjusting the recipe. I’m on record as thinking that cotton-candy matchmaking and freakshow fights are great fun as long as they aren’t disrupting the actual competitive process. In other words, put “CM Punk” on the main card if you like, just don’t make Tyron Woodley fight him in a non-title fight. However, tweaks to matchmaking philosophy won’t fix the core issue: there’s just too much for anyone to be expected to keep up with. If the UFC’s new broadcast arrangements push it towards a more expensive, more robust monthly platform, and pay-per-views were reduced to a handful of ultra-stacked tentpole events per year, I could live with that, even if those few PPVs were more expensive. The current business model, aside from being outdated and not globally applicable, simply hasn’t scaled up to match the growth of the sport.