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Unless you’re Conor McGregor, Holly Holm or an immediate ally to either of the recently deposed champions, UFC 196 was a rousing success. UFC President Dana White should be included in that joyed bunch, but instead, it’s just the opposite, with White taking most of the week to grouse like a jilted lover. Do you want to be an f’n promoter?
Here’s the deal: I’m sympathetic to the fact that the UFC’s hottest star was choked out by an antisocial albeit thrilling cult hero, as well as the fact that Holm losing to Miesha Tate alters the narrative of a Holm-Ronda Rousey rematch. In reality, those sweating these outcomes like catastrophes are playing themselves, focusing on marginal loss over massive gain, White included.
Let’s consider each of these outcomes and the associated handwringing into which the UFC’s figurehead has fully played. In the first case, McGregor got blown up in Diaz-brother fashion by a Diaz brother. There can be no argument that this is the biggest win of Nate Diaz’s career. I would further argue it’s the biggest win in Diaz fam jam history and probably even in Diazes-Gilbert Melendez-Jake Shields, MMA-style Four Horsemen history, just edging out Shields’ conquering of Dan Henderson in April 2010. Considering the idea that Nate is the less visible Diaz and, despite his still-brilliant quotability, the more grounded of the two, a breakout win over McGregor should be heralded as a gift for the promotion.
Again, it’s about minimal loss. First of all, it helps a couple of immediate current Zuffa quagmires: McGregor’s loss cools his promotional heels, which means that it impedes the Irishman’s pursuit to exceed the company itself in promotional value and the dollars he can command from the UFC. With ongoing and frankly legitimate whispering about a growing divide between White and McGregor personally, it should serve as a grounding experience for “The Notorious” one.
More importantly, it’s not as though McGregor is damaged goods. He’s an MMA fighter who lost, and so, of course, there’s the schadenfreude and squawking of McGregor being “exposed” ringing in the MMA echo chamber, but both of these are meaningless constructions. As best exemplified in Mike Tyson but still evident in just about every damn prizefighting superstar -- MMA, boxing or otherwise -- when a star fighter is established, public fascination lives long and dies hard. Of the few pay-per-view and gate-producing superstars in MMA history, none of them, not even a professional wrestler like Brock Lesnar, fell off a cliff in terms of drawing power after losing. Scott Coker is setting Bellator MMA ratings records with combinations of Ken Shamrock, Royce Gracie and Kevin “Kimbo Slice” Ferguson.
Lest we forget, McGregor is still the UFC featherweight champion and his losing alleviates another critical issue. If McGregor beat Diaz, there was no hope on Earth that this man would ever return to 145 pounds, which would’ve broken poor UFC matchmaker Sean Shelby’s heart. Now, McGregor returning for at least one defense prior to departing for 155 pounds is imminent. Yes, the featherweight cut will be hard on McGregor, as it has been increasingly so throughout his UFC tenure, but he’s a professional -- nicely exemplified in his all-class post-loss statements -- will make the weight and satisfy the desire to see him defend the title he won, either against Frankie Edgar (hopefully) or Jose Aldo.
McGregor will remain a massive draw, the UFC gets to slow his roll and the featherweight division no longer gets screwed over, all of which are huge benefits to Zuffa. While White has been quick to predictably defend McGregor, he has been absent on pumping up the emergent Diaz, which is essentially his job as a promoter.
“[He is] a character, but first and foremost, the dude’s a fighter. All he wants to do is fight. He wants to fight everybody. It’s real easy to promote guys who want to fight and kick ass.” That's a White quote from August 2013 in which he’s actually talking about McGregor. If it’s “real easy,” where's the Diaz love?
This week alone in the mean streets of Toronto, I overheard a conversation between a couple strangers in a dive bar about how Diaz is going to be a UFC champion, and a vegan pal asked me if it was true that a vegan fighter whooped ass at UFC 196. Imagine her disappointment when I pointed out the Diazes’ penchant for seafood. White squandered the opportunity to sell Diaz in the wake of his magnum opus; and his defenses of McGregor were not even so much defenses of McGregor as much as they were an offensive against Georges St. Pierre of all people.
“That’s the thing, nobody wants to do it. GSP would never move up to 185 [pounds] to fight Anderson Silva. That’s what makes Saturday so fun. You know how many times we wanted to do the GSP-Anderson Silva fight?” White told ESPN Radio hosts Ryen Russillo and Danny Kanell on Tuesday. “GSP would not do it. Would not do it. Guys don’t do that stuff ... For GSP, he was moving up one weight class. Conor McGregor jumped up two weight classes.”
Again, Diaz just clobbered a bona fide MMA superstar, you’ve floated the idea of Diaz fighting Robbie Lawler for the UFC welterweight title and “GSP is a wimp” is the best post-fight narrative you have to offer as UFC president? As if White’s reverse psychology and public cajoling would be the decisive factor in a St. Pierre return anyhow. It’s not just a wasted opportunity; it’s absurd.
Yet, that’s just the tip of the iceberg, as White saved his post-196 vitriol largely for the fallen Holm, whose defeat he took as some kind of personal affront. Here’s another White excerpt from “Russillo and Kanell” on March 8 discussing Holm and her manager, Lenny Fresquez: “He’s an old boxing guy who thinks he’s smart and he isn't. The thing I feel bad about is I feel bad for Holly, because I don't know if Holly really knows what she lost ... We had this meeting and Holly wasn’t even in it. Holly, that’s your life! You should be in that meeting. Don’t leave it to these people, this guy. Oh my god. Listen, Holly made a lot of money, she accomplished great things, she beat Ronda Rousey, but it could have been so much bigger for her.”
First of all, White’s “concern” for Holm's management situation is laughable, given the longstanding-if-disputed UFC history of trying to exile managers and deal with fighters directly. Secondly, Holm is 34 years old, already has a full boxing career behind her, just signed a new, significantly richer UFC deal post-Rousey and wasn’t inclined to sit around all year waiting for a rematch on her challenger’s whimsical terms. Consider that her vocation is “professional prizefighter” and this is how she makes a living. Whether she lost or not, Holm’s decision was the rational one.
Plus, there should be no promotional kvetching here, since it’s up to fighters to keep winning; White says so himself. Here’s another White quote about the nature of promoting. For context, great Mexican hope Erik Perez had just lost a split decision to Takeya Mizugaki: “Everybody was talking in Boston when we were doing all the stuff around Conor McGregor. It’s what we do. We promote guys. He’s from Ireland, [Perez is] from Mexico, he’s from here and he’s from there. We promote them. It’s up to them to keep winning. I don’t look at it as, ‘Aww, the whole Erik Perez thing is gone.’ It just is what it is. Erik Perez will fight again.”
Tell me again, why is it suddenly “Aww, the whole Holm-Rousey 2 thing is gone” after Holm’s loss to Tate? Even with her refusal to discuss anything actually related to fighting during her time away from the Octagon, Rousey’s star has kept shining in the mainstream media; and through their connections to Rousey herself, Holm and Tate gained attention. Sure, The New Yorker’s coverage of the matter might have laughably said Holm was “knocked out,” but we’re talking about women’s MMA coverage in the UFC from The New Yorker and The Guardian, for that matter. This is three women being talked about instead of one.
Four months ago, White basically told Tate she should retire. Now, the UFC has the most credible way to create Tate-Rousey 3, a fight which based on history plays into Zuffa’s wildest dreams, with Rousey a likely favorite to take back her title. If she does, Rousey-Holm 2 can still play. If Rousey fails, it intensifies Tate’s star -- Rousey is one of the few stars, like McGregor, that a fighter can leapfrog into mainstream consciousness by defeating -- and sets up Tate-Holm 2, which even if it can’t do one million buys on its own, is still a legitimate draw.
As a promoter, these are good problems to have, unless you’re pathologically entranced by the idea of McGregor and Rousey being unbeaten forever, which is both unrealistic and not even necessarily good for business, given that the UFC’s current business model revolves around a dozen or so notable fighters being used as often as possible in whatever fashion necessary. UFC 196 drew a delightful $8.1 million gate, and its prelims did 1.8 million viewers on average on Fox Sports 1 -- the second-highest rated FS1 prelims ever behind those at UFC 194. The PPV buy rate could be anywhere from 750,000 up to one million, which of course doesn’t factor in UFC Fight Pass, either. This is a massive success, yet in the wake of such monumental and potentially exciting outcomes, the face of the company that promoted it feels the need to equivocate, spuriously attack retired legends and dump on fighters’ management.
White is the same man who signed off on his pal and former managerial client Chuck Liddell fighting in Pride Fighting Championships while under UFC employ, which led to “The Iceman” having his torso elbowed into oblivion by Quinton Jackson. Did it make Liddell any less of a suitable foil for Randy Couture or any less qualified to be a UFC superstar? White is the same man who bowed to the whims of B.J. Penn. Did Penn taking off to Japan to get fat and lose to Lyoto Machida ruin his future UFC runs? Did “The Prodigy” facing Matt Hughes in a short-notice rematch and getting punched out sabotage his must-have rematch against St. Pierre? Did losing once every three fights ever stop people from loving Couture?
No, of course not, and that’s what is so frustrating. The UFC’s recent willingness -- perhaps “necessity” is actually the better word here -- to make the most magnetic fights possible with whatever star resources it has on hand is not just noble; it’s smart business. It’s plain as day, and I can’t see an argument to the contrary: People who like to watch fights want to watch the greatest and/or most intriguing fighters.
This is why White’s discontent and dissonance are so maddening and annoying. Not only does he not heed historical precedent in this case, but he is wilfully blind to the reality of the present. “We promote them. It’s up to them to keep winning.” is only a sensible philosophy if there are fighters to promote and something worth winning. If you can’t reconcile the potential loss of putting big stars in big fights, if you’re shy or confused about transforming upset authors into compelling draws, what are you even doing? You’re certainly not promoting.