Nick Diaz will return to the cage on Jan. 31. | Photo: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com
It’s amazing what a little competition can do to a fight promoter.
Struggling domestic pay-per-view buy rates, slumping ratings on Fox and the hiring of both Scott Coker and Rich Chou by the Viacom-owned Bellator MMA organization ... that’s the formula creating the environment for the Ultimate Fighting Championship to step up its game in a meaningful way for fight fans who are looking for a strong close to a lackluster 2014 campaign and momentum heading into 2015.
For a couple of years, UFC President Dana White has been crying wolf when describing Viacom as a threat to the UFC’s business model. As long as Bjorn Rebney was Bellator’s mastermind, it was not a major threat to the UFC’s core PPV business. When Bellator’s first PPV event, featuring Muhammed Lawal-Quinton Jackson beat expectations, everything suddenly got real. Viacom now had the proof it needed to justify opening its checkbook for future Bellator events. What Bellator’s respectable showing on PPV displayed is that there’s room in the MMA space for a legitimate alternative product to the UFC. The UFC’s domestic numbers may be stagnant due to oversaturation, but that doesn’t mean the public's appetite for MMA is dead.
As a result of better-than-expected Bellator PPV numbers and Coker’s return to MMA, the UFC is preparing ahead of schedule for what it anticipates will be a beefed-up Viacom investment in mixed martial arts.
There is a head-to-head showdown between the two promotions on Sept. 5 in Connecticut, with Bellator staging an event at the Mohegan Sun Arena and the UFC setting up shop at the Foxwoods Resort Casino. Jon Jones will defend the light heavyweight title against Daniel Cormier at UFC 178 on Sept. 27 in Las Vegas. Rumored for the same event is a fight between current Bellator lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez and Donald Cerrone. The UFC signed female star Holly Holm and is currently in negotiations to bring in Gina Carano to face women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey.
However, the pièce de résistance came on July 29, when White, on ESPN no less, announced that Anderson Silva would be fighting Nick Diaz on Super Bowl weekend in Las Vegas -- at middleweight. For Diaz, returning to Las Vegas is certainly going to make for an interesting trip. When last we checked, Diaz was busy suing the Nevada Athletic Commission over marijuana metabolites being detected in a failed drug test. One can only imagine how fast the UFC Fight Pass web servers would melt down if Diaz has another confrontation with the state’s athletic commission.
Who knew that a fight featuring two big-time UFC names who are both 0-2 in their last two fights would be accepted as such a big deal by the fans? Everyone knew.
MMA fans tend to have short memories. The last time we saw Diaz, he was getting pummeled by Georges St. Pierre; and before that beatdown, he was being frustrated by the bicycling-backwards Carlos Condit. His reward for those efforts is a dream match with arguably the best fighter in the history of the UFC. Silva is coming off of two brutal losses to Chris Weidman, but look at where Weidman is now. He’s a middleweight champion who has more than proven his worth as the best at what he does. Cesar Gracie can remark that Silva’s chin isn’t what it used to be, but, c’mon, it’s not like Silva is as fragile as Chuck Liddell towards the end of his career.
According to various sports books, Diaz has only a 25 percent chance to beat Silva. However, Diaz has garnered the majority of attention from hardcore fans. The man is a star. However, there is something a little strange and perhaps off-kilter about where all the attention has gone. Silva is attempting a comeback from an injury that would have ended the careers of most fighters. The fact that he is even training and back in any kind of fighting form is amazing; a testament to his strong will.
Silva’s return from a freak injury is a great storyline. However, Diaz is No. 1 in the hearts and minds of a lot of fight fans who want to see a true anti-authority figure that sticks out like a sore thumb in today’s UFC scene. As much as we love watching the UFC, you have to admit that watching an event today in terms of production values and presentation really isn’t all that different than it was, say, five years ago. For all of the slick graphics, replays and different camera angles, the Fox television deal has not generated the results I think a lot of fight fans were expecting. Other Fox sports properties like Major League Baseball are discovering the same issues. Expectations on both the matchmaking and presentation fronts are not delivering the goods according to what the fans want to see. The specialness has worn off.
Win or lose, Diaz is a guy at which fans look as a special attraction. He’s a big deal because his unpredictability goes against the vapid, cemented stereotype that many Americans have of MMA fighters as over-tanned, tattooed, testosterone-fueled goofs who are just disposable assets in the UFC ecosystem. No matter how gritty and gutty fighters like Matt Brown, Robbie Lawler and Donald Cerrone spill their guts in the cage, the fans have been conditioned to care about the brand first and made to believe that somehow these men are built in a factory and can be tossed away once their expiration dates are up. Instead of drawing massive ratings and PPV buys for the edge-of-your-seat, shave-years-off-your-life quality of fights, the UFC has seen a lot of the fans react in a ho-hum fashion. The numbers don’t lie. How can an ultra-hazardous, violent sport become white noise?
Diaz breaks through the barrier of apathy among fight fans who feel as if MMA is no longer about fighting, that it’s no longer raw and full of emotion, that it’s taken a pre-packaged, one-size-fits-all approach. The hardcore fans Diaz attracts are the kinds of fans who look at legends like Don Frye and nod their head in approval when he shouts that the MMA industry has devolved from an anything-goes real fight mentality to a sport-first athletic proposition full of sissies who are busy pleasing the promoter.
It is against this backdrop that Diaz has managed to do something many UFC fighters have failed to accomplish. Diaz understood his value in the marketplace. If the UFC looked at him as a commodity, then he was going to look at its operation as a commodity, as well. It needed him just as much as he needed it; and all the bluster in the world about the Diaz brothers being unreasonable, petulant stoners went up in smoke when it came time to do business.
Diaz is the same guy today that he was when he was filming rants for YouTube and complaining that St. Pierre made millions while he was driving a run-down Honda. He’s the same guy who flipped K.J. Noons the finger, the same guy who chastised the UFC for selling “wolf tickets,” the same guy who doesn’t like showing up for press conferences despite some amazingly entertaining post-fight interviews. If Diaz beats Silva, White said he could get a title shot against Weidman. That means Diaz traveling all over the country for media sessions in which he will have little interest in participating.
Welcome back to the UFC, Nick, and you can thank Viacom for creating the competitive tension to inspire the UFC to step up its game and deliver fights the fans want to watch.