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UFC 215 on Saturday in Edmonton, Alberta, is an above-average offering. While the undercard is mostly what you would expect from an undercard, it still features two top-15 women’s bantamweights and two top-five flyweights, which is more than a lot of Ultimate Fighting Championship events can boast.
The main card, however, is all bangers. The Jeremy Stephens-Gilbert Melendez fight is high stakes and should be high action, as well. The fight between Ilir Latifi and Tyson Pedro, who share a combined six first-round finishes in the UFC, is likely to end quickly and dramatically. On top of that, former lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos will look to stake his claim as a force at welterweight against perennial contender Neil Magny. These are all good, relevant bouts that coalesce into a fitting buildup for two title fights at the top of the card. Those two title fights are where things start to get a little messy.
You may recall that a behind-closed-doors feud between UFC President Dana White and flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson spilled out into the public sphere earlier this year. After Johnson tied Anderson Silva’s title defense record by submitting decorated jiu-jitsu black belt Wilson Reis in April, White proclaimed that “Mighty Mouse” was not only the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world but arguably the greatest of all-time. Less than two months later, White appeared on the UFC Unfiltered podcast and criticized Johnson for not accepting a fight with T.J. Dillashaw, insinuating that Johnson was trying to take an easier opponent by opting to fight Ray Borg instead.
Johnson returned fire with a lengthy written response. In it, Johnson recounts a different set of events, alleging he originally wanted to fight Cody Garbrandt in a champion-versus-champion super fight, only to see the bantamweight booked against Dillashaw. According to Johnson, he thought Sergio Pettis was a better fight to make, but the UFC insisted he fight Borg instead. Johnson accepted, only to have Dillashaw brought into the picture later, when Garbrandt had to drop out of his bantamweight title defense due to injury. Johnson further claimed that White made threats, from never giving him a cut of pay-per-view sales to disbanding the flyweight division entirely.
“The media claims he’s the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. I think Conor McGregor is the pound-for-pound best fighter in the world,” he said. “If Demetrious is the pound-for-pound best guy in the world, then fight T.J. Dillashaw.”
White later went on to clarify that he didn’t threaten Johnson with shutting down the flyweight division.
“Never once did I threaten him to shut down the division,” he said. “I told him that we had been talking about shutting down the division for years.”
Of course, simply talking about shutting down the division, in the context of trying to coerce Johnson to take a particular fight, is most definitely not a threat.
Excited for the fight yet?
While Johnson claimed the UFC had not been making the efforts to promote him, Sherdog columnist Todd Martin has reminded everyone that isn’t exactly true; and to White’s credit, Johnson has in fact headlined several of the lowest-selling pay-per-view events in the modern era. The problem isn’t that White’s frustration with Johnson, as he has a bottom line to take care of and it’s normal for him to push for what he believes are more profitable fights. The problem is that it’s White’s job to promote Johnson. Publically dragging him through the mud has the opposite effect, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when, after months of throwing dirt on Johnson’s name, fans don’t tune in to watch. In most ways, White is a bigger celebrity than Johnson. In trying to leverage public opinion against one of his most gifted champions, he has essentially validated Johnson’s claims. It’s counterproductive for a promoter to discredit the fighters he is trying to promote.
Women’s bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes is in a similar situation, albeit less dramatic. Nunes has breakout potential: She has headlined big shows, fights in a style that is exciting and decisive and has vital promotional inroads into demographics that other champions do not. She is one of two Brazilian champions in the UFC, which has always been a big viewership draw. Plus, as the first and only openly gay champion in the organization, she received an Equality Visibility Award in September 2016. Take a quick stroll through the comment sections of articles about her and you will no doubt find ample evidence that this is a relatively untapped market in MMA.
After demolishing two of the biggest female stars in MMA history, however, Nunes pulled out of her UFC 213 title fight against Valentina Shevchenko due to sinusitis. She withdrew mere hours before the fight. White, ever the forward-thinking promoter, decided to take to the media and denounce her as mentally weak: “I think that it was 90 percent mental and maybe 10 percent physical.” He doubled-down on the fact that she was medically cleared by doctors, but then again, as Bloody Elbow’s Barry Mitchell wrote, medical clearance doesn’t mean what people tend to think it does. Fighters have been medically cleared with strep throat and bronchitis; even a pregnant fighter was medically cleared. Instead of keeping his understandable frustration to himself, White trashed his champion.
Again, if you are the type to take White at his word and you think Nunes is a mentally weak champion who pulled out of her last bout due to a mixture of fear and a runny nose, are you going to tune in to watch her fight?
It all comes down White’s job as a promoter. It’s worth reiterating that anyone would feel upset by both Johnson’s and Nunes’ situations over the last several months, but it doesn’t help the earnings of the company -- allegedly what White cares most about -- to trash the reputation of his own fighters. This is especially true since we know just how effective White can be as a promoter; we saw it during the whole Floyd Mayweather-Conor McGregor episode.
There is a good chance that UFC 215 won’t sell very well, and it’s reasonable to suggest that even if White had never thrown his headlining and co-headlining champions under the proverbial bus this year that it would not have sold well anyway. That’s all well and good, but the question is this: Will UFC 215 be more or less successful coming off the heels of White’s public criticism? The answer should be obvious. While it’s impossible to quantify just how many PPV units White alone can influence, he does have influence. Instead of using that influence to verify his own publicly stated criticisms, he should be leveraging it to make his fighters as profitable as possible.
When the buy rate numbers come in, assuming they are below-average as expected, don’t be surprised to see a grinning White take to the dais to tell us all he told us so.
Hailing from Kailua, Hawai’i, Eric Stinton has been contributing to Sherdog since 2014. He received his BFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and graduate degree in Special Education from University of Hawai’i. He is an occasional columnist for Honolulu Civil Beat, and his work has also appeared in The Classical. You can find his writing at ericstinton.com. He currently lives in Seoul with his fiancé and dachshund.