The Bottom Line: To ESPN and Beyond

By Todd Martin Jun 5, 2018


Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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UFC 225 is now available on Amazon Prime.

It has been an exceedingly busy week in the world of MMA. Inside the cage, the Ultimate Fighting Championship put on arguably its deepest card of the year Friday, full of intriguing stories and important bouts. Outside the cage, details continue to emerge on the UFC-ESPN deal that could play a pivotal role in the long-term future of the sport. There has been plenty of note beyond that, as well. Here are a few key take-home points amidst the tumult:

UFC Falls Short with ESPN Deal


When ESPN and the UFC announced a little under a month ago that they would be partnering together for a series of cards designed to bolster ESPN’s new ESPN+ platform, it appeared that the UFC would be doing exceedingly well with its new television deal. The ESPN deal was quite lucrative on its own, while still leaving open the opportunity to sign a second deal with Fox or another provider for even more money.

Beyond the money, the split arrangement was more beneficial from a strategic standpoint. One of the big benefits of getting involved with ESPN is that major ESPN hype can make a big difference in selling individual pay-per-views. Going into business with the network makes it more likely it will work to promote you. However, ESPN has so many properties that it isn’t going to provide as much value in hyping the week-to-week product. That’s where an entity like Spike TV or Fox Sports 1 is so valuable in constantly building up MMA and not allowing it to get lost in the shuffle. Unfortunately for the UFC, Fox ended up signing a deal with World Wrestling Entertainment instead, and the UFC was forced to complete a full deal with ESPN.

The UFC-ESPN deal is by no means a disaster. It isn’t even a bad deal, for that matter. There’s much more money involved than there was with Fox. However, it appeared weeks ago that the UFC might have the best of both worlds: multiple major television outlets promoting it in different ways and a whole lot of money, to boot. With just ESPN, there’s no denying the positives but there are also some clear negatives that the UFC will surely lament in the coming years.

Moraes’ Bet on Himself Pays Off


Top fighters leaving one major MMA organization for another via free agency are taking a risky path. Their original promotion almost always wants to retain them, putting pressure on them to re-sign. If that promotion isn’t able to make a deal, it is then going to try to find the worst possible matchup for the departing fighter so he or she loses on the way out. The fighter pushing for free agency has made it clear his or her interest in joining another company, putting that new organization in position to downplay its interest to drive down the price.

If you reach a deal, it’s then time to prove how good you are all over again in front of a fan base that may not be nearly as familiar with you as the promotion you left behind. If you falter, the promotion doesn’t have the same longtime commitment to you as the place you left. All in all, it takes guts to make that big move. Sometimes, like with Justin Gaethje or Eddie Alvarez, it can pay off well. Other times, like with Will Brooks or Benson Henderson, it can backfire.

Marlon Moraes as the World Series of Fighting bantamweight champion made it clear he wanted to compete in the UFC. He lobbied for the opportunity even as the UFC played the game of feigning that it wasn’t all that interested. He wanted to fight the best and to have the opportunity to fight for the biggest paychecks if he could make it to the top. He left a familiar terrain and bet on himself. At first, it looked like the gamble might backfire. He was given a rough first opponent, Raphael Assuncao, a man against whom it is hard to look good even in victory. A split decision loss in his UFC debut put Moraes in a bad place.

Three fights later, those concerns about Moraes’ decision seem to be in the distant past. Moraes’ first-round highlight-reel knockouts over Aljamain Sterling and Jimmie Rivera have cemented his place as one of the top championship contenders. A fight with either T.J. Dillashaw or Cody Garbrandt would be a compelling one. Moraes’ self-belief and willingness to gamble are paying dividends.

Rodriguez Resolution Best for All Parties Involved


One of the strangest stories in MMA this year was the breakup and then reunion between Yair Rodriguez and the UFC. Rodriguez was shockingly cut by the UFC after a disagreement over his next opponent, but things were then suddenly smoothed over in a development almost as surprising as the original blowup. Ultimately, it’s a positive move for both sides.

For the UFC, the upside of reconciliation is obvious. Rodriguez is a highly marketable young fighter with a lot of promotional value. He’s entertaining to watch, and he’s one of the best hopes to increase fan interest in the Mexican market. For Rodriguez, it isn’t as clear of a call, as he has value to plenty of other organizations. However, the benefit of staying in the UFC is that he is still a fighter making his name. The UFC has the largest spotlight for fighters and is the best place to make one’s self a star. It’s no accident that fighters have been much more apt to leave the UFC after reaching a certain level of fame rather than before attaining that level of success.

The UFC has been roundly criticized in the media for its handling of the situation, but it also serves to send a message to fighters that they shouldn’t pick and choose opponents. It may make the UFC look like the bully, but it’s in advancement of a fan-friendly objective. Fans win when there’s a culture of fighters agreeing to take risky fights against dangerous opponents. As fighters make more money and hold more leverage, they can more easily avoid higher-risk lower-reward matchups that fans want to see. The UFC framing itself as a vindictive tyrant willing to lash out unpredictably does provide something of a check on that, like the madman theory of foreign policy. The Rodriguez situation did at least serve that goal, even if it made for bad PR and frayed relations with a marketable young star.

Reaction to Covington Will be Telling


For years, there has been an ongoing debate about MMA fans. One camp points to the international appeal of the sport and willingness of fans to embrace fighters from different parts of the world, arguing the sport is basically in a healthy place. Another camp notes the often negative reactions to African-American fighters in particular and other fighters of different ethnicities, concluding MMA has a problem with at least a sizeable portion of its community.

This debate is likely to continue on for some time to come, and both sides have flashpoints to which they can point. UFC 225 on Saturday could be another. Colby Covington has gone out of his way to frame himself as the sport’s biggest jerk. However, he’s still an American and he’ll be fighting a Brazilian in Chicago. If fans gravitate behind Covington after all he has said and done, it won’t necessarily be the best reflection.

Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.

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