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Like a large percentage of the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s events in Europe over the last five years, UFC Fight Night 127 on Saturday in London satisfies two guarantees when the MMA leader visits this side of the world. First, this is a disappointing card on paper; second, it is sold out. Many would argue they are directly related.
Unlike many parts of the globe, world-class mixed martial arts remains an oddity in the British Isles. With England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, two or three UFC shows per year is the norm -- few enough to keep the fans wanting more, regardless of the depth and quality of the cards. People simply want to see the UFC, and they are happy show up for those three letters rather than the men or women involved in competition inside the Octagon; and when I use the terms “UFC” and “Octagon,” I don’t mean “MMA” and “cage.” The UFC is still very much the king in these parts. Even Bellator MMA, which has put on some exceptional fights and will continue to do so with Bellator 200, could not guarantee sellouts with recent shows in London and Dublin. The same goes for organizations like the British Association of Mixed Martial Arts and Cage Warriors Fighting Championship, which can pack smaller venues but usually cordon off areas in bigger arenas. The only promotion to make headway in the attendance game in Europe has been KSW, which does an exceptional job courting the Polish community. The smaller companies aren’t really to blame, as they have for the most part done the best they can with what they have at their disposal -- unlike the UFC.
The fans allow this trend to continue with their continued attendance at UFC shows and their poor support outside of it. If the smaller promotions drew bigger numbers, it would encourage the UFC to bring bigger names across the Atlantic because it would look to capitalize on the demand, just as it did with Conor McGregor early in his career. Granted, he’s an exception.
The undying support for the UFC hurts the quality of the product. If people showed their displeasure with their ticket purchases, it would force the promotion to change its ways. Yes, it could lead to the UFC avoiding the area altogether, but that is a risk European MMA fans are going to have to take if they want better fight cards.
From the UFC’s point of view, it all makes sense. It can’t feasibly promote pay-per-views in Europe because of the time difference, the lack of available arenas to host late-night events and the logistical issues that make doing so more trouble than it’s worth. Add to it the lack of a British and Irish pay-per-view option and the UFC-BT Sport deal -- it allows the channel to show all Fox, Fox Sports 1, UFC Fight Pass and PPV events -- and bigger shows have trouble generating additional revenue. If the situation were similar to the McGregor-Floyd Mayweather Jr. superfight or Anthony Joshua bouts that appear on Sky Sports Box Office, then maybe we could expect more. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like it’s changing anytime soon.
Realistically, the only way British and Irish fans are going to see an improvement in UFC events is if the promotion decides to up the quality on its own; and that’s easier said than done. The Ultimate Fighting Championship puts on close to 50 shows annually, and those events have a pecking order, from pay-per-view to Fox to Fox Sports 1 to UFC Fight Pass. That pecking order impacts quality, too. The better fighters and bigger draws find their way onto better cards in bigger markets with perfect time zones. Unfortunately, British and Irish events fall into the bottom two tiers. We might not like that situation, but we had better get used to it.