This past Saturday was a fight fan’s dream. Between UFC 224, Bellator 199, HBO Boxing and Vasyl Lomachenko winning another belt at the expense of Jorge Linares, there was loads of action. Lyoto Machida, Vitor Belfort, Muhammed Lawal, Ryan Bader, Aaron Pico, Paul Daley and Jon Fitch were among the notable names to compete. It all should’ve built to a dramatic climax as history was made. Women’s bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes defended her title against Raquel Pennington to conclude the evening of government-sanctioned, consensual violence.
At first glance, Nunes-Pennington merely sounds like another good style match-up that promised action, but a second look shows a lot more. Not only was this was the first title fight between two openly gay fighters, both contestants were in long-term relationships with other UFC fighters. Why was this not a major talking point leading up to the event? It certainly would have been useful to publicize. After all, there was little to no effort to push the main event at all despite having such an obvious selling point. It’s almost as if there was an effort to not promote a championship fight.
In fact, one of the few things the Ultimate Fighting Championship did to promote 224 was a media luncheon in Los Angeles. However, Nunes and Pennington were conspicuously not included. Perhaps this was entirely intentional. The promotion could still be harboring a grudge toward its dominant bantamweight queen after her last-minute withdrawal from UFC 213 due to chronic sinusitis. At the time of that cancellation, UFC President Dana White did not hold back from sharing his first thoughts, questioning Nunes’ heart and will to fight. White vowed he would never book her in a main event again, a promise broken just weeks later as Nunes’ defense against Valentina Shevchenko went on to headline UFC 215.
Needless to say, when the key public figure tasked with making the general public care enough about you to pay money to see you compete decides to trash you, the general public may not care enough about you to pay to see you compete. UFC 215’s disappointing estimated 100,000 pay-per-view buys, the lowest in over a decade, are evidence of this. Although the numbers are yet to be confirmed, her second main event after the short-lived headlining embargo is rumored to have hit an even lower mark. These figures will undoubtedly be used as ammunition for the UFC to place Nunes in less publicized spots and justify any potential pay issues with her inability to draw in an audience. So the self-fulfilling prophecy continues.
Entertainment conglomerate Endeavor, along with the numerous celebrity investors, could not bother with even the slightest mention of the LGBT community being represented in a UFC title fight? Was there any possible way to take advantage of the talk show circuit that has been used previously to lure in an audience not typically associated with combat sports? Would it have been too much of an ask to give it a mere mention in a commercial? With such a blatantly easy promotional angle being ignored, is it fair to ask just how committed the UFC is to gaining new fans?
Adding to the puzzling nature of the promotion’s current trajectory, UFC 224 took place days after the reports that standout featherweight prospect Yair Rodriguez had been dropped from the roster after a proposed bout for August 4th’s UFC 227 against Zabit Magomedsharipov fell through. A young fighter who checks all the boxes for future star status -- exciting style, good-looking, articulate -- is suddenly let go after exposing a premature fight announcement via his Twitter account. Couple this with the famed push into the once highly-valued market of Mexican fight fans and it begins to make even less sense. The UFC has made a very concerted effort to win over that fan base. For the most part, those efforts have proven futile. Cain Velasquez’s title loss and everlasting list of injuries was a major blow. The lukewarm reception to the Latin America offshoot of "The Ultimate Fighter" was no help either. One of the lone bits of success was the emergence of Rodriguez. Yet when White had an issue with Rodriguez rejecting a fight after it was announced publicly without both parties actually agreeing to terms, he was dropped, consequences be damned. The viewership of the sought-after Mexican market and the general excitement and potential of Rodriguez mean nothing compared to a tweet that at worst was mildly embarrassing.
So what’s the takeaway from these seemingly unrelated events? It appears that the UFC is putting its eggs in the wrong basket. Just take a look at one of the participants from the UFC 224 media luncheon: Mackenzie Dern. Dern is no doubt a promising talent who, with the right guidance, can go far in the sport. However, seizing an opportunity to showcase her to the media while passing on the reigning champion approaching a historic title defense is simply indefensible. Additionally, Dern’s repeated failures on the scale and ejection from the MMA Lab fight team show a lack of the necessary discipline and focus repeatedly displayed by Nunes. While Dern is of the same general mold as Ronda Rousey, another grappling standout with penchant for submissions who’s considered physically attractive by traditional standards, the potential eyeballs in both the LGBT and Mexican markets greatly outweigh the scraps of fandom left behind by the now-WWE star.
So what are the priorities of the UFC? Would they like to continue the lackluster pay-per-view buy rates that have become alarmingly normal when compared to the boom we just saw a few years ago? Would they like to use marketable and successful fighters as pawns to play out grudges and perceived slights? Or would they like to bank on groups of people who otherwise wouldn’t be interested in caged fisticuffs by showcasing the diversity and rich personalities that are abundant in the sport? While the hyper-masculine “Just Bleed” devotees are still the lifeblood of the hardcore fan base, we’ve seen their limits. Their limits are the low PPV numbers and dismal ratings for free TV offerings. Halfhearted, misguided or nonexistent promotion won’t make the situation any better. Perhaps with the newly announced ESPN partnership valuing each of its fifteen promised yearly events at $10 million apiece has taken away the drive to push for the elusive “global f*cking domination” and making the UFC “bigger than soccer.” If that’s the case then so be it. The company likely won’t have to answer for any mistakes until the deal expires in 2023. However, if they would like to see growth -- that is, more money -- then they should be rethinking the aforementioned decisions.