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January 2020 was an action-packed month for mixed martial arts. Curtis Blaydes asserted himself as a contender at heavyweight, Cris Cyborg completed a promotional grand slam by capturing the Bellator MMA women’s featherweight title and Conor McGregor captured his first win in the Octagon since 2016 with a first-round TKO over Donald Cerrone at UFC 246. With several exciting bouts scheduled for the first quarter of the year across multiple promotions—including a fifth attempt at this ill-fated matchup—mixed martial arts is continuing to thrive and evolve from its modern inception a little over 25 years ago.
Within that same timeframe, MMA has slowly been making the shift from a niche attraction to a mainstream sport. Reaching the height of its popularity around the 2010s, promotions such as the Ultimate Fighting Championship and Bellator have reached landmark broadcast deals and produced crossover superstars that have expanded the audience of their events to new heights, all while increasing revenue at an astounding rate. According to internal projections released during the UFC antitrust lawsuit, Bellator brought in around $80 million for 2019 and expects to hit the $100 million mark in 2020. The UFC, on the other hand, is looking at revenue of anywhere between $980 million and $1.1 billion during that same time period according to the company’s forecasts back in 2016.
That type of prosperity doesn’t come without its growing pains, however. As the sport has become more mainstream, a copious amount of misinformation and perceived lack of understanding from prevailing sports journalists attempting commentary on MMA have been endured for years by diehard fans. Whether it’s the more recent back-and-forth between ESPN mainstay Stephen A. Smith and longtime UFC commentator Joe Rogan or the endless inaccuracies and laughable analysis provided by Skip Bayless and Shannon Sharpe on their talk show “Undisputed” in the lead up to the Mayweather vs. McGregor boxing match, hardcore MMA followers have lashed out over the years at what they consider unprofessionalism and ignorance on the parts of these reporters. While some fans and pundits forgive and even encourage this behavior, most have little to no tolerance for this type of conduct.
For the casual viewer on the outside looking in, the MMA world has probably seemed, as UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov would put, like a “big drama show.” Between fighter issues such as McGregor’s escalating feud with the aforementioned 155-pound titleholder and light heavyweight champion Jon Jones’ endless string of controversies, the UFC banning journalists for breaking news before the organization wanted the public to know and the freakshow fights that promotions put on, it’s not exactly the same experience as watching a football or basketball game. As the sport continues to gain more coverage from bigger news outlets and broadcast networks, it shouldn’t be a surprise that it’s often viewed in a strange or negative light by those who don’t follow MMA regularly.
There have been issues with the shift inside the MMA bubble, as well. Promotions have been forced to rely on a handful of superstar athletes to continue their growth, making their business model anything but stable. Television ratings for the sport overall have been on the decline for several years now, leading many organizations to move behind paywalls for more lucrative broadcast contracts, at the cost of cutting themselves off from potential casual viewers.
The biggest concern within the sport, however, has been fighter compensation and benefits. As revenue has surged, several fighters have realized that they’re not getting as much of the pie as they should, leading to discussions of forming unions or amending boxing’s Ali Act to include MMA. In 2017, the late Kobe Bryant spoke with athletes at the UFC fighter retreat about the impact a player’s association had on his career and what it could do for those in mixed martial arts, highlighting that “a rising tide raises all boats.” Although multiple groups have tried to create associations or bring litigation against promotions, all efforts have so far failed in bringing some sort of collective bargaining group to MMA, something almost all mainstream sports currently have.
These are just a few of the adjustments that promotions, athletes and media have had to make during the MMA boom. From being banned in several states to being legalized across America and abroad, the sport has seen the type of rapid growth that often leads to trial by error as the major players attempt to find their footing and carve out the best possible position for themselves in the shifting landscape. One need only look at the several controversies surrounding the handling of PEDs and weight-cutting in the sport as an example of good intentions going awry due to a lack of experience in handling such issues.
As MMA continues to mature, the way the industry functions will no doubt continue to evolve. Though one could argue that the market has slowed slightly, it continues to grow at an impressive rate, hoping one day to catch up to its pugilistic predecessor in boxing. Whether it’s promotions like the Professional Fighters League challenging the status quo through guaranteed seven-figure paydays, crossovers between MMA and boxing or fighters coming together to form some semblance of a union, change is inevitable within the sport, and for better or worse there will certainly be more transformations to come.