Opinion: Weili Zhang and the Economics of Opportunity

By Jacob Debets Jun 23, 2019

When Ultimate Fighting Championship president Dana White was asked at the UFC 238 post-fight press conference whether No. 7-ranked strawweight Michelle Waterson would get the next shot at newly crowned champion Jessica Andrade, he scoffed. “She’s ranked too low” he asserted to the assembled media, after referencing her apparently un-accommodating schedule.

From a meritocratic standpoint, it was a sensible answer. The “Karate Hottie” has won three straight bouts, but there are six women ranked between her and the champion. The only reason media and fans were anticipating she may have been next was because of the UFC’s conspicuous campaign to legitimize her claim after her recent victory over former title challenger Karolina Kowalkiewicz, ostensibly in an attempt to cash in on Waterson’s massive social-media-enabled popularity. With those suppositions being put to rest, the prevailing assumption was that Tatiana Suarez -- who had just solidified her No. 1 contender status with a decision victory over third-ranked Nina Ansaroff -- would be the champ’s first defense, after the wrestling phenom took some time to recuperate.

But barely three days after White categorically ruled out slotting Waterson in against “Bate Estaca,” news emerged that Weili Zhang -- ranked just one place ahead of Waterson -- would be granted the next shot, in a fight that would take place in Zhang’s homeland China over the same period that the organization’s $13 million dollar Performance institute in Shanghai goes into operation. Speaking to the LV Sportsbiz podcast, White laid out the organisation’s plans as follows:

“The other thing I’m doing when I go to China for the [Performance Institute] opening, there’s this girl named Weili Zhang, and she’s ranked number six in the world, and she is a badass. We’re announcing that she’s fighting Jessica Andrade for the title over there in China. We have a Chinese woman who is very good, and has a tonne of potential, fighting for a world title in China.”

Nobody expected LVSportsbiz’s Alan Snel to prod White on the apparent inconsistency between calling Waterson undeserving and then giving Zhang -- who has been in the UFC for less than a year and beaten a grand total of one top-10 strawweight -- the shot. But the passivity with which the media and the broader fanbase have accepted the announcement feels indicative of a broader resignation towards the UFC’s championship match-making.

Partly, this is because the organization has conditioned us this way by the sheer volume of meritocratically indefensible title shots it has handed out over the years: Chael Sonnen came off a TKO loss to Anderson Silva then was granted a title shot against Jon Jones at UFC 159; newly crowned middleweight champion Michael Bisping fought 13th-ranked Dan Henderson because of a half-baked “rivalry” dating back nearly a decade, then threw down with a semi-retired career welterweight in Georges St Pierre for his second defense at MSG; Brock Lesnar was granted (and wisely declined) a shot at Daniel Cormier’s heavyweight title in 2019, despite being winless in more than eight years.

With matchmaking like this having become the UFC’s modus operandi -- particularly since the promotion changed hands in 2016 -- it’s simply not news that the UFC are green-lighting fights that don’t stack up vis-à-vis the rankings, but help them make a quick buck on the pay-per-view.

But that’s the thing that distinguishes the Andrade-Zhang match-up from the fights listed above. Sonnen, GSP and Lesnar were popular figures slotted into the title-challenger position because they could put bodies in seats and money in the till; Zhang by contrast is a virtual unknown outside hardcore MMA circles, and possesses such a low profile that her fight with Andrade won’t even appear on pay-per-view.

In reality, Zhang’s title shot is window dressing to the massive investment the UFC and its parent company Endeavor is making in the Chinese market: The word “China” came up 23 times in the prospectus documents that Endeavor filed last month in anticipation of going public, while the word “fighter” came up only 11 times.

Taking a broad view, this marks a paradigm shift in the way that the organization uses its championships to further its financial interests. Whereas the UFC has always prided itself on putting on fights “that the fans want to see,” and has used high ratings and media buzz to obfuscate the distortionary effects fights like GSP-Bisping have on the divisions in which they take place, this is a much more calculated and brazen maneuver designed to expand Endeavour’s global footprint via the cultural and economic power that the UFC title represents.

And to be candid, that shouldn’t come as a surprise. For all the talk of taking “the sport to the next level”, the UFC has always been about enriching its owners by any means necessary, no matter what that entails and what impact it has on competitive architecture or the fighters that prop the whole edifice up.

This latest move simply represents the next logical step of a business that gets larger and less accountable by the day.

Jacob Debets is a law graduate and writer from Melbourne, Australia. He has been an MMA fan for more than a decade and trains in muay Thai and boxing at DMDs MMA in Brunswick. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.


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