With little to be entertained by, the crowd has taken to entertaining themselves. pic.twitter.com/P6Tcx9AKB5— Fernanda Prates (@NandaPrates_) November 17, 2019
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The Ultimate Fighting Championship’s last event before a three-week hiatus, UFC’s trip to Sao Paulo on Nov. 16 was expected to produce an intriguing matchup in its main event, with Top 10 light heavyweight Jan Blachowicz welcoming Ronaldo Souza to the 205-pound division. “Jacare” opted to move up in weight after losing a unanimous decision to Jack Hermansson at 185 back in April, believing he could accomplish something similar to what fellow fighters Anthony Smith and Thiago Santos have achieved by switching to a heavier weight class. After having a four-fight win streak snapped by Santos at the beginning of this year, Blachowicz made a statement at UFC 239 in July by knocking out another fighter who had sought a new life at 205, former middleweight champion Luke Rockhold. Although Dominick Reyes seemed to have secured his spot as 205-pound champion Jon Jones’ next challenger, either of the UFC Fight Night 164 headliners could have inserted themselves into the title picture with an emphatic performance given the lack of depth within the division.
Unfortunately for Blachowicz and Souza, their matchup turned out to be anything but exciting. The lackluster fight saw a timid back-and-forth between the two competitors, marred by a near-constant booing from the crowd. As the bout wore on, those in attendance became increasingly restless, going so far as to wave their cell phones in disapproval at the lack of action. In the end, “The Prince of Cieszyn” came away with a split decision victory that left many viewers with a bad taste in their mouth, including several fighters who did not hold back on social media.
The main event wasn’t the only fight that fell short on the card either. Outside of the four that saw performance of the night bonus winners, every other bout at UFC Fight Night 164 ended up going to a judges’ decision. While going the full 15 minutes doesn’t preclude these matchups from being exciting, most of them ended up being pretty forgettable. Even those that started with thrilling exchanges such as the co-main event between Mauricio Rua and Paul Craig or Ariane Lipski and Isabela da Padua came to a grinding halt by the start of the third round, stifling any excitement fans had going into the next scrap.
Although this type of scenario is bound to happen in just about any sport, in MMA the business consequences are more severe for all those involved. As competition increases for emerging markets, the promotions’ greatest tool to gaining new customers for their product is putting on spectacular fights. If two organizations enter an untapped market and one has an event full of exhilarating bouts while the other puts on a card with several tedious decisions, it’s not hard to guess which company will have a larger gate and more fans when they both come back into town. In this sense, “boring” fights can hurt the bottom-line.
The fighters involved also face ramifications for putting on a pedestrian performance. The majority of MMA organizations have no set path to a championship, with matchmakers usually considering a combination of factors such as media rankings, number of consecutive wins, and strength of opponents when determining the next title challenger. Arguably the greatest variable within these circumstances is if a fighter has finished his opponents or put on captivating work inside the cage, with those who have delivered such acts of violence jumping to the front of the line over others that may have cultivated a longer win-streak in unenthusiastic fashion. In organizations like the UFC boring fights also make you more susceptible to being released from your contract after a single loss, as exemplified with well-known decision artists such as Jared Rosholt and Jake Shields.
In fact, even getting signed by the UFC can hinge on delivering extraordinary entertainment. Dana White’s Contender Series matches up fighters who are on the cusp of signing with a major MMA organization and offers a contract to those winners that the UFC president deems worthy. During the show’s most recent season, out of the 31 contracts that were awarded (including a developmental deal) 23 of those went to fighters who managed to finish their opponents in front of White. In contrast, highly-touted prospect Brendon Loughnane was denied by a contract with the organization despite winning a decision in dominant fashion on the first episode of the season in question, with White being upset that Loughnane went for a takedown in the last 10 seconds of the bout.
For those organizations that have tried to remove the entertainment factor from impeding meritocracy, they have yet to see any real returns. The Professional Fighters League uses a nearly pure merit-based method to determine which fighters have a shot at the championship, featuring a regular season with points and set tournament playoff brackets. Despite the concept, ratings for the product have been less than exciting, and the promotion has run into a host of other issues. While Bellator has been attempting a similar tactic with its heavyweight, welterweight, and featherweight grand prix tournaments, those events have received mixed reviews as to whether or not they help draw in fans.
Ultimately it’s hard for fans and promotions to not support policies and decisions that reinforce higher value entertainment. While a fighter’s accomplishments should be recognized, regardless of how entertaining they were to achieve, bouts like Jacare vs. Blachowicz turn off casual fans and hurt a promotion’s ability to grow their business. Maybe one day boring fights will be looked upon by the occasional MMA viewer as they are in other sports, just a one-off, but until that happens it’s probably best for promotions to do everything in their power to avoid fights like this fiasco.