The Bottom Line: A Page from the NBA Playbook

By Todd Martin Feb 18, 2020

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It may have been sent out on no more than a whim during one of the NBA’s biggest weekends, but Max Holloway on Sunday had one hell of an idea. The former Ultimate Fighting Championship featherweight titleholder contemplated on Twitter the idea of the UFC hosting an event similar to what the NBA does on its All-Star Weekend. It’s a simple concept and one that has likely been discussed informally from time to time, but done right, it could be a tremendous asset to the UFC’s popularity. It would also be a great fit for UFC television partner ESPN.

Like MMA, the NBA sinks or swims based on the popularity of individual stars. The NBA thus does all it can to put the spotlight on the personalities of its best players and to make fans care about them. The NBA’s All-Star Weekend is perhaps the best example of this, as NBA stars and celebrities congregate for one of the biggest party weekends of the year, featuring a host of games and competitions that celebrate the sport. The dunk contest is sometimes lamented as overly gimmicky, but it has elevated stars for decades now.

The UFC is as reliant on its stars as the NBA, but it has some disadvantages when it comes to the ability to showcase them. For one, the nature of the sport makes it rare that all the best fighters ever congregate together. When all the UFC champions did an event together on the same stage in Toronto in 2011, it felt like a rare and special moment, and that just involved them sitting on a stage talking. If there was a way to get them competing informally in a low-stakes athletic showcase while showing appreciation for each other’s skills, it would make them all seem bigger.

Another issue for the UFC’s biggest stars is that they almost always compete on pay-per-view. That’s limiting as far as visibility to general sports fans. Financially, there’s no way to avoid that at this point. However, the more the UFC and Bellator MMA can get their top stars in front of the largest number of eyeballs, the better off they will be. A skills competition of some sort, carefully put together to minimize the risk of injury, is something that could be put on free television and draw ratings based on the star power.

The UFC’s International Fight Week was originally intended as the biggest fan gathering of the year, with a convention and multiple shows. As time has progressed, the week has felt less important. It has been driven largely by a major card and then a UFC Hall of Fame ceremony that has limited appeal given the relative youth of the sport. If the UFC went big and bold, a skills competition could really bolster the week’s festivities. A Friday night event on ESPN in which all the UFC’s stars are in attendance seated cageside, having fun or competing in different events would go a long way towards bringing attention to the sport and making the Saturday night pay-per-view feel like a big deal. If you tailored events to produce spectacular feats of athleticism, it could be appealing to even non-MMA fans, and the highlights afterwards would make the sport look exciting.

What sorts of events would be ideal for this type of extravaganza? Some of the options are obvious and safe. For example, a hardest strike competition could measure the fighters that hit the hardest in each weight class. Some form of jiu-jitsu competition would be a natural. The likely inclination would be to match up top fighters, like they do in Polaris or Quintet. I would be more inclined towards something that makes the best jiu-jitsu practitioners seem larger than life, like gathering a group of solid but overmatched brown belts and having elite grapplers compete to see who can score the most submissions over them in a set period of time.

The biggest potential gains could come from the most outside-the-box ideas—ideas which might be criticized by some diehard MMA fans. The key would be finding something equivalent to the slam dunk competition, where NBA stars exchange over the top dunks that they would largely never try in a real game. MMA is in fact spectacularly suited for something like that.

Some of the most exciting moments in MMA come when fighters pull out rare and unexpected techniques. It’s often not wise to do so against a world-class opponent, which limits such occurrences. A Greatest Strike competition, scored by celebrity judges like the slam dunk contest, would allow the most athletic fighters to show off the flashiest strikes they can imagine. A requirement could be put in that they have to hit a target with a certain amount of power in order for the strike to count in an attempt to prevent it from turning into a gymnastics competition. This would of course be a made-for-TV gimmick, but those types of gimmicks are often quite useful in promoting a sport. Israel Adesanya running across the cage and flying through the air with an over-the-top spinning kick as Mike Tyson and Halle Berry gasp and hold up 10s on ESPN is precisely the sort of thing that would benefit MMA’s profile.

If the UFC was willing to take even more of a risk, it could also use the event as an excuse to occasionally put on a celebrity fight. The UFC has flirted with celebrity fights over the years, most notably with pro wrestler Phil “CM Punk” Brooks. Boxing recently has begun putting celebrity fights on cards with legitimate world-class fighters. The problem with this for the UFC is that treating non-fighters like real fighters diminishes the real fighters and makes them feel less important. Having a celebrity fight on its own, billed as an exhibition and completely separated from the proper UFC event, would remove those issues. It would leave no doubt about the difference between world-class professional fighters and the celebrities, providing all the benefits that come with the fan interest and television ratings potential in a gimmick fight and doing so with few of the negatives.

There are plenty of different routes the UFC could take on such an event. It could even experiment, discarding some events while elevating others, like in the early modern Olympics. When it comes to the basic concept, Holloway is right on the money. The UFC would love to have its equivalent to NBA All-Star Weekend, and MMA is well-suited to delivering something with a similar vibe. All it takes is some creativity and guts.

Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people. Advertisement

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