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When the Ultimate Fighting Championship was on the ascent in the mid-2000s, UFC President Dana White and UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta liked to draw contrasts between the way they ran their business and the way boxing was run at the time. The contrast served to tell the story that MMA was the sport that was growing while boxing was fading and highlighted the reasons for that shift. At the time, a much higher percentage of UFC events were pay-per-views, leading White and Fertitta to contrast their pay-per-view lineups compared to boxing pay-per-view lineups.
Boxing pay-per-views were known for featuring just one or two fights of consequence. That was why fans tuned in, and the undercards were filled with mismatches and bouts of no significance. Boxing fans knew this and they’d only show up to watch towards the very end. There would be no energy live and the atmosphere would thus come across as dead on television before the real stars showed up. By contrast, the UFC offered up deep cards with fights of consequence from beginning to end. Crowds would generally fill out early and real contenders would square off hours before the main event.
This dynamic has changed over time. With UFC running so many shows and needing to fill up regular television events with star fighters, pay-per-views by and large don’t have the same depth. The aspiration remains to present loaded cards, but that’s by no means a given. In fact, the UFC 234 lineup on Saturday is a perfect example of the sort of boxing-style lineup that White and Fertitta once went after.
UFC 234 is solid at the top. Robert Whittaker rides a nine-fight winning streak into the second defense of his middleweight title against Kelvin Gastelum. The second fight from the top constitutes more of a double main event than a co-feature, as anticipation is high to see how Israel Adesanya will fare against the man to whom he is most compared: the legendary Anderson Silva. That’s a two-fight combination worthy of pay-per-view. However, the drop off from there is stark in terms of fan interest.
It’s doubtful that any other fight on UFC 234 would be one of the top five fights on last week’s ESPN Plus card, let alone a stacked pay-per-view card of old. The next fight underneath the top two pits Ricky Simon against Rani Yahya. Simon and Yahya have fought in the UFC a collective 17 times, and this is only the second time either of them will have fought outside the prelims. Simon is intriguing as a prospect and Yahya’s ground mastery has widely been underappreciated, but this isn’t the sort of battle of top contenders that once comprised UFC pay-per-view main cards. The undercard isn’t any deeper.
UFC 234 appears handicapped to some degree by its location in Melbourne, Australia. The UFC likes to feature fighters from the region where an event takes place, but it ran Australia just a few months ago in December. As a result, some of the most popular Oceania fighters who competed then, like Tai Tuivasa, Jake Matthews, Tyson Pedro and Mark Hunt are unavailable now. UFC thus was forced to choose between more established fighters without ties to the area and less established fighters with local connections, and it went for the latter group. That’s understandable when it comes to the many television events that take place each year, but there ought to be a higher standard for pay-per-view events that cost more to watch individually than an entire year of ESPN Plus fights.
The funny thing about UFC 234 looking more like a thin boxing card is that boxing has to some degree learned from MMA and tried to improve the depth of its pay-per-views. The recent Deontay Wilder-Tyson Fury card also featured unified light middleweight champion Jarrett Hurd, top heavyweight Luis Ortiz, top flyweight Carlos Licona and former stars Robert Guerrero and Chris Arreola. That’s plenty of talent relative to what boxing has offered up for similar cards in the recent past. Boxing and MMA are moving in different directions when it comes to depth.
While UFC 234 is certainly top-heavy, it isn’t as if the UFC has given up on the importance of depth. Its next pay-per-view has the likes of Robbie Lawler-Ben Askren, Cody Garbrandt-Pedro Munhoz and Zabit Magomedsharipov-Jeremy Stephens once you get past the top two title fights. The last pay-per-view had plenty of depth, as well. The UFC recognizes fans expect more out of cards, even if pay-per-views do tend to be sold based on the strength of the top fight or two. Even with so many cards to run, stacked cards are far from a relic of the past. Hopefully, UFC 234 will represent more of a flirtation with the boxing model than an example in a longer trend.
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.