When Dana White convinced his friends in the boxing business to purchase an ultimate fighting league in 2001, Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta bought the organization for $2 million because they were fans of the sport, and hoped to shed light on a genre that was shut out by the establishment several years earlier. Once dubbed a blood sport, the no-holds-barred competition in the original octagon was called too brutal by many of the corporate suits that made decisions about distribution. At one time, the concept of mixed martial arts was banned in almost every state and rejected by most pay-per-view providers. Still, there was always conversation among the public about the spectacle that was simply known as “ultimate fight” before the term mixed martial arts was popularized.
Lorenzo, a casino executive and a former member of the Nevada State Athletic Commission that sanctioned many major boxing events, had the cash and the connections to at least give the UFC a chance, as well as get officials to listen to the changes that were made under Zuffa management to make the sport legitimate. New weight divisions, rules, and protocols were added to ensure competition, not a barbaric spectacle. As time went on, more states began allowing UFC cards to be held there, but it wasn’t easy to brand or market the sport. Under the Fertittas, the Ultimate Fighting Championship made its way back to pay-per-view, but most of the general public was unaware of these grapplers or how the sport had progressed.
During the first few years that Zuffa owned the company, the project was nearly $40 million in debt. Most would’ve throw in the towel, but Zuffa didn’t. In what proved to be the key to success, the UFC finally got a cable deal with Spike TV in 2005 to televise their cards and just as important, the Ultimate Fighter reality show. The main stream finally had the chance to see not only the sport, but also the story of the athletes, which is what truly generated the initial boom in popularity. As Forrest Griffin and Stephen Bonner slugged it out in a bout reminiscent of Rocky and Apollo, the general public saw a glimpse of what the sport could showcase. In some ways, the argument could be made that Griffin/Bonner was the most important fight in UFC history because it was the right fight at the right time, and without it, there might not be a UFC today. Add to that “The Iceman” Chuck Liddel, who was in the prime of his career, knocking out opponents on pay-per-view, and the company began to turn the corner.
Fast forward 11 years and it was officially announced at UFC 200 this past July that the Ultimate Fighting Championship was sold to the WME-IMG group for a record-setting $4 billion. After years of political sparring, MMA was sanctioned in New York and the new ownership is set to promote a historic card at the world’s most famous arena, Madison Square Garden. The venue where Roddy Piper battled Mr. T and Hulk Hogan, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier squared off in “the fight of the century,” and multiple sports championships were decided will host the UFC later this month.
The line-up for the event is stacked, showcasing three title fights and many former champions. At the top of the card, the company’s most popular star, Conor McGregor will attempt to make UFC history when he steps into the cage against lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez for a chance to hold titles in two divisions. Despite the perceived accolades on the line, the announcement of this main event has drawn criticism and could be an indication of the direction of the promotion under WME. The brash Dublin native brings a dynamic style and Ali-type promotional efforts to hype his bouts similar to the pro wrestling genre, and in the process became one of the company’s top pay-per-view draws.
However, McGregor is a relatively new commodity and lacks in some areas of his game so he might not be as dominate as some of the organization’s past stars. But, Conor’s drawing power is especially important at this point, considering many of the athletes that made the Zuffa era profitable are either retired or winding down their careers so WME needs a top star to promote. From a business prospective, the group just paid $4 billion to acquire the UFC so they need stars to make a return on the investment. All things considered, it appears as though the main event at UFC 205 was booked simply as an opportunity to promote Conor as the first two division champion in UFC history, not because competition justifies it. Conor, the Featherweight champion, has yet to defend the belt he won after he knocked out Jose Aldo in 14 seconds in 2015. Instead, he fought Nate Diaz at welterweight in March of this year after then-lightweight champion Rafel Dos Anjos suffered an injury that caused him to cancel the title fight. Some think Conor underestimated his opponent, and he was submitted in the second round. He avenged the loss when he won a unanimous decision against Diaz in another welterweight bout at UFC 202 in August.
Somehow getting a victory at 170 LBS justifies McGregor getting a lightweight title shot, while Conor hasn’t defended the featherweight title yet. It’s obvious that this is being done just to attempt to draw as much money as possible for the Madison Square Garden card, which makes sense from a business prospective, but it sacrifices some of the credibility of the sport. As further proof of that, UFC president Dana White recently said on an edition of the UFC Tonight show that if Conor wins the 155 LBS belt, he will immediately vacate one of the titles and decide what belt he wants to defend in the future. I have to ask, if there are already no plans for Conor to defend both titles, why would the Alvarez/McGregor fight even take place? Doesn’t it effect the credibility of either the featherweight or lightweight division when someone willingly vacates the title? How are fans supposed to view either of those belts as important going forward if they are being used as a promotional prop for UFC 205? As talented as he is, McGregor has done literally nothing to earn a lightweight title shot and it’s blatantly obvious that the focus of the main event is on him, not the potential competition of an Alvarez/McGregor fight. Alvarez, who defeated Dos Anjos to win the championship in July, is a solid pro, but is lesser known to the fan base. He won the title at an event that aired on the Fight Pass streaming service so his victory wasn’t publicized as much as it could’ve been either. Basically, the fact that Alvarez is the lightweight champion is secondary to the hype of McGregor possibly winning a second title. That being said, Alvarez could use his grappling skills to defeat Conor, derailing the hype, but at this point, drawing the money for UFC 205 is the top priority.
The bottom line is, the sizzle of the McGregor persona is being promoted over the substance of the competition of the sport.
Another example of this business strategy is the return of Ronda Rousey, who was knocked out via a highlight reel head kick by Holly Holm last year. One of the most popular stars in MMA, Rousey appeared at Wrestlemania, various TV shows, and movies before she was KO’ed in her first professional defeat. Ronda, a former bronze medalist in judo at the 2008 Olympics, is one of the most dominate fighters in women’s MMA history, but she was overconfident against Holm and lost the Women’s Bantamweight championship in devastating fashion, which prompted many to question if she would fight again. Holly, a former multiple time boxing champion, wasn’t prepared for the ground skills of the dangerous Amanda Nunes at UFC 200 and was submitted in the second round. After several months of speculation, Ronda Rousey will return to the octagon in December and get a shot at the title. If this was a rematch against Holly Holm, it would be a different situation, but what exactly justifies an immediate title fight for Rousey? The only logical answer is the money involved in promoting Ronda as the Women’s Bantamweight champion again.
Since these decisions were made, there was some backlash from the UFC roster, including Jose Aldo’s request to be released from his contract, and Julianna Pena threatened to quit when it was announced that Rousey would get a title shot when she returned. Along with that, Georges St. Pierre recently claimed that he’s a free agent when he terminated his UFC contract after a deal couldn’t be made for him to return to the octagon. One of the many hurdles that prevented a GSP return was how the Reebok deal, a topic of much debate in recent months, would affect his sponsorship money. A court case will probably determine the status of St. Pierre’s deal, which won’t be the first time that legal action will be used to determine a UFC contract dispute. Fighter pay and the structure of contracts has been a controversial topic for years, but will only be magnified after a corporate group paid $4 billion for the company. Despite being casino executives, the organization under the Zuffa banner had more of a blue collar atmosphere to it because the Fertittas risked millions for the sport, but WME-IMG is strictly corporate and won’t get the benefit of the doubt on the topic of paying athletes fair wages. In fact, the corporate side of the UFC could sour some fans on the organization.
So, what does all this translate to for the sport?
For now, it’s very simple, if it draws money and people are willing to pay to see Conor McGregor get an unjustified title shot against Eddie Alvarez than the competition aspect is secondary. It’s disappointing, but from a business prospective, it’s about what the general public is willing to pay to watch and what fight draws the most money, not necessarily what the competition of the sport suggest should take place. The UFC is as much as a business, if not more so than it is a sport so none of these decisions should be all that surprising to the diehard MMA fans. Granted, if UFC management continues to dilute the competition of the sport, there’s a risk of the credibility of the organization, but at this point, if it draws major money, why wouldn’t WME-IMG promote it?
Is the UFC putting cash ahead of competition? Yes, and if it draws money then from a business prospective, UFC 205 will be a success.
Regardless of any criticism, the MSG card will draw major money for the UFC and it could potentially be the start of a new era for the promotion. The concern here is will the WME group go too far with the sizzle and fans are letdown with a lack of substances for events going forward? The Fertittas deserve major credit and the pay off for everything they did for the sport, but at the same time, it’s concerning that new management will run the UFC. While Dana White is still the president, Lorenzo stepped down after the purchase and longtime booker Joe Silva also left the company so some of the key figures that made the UFC successful aren’t working for the company now. It remains to be seen if WME can truly advance the sport further than Zuffa took it, but it certainly provides an intriguing scenario during the next few months.
Until next week
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