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Is It Time to Admit MMA Will Never Become a Mainstream Success?

(Dana White’s “If you don’t like it, we don’t want you as a fan” strategy has worked. / Photo via Getty)

By Matt Saccaro

UFC on FOX 11 was one of the better cards in recent memory, but nobody outside of the MMA bubble cared.

Only 1.98 million viewers tuned in—the lowest ever for a UFC event on Fox and a 27% decline from UFC on FOX 10. FOX lost out to every other major network in total viewers, and only beat CBS in the key 18-49 demo.

“Fighting is in our DNA,” Dana White likes to maintain. It’s a universal action that everyone understands. If a fight breaks out, everyone stops what they’re doing to watch it. Fighting is raw and visceral, but is simultaneously pure and sacrosanct. It has been part of humanity since the first caveman shot a double leg.

Except it’s not. Those lines we all swore were so true when we started watching MMA, the ones we cited as reasons for MMA’s inevitable (and rightful) ascent to greatness, are all bullshit. When a rerun of Mike and Molly draws more viewers than free fights, one has to question whether MMA will ever achieve the mainstream popularity fans and pundits have been anticipating for years now—unless an overweight Chicago police officer (no, not Mike Russow) and his wife are even more in our DNA than fighting.

When the biggest star on the UFC’s roster (who, by extension, is MMA’s biggest star) is only capable of drawing a maximum of 450,000 PPV buys, we have to admit that the sport is on a decline. Chuck Liddell—not Johny Hendricks, not Anthony Pettis, not any other nascent champion or young up-and-comer—is still the go-to “tough guy” spokesperson for brands running ads on Spike TV and FS1. That should tell you everything you need to know.

There are few stars on the horizon. The UFC has two potential “franchise fighters” but only makes use of the one who’ll leave for Hollywood (or baby-making) before long. They ignore the other because he prioritized his own interests over the company’s. I’ve written about the UFC’s popularity crisis extensively, so I won’t repeat myself suffice it to say that the sport’s ceiling lowers nearly every time the UFC hold’s a card.

And it doesn’t matter that media members and hardcore fans enjoyed the fights last night. What we think means nothing; we’re the minority. The people that don’t know who Travis Browne and Fabricio Werdum are, and therefore didn’t watch UFC on FOX 11, are the people whose eyeballs and PPV buys matter most. Those are the people the sport is failing to reach, and hasn’t captivated in years. When Dana White himself admits that the UFC is not mainstream despite being on FOX, then you know it’s not mainstream…and maybe it never will be.

Most of you will scoff at what I’m saying. Whenever I write articles with such sentiments, the typical comment reads “Well you and CagePotato just hate MMA because you’re assholes and hate the UFC because they took away your credentials.” If I hated MMA/the UFC, I wouldn’t write about them (and I believe I speak for the entire CagePotato editorial staff when I say that). I love MMA. And loving something means wanting it to succeed, which means pointing out what’s wrong with it so it can be better. I’m not writing this to knock the UFC, nor am I writing this to be sensationalistic. I’m writing this so that we may temper our expectations. MMA is not mainstream, and it never will be if things continue their current course. Perhaps we should make peace with that instead of retreating into denial.

Whenever bad numbers come in, we all like to find excuses for why it did so poorly. MMA being a niche sport is never the answer. It’s the weather that’s to blame, or college football, or the economy, or anything other than the truth. When several events in a row report bad numbers, we call it a rough patch. But this is no rough patch, this is the shape of things to come. MMA needs stars to rekindle the world’s interest, but those at the top are only content to provide three letters—U, F, and C.

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