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Is MMA About to Enter a New Golden Age?

(Photo via Getty)

By Matt Saccaro

“It’s always darkest before it’s totally black.”-Mao Zedong (supposedly).

This quote aptly described MMA’s immediate future, or at least it seemed to until very recently. Card quality, fan interest, and–most importantly–numbers were all declining; 2014′s PPV buy ceiling of 350,000 was 2009′s floor. MMA was headed for a perplexing time when it was simultaneously bigger than ever but smaller than ever, when the fighters were more talented than ever but less popular than ever.

A series of fortunate events and new found circumstances can change all that. To make a Back to the Future reference, the horrific, Biff Tannen-owned Hill Valley that represented MMA’s future may well become the nice, stable Hill Valley in which George McFly is a successful fiction author and Marty McFly bangs his girlfriend in the back of a pickup truck. That is to say, MMA might be approaching a level of popularity, constancy and quality that many (including myself) didn’t think it was capable of reaching in the current climate.

What’s the reason for this cautious optimism?

The initial catalyst, for me at least, is MMA’s reaction to Conor McGregor. Interest for UFC Fight Night 46 was so high you’d have thought it was headlined by Jon Jones vs. Alexander Gustafsson II rather than Conor McGregor vs. Diego Brandao. And this was on a Fight Pass card, mind you. That level of excitement for a Fight Pass card is extremely rare–as was the web traffic he brought in for a Fight Pass card. Fight Pass cards are so lackluster we refused to cover one. UFC Fight Night 46, however, garnered more traffic than even some Fox Sports 1 cards.

Conor McGregor stepping into the Octagon is an event. People need to see it. It’s no wonder then UFC Fight Night 46 was reportedly the most-watched Fight Pass event of all time. Conor McGregor has the makings of a superstar. He’s charismatic, a magnet for attention, he’s talented, and has a fan-friendly fighting style. Though McGregor is further proof stars have to be found and built up rather than manufactured by stamping “UFC” on them, McGregor is a light in the dark.

On Twitter, CagePotato joked that McGregor was “the new Ronda Rousey, and Dana White agreed.

Rousey, too, is another reason the future seems bright. As I’ve noted in the past, the UFC women’s bantamweight division is little more than a promotional vehicle for Ronda Rousey. If you doubt this, look at Ronda Rousey’s fights in the UFC. Was the UFC sponsoring her or her opponent? The UFC does not dissemble its abject love of Rousey; Dana White admitted Rousey is the only reason the division exists.

As inflammatory and ridiculous as it sounded when White said it, Rousey might actually be the UFC’s biggest star. This (somewhat) justifies the UFC’s treatment of her. But watching even the greatest of fighters crush glorified jobbers in under a minute can get boring–boring enough that people won’t pay $60 to see it. Currently, the UFC women’s bantamweight division is such that Floyd Mayweather Jr. is the only person getting as much attention as Rousey. That’s changing now.

The UFC has Holly Holm. It might have Gina Carano this week, too. Hell, it could have Cristiane Justino in the future if she can consistently make the 135-lbs weight limit in Invicta. Dana White is already starting to backtrack on his “NO CYBORG EVER LOL” stance.

Rousey-Holm, Rousey-Carano, and Rousey-Justino are far more sell-able and will garner more interest than Rousey vs. any of the other overmatched contenders in the division.

The women’s MMA landscape as a whole is changing thanks to the UFC’s inclusion of the strawweight division via TUF 20. The UFC’s current strawweight roster possesses enough personalities (Rose Namajunas, Felice Herrig, etc.) to make the weight class interesting.

Then we come to UFC Fight Pass. We’ve panned the network on CagePotato multiple times, but Zuffa is finally starting to listen to our suggestions. To that end, they will now start showing Invicta fight cards. Deals with other MMA promotions might also be in the works. They also plan to to air events in judo, wrestling, and other martial arts. Fight Pass is changing for the better. What was once a cheap cash-grab is turning into a legitimate window into the mixed martial arts ecosystem.

And finally, Bellator. Bjorn Rebney is out. Scott Coker, a man with the proven capability to put on cards fans care about (and who’s not scummy and horrible), is in. With Scott Coker’s vision and Viacom’s financial backing, Bellator 2.0 (or Spikeforce, as we like to call it) can become serious competition to the UFC, which’ll force the UFC to step up its game and offer a better product. Look at UFC Fight Night 50. Is it a coincidence that it’s one of the more loaded Fight Night cards in recent memory? Did Zuffa just feel like throwing us a bone? Of course not. UFC Fight Night 50 is going head to head with Bellator 123 that night.

There are reasons for MMA fans to be hopeful. There is an emerging star on the horizon, the UFC’s biggest existing star has more credible, higher profile foes to dispatch, a new crop of feisty and fearsome women are entering the fold, Fight Pass is becoming something you wouldn’t be ashamed of subscribing to, and we’re fast approaching the spiritual resurrection of Strikeforce and the competitive nature in MMA it entails.

Are we approaching a Golden Age? Maybe not because the sport still has a few unsolved problems. But we’re certainly approaching an age in which things get better before they get worse. Be cautiously optimistic, MMA fans.

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