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On Royston Wee’s Signing and the Death of “UFC-Caliber” Fighters

(This is one of approximately 4 photos that exist of the most talented fighter in all of Singapore. According to the UFC, at least. Via Yahoo.)

Who is Royston Wee, you ask? Oh, he’s just the first Singaporean fighter to ever sign a deal with the UFC is all. No big whoop. He’s also undefeated, and has picked up every single one of his victories by way of first round submission.

The problem is, Royston holds just two professional fights to his credit, and they both took place back in 2011. Yet somehow, he, along with the slightly more experienced Filipino Dave Galera (5-0) and One FC veteran (and therefore, most experienced) Leandro Issa (11-3)*, recently secured a multi-fight deal with the UFC. In fact, Royston already has his first fight lined up — against Galera at Fight Night 34:Ellenberger vs. Saffiedine, which goes down in, you guessed it, Singapore, on January 4th.

Is Royston some Brock Lesnar-level star over in “The Lion City,” you ask? Not exactly. He’s just a 27 year-old bantamweight who was competing for a spot on TUF China last July like everyone else. The difference between Royston and his fellow potential castmates, however, is that Royston was able to convince whomever he was auditioning for — in a few short hours, no less — that he was not only TUF-caliber, but that he was UFC-caliber.

Is Royston simply that good? Here’s the only video of him in action that we could find. We think it’s from his last fight against Syed Shahir, who was making his pro debut at the time and has not fought since. Royston seems like a competent enough grappler, sure, but the caliber of his opponent speaks volumes more than that of his performance.

I keep using that word: caliber. It might be because that, for a time, there was a dubious distinction that came with having the letters “UFC” placed before it. It meant that you were proven. It meant that you were exceptional. It meant that you were one of the best in the world at what you did. But lo, it appears that the age when “UFC-caliber” actually meant something has passed us by.

It’s rather transparent why the UFC chose to sign Royston, I guess. He’s got that local pull, and placing him on the card will (hopefully) ensure that a few more fans purchase tickets to the Singapore event. Strikeforce adopted this business strategy in the past — often to their own detriment – and Bellator continues to fill in their preliminary slots with regional fighters. But his local pull aside, Royston Wee is the last kind of person you’d ever expect the UFC to sign. He’s fought twice. Against guys with a combined record of 0-3. He’s never been tested. Hell, he’s never even been remotely tested, but because he happens to hail from the next stop on the UFC’s “World Fucking Domination” (subtle) tour, he’s suddenly been deemed UFC-caliber. This is the standard to which the highest promotion in the sport is now operating.

Ask yourself this: Is the twenty or so extra tickets a guy like Wee will pull in worth the risk of throwing him to the wolves so early in his career? The man himself stated prior to his signing that he wanted to compete in TUF and *eventually* the UFC, so why not at least run him through the minors before baptizing him in fire? Imagine if Amir Sadollah was given a shot in the UFC before TUF for a moment. You’d think it was presumptuous, dangerous, and borderline insane, would you not?

Of course, the important thing here is that Wee’s signing represents a tremendous step forward for the Singaporean MMA scene, right? That surely what Evolve MMA fighter, Benedict Ang, will tell you:

Singapore having its very own first UFC fighter is a huge accomplishment for the nation, as well as the MMA scene in Singapore. It proves we have the capability to compete at the highest level in the world.

As I much as I want that to be true, Ang (and I really, truly do), it simply isn’t. Wee’s signing was based on geography, not talent, and is unfortunately yet another sign that the UFC might be expanding at a rate that is consistently undermining the quality of its overall product. The UFC has, somewhat ironically, begun taking pages out of Bellator’s book (flooding undercards with local fighters) in the hope of packing as many international stadiums as possible — we’ve seen this theory put into practice over the past several Brazil-based “Fight Night” cards. Unfortunately, the stadiums aren’t being filled. And the ratings these events are pulling in are even worse. It’s what you’d call penny smart, dollar stupid.

Depending who you ask, the UFC is planning on holding between 40 and 54 events in 2014, marking a significant increase from this year’s already flooded 35 event schedule. “We are looking at expanding our Fight Night product,” said Lorenzo Fertitta when discussing the increase:

We have the bottom tier, we have the Ultimate Fighter which we’re taking around the world now. We have obviously the series on FOX Sports 1. We just got done filming The Ultimate Fighter: China which will air in January in China. We’ve got The Ultimate Fighter: Canada and Australia in production right now. We’re in pre-production for series in other various countries around the world. That’s our base. 

In the middle of the pyramid we have our UFC Fight Night brand. We’re gonna take that Fight Night product and expand it into Europe and into Asia next year…

While the UFC is certainly expanding its product, it is becoming increasingly harder to sell the idea that it is improving its product. Sure, the promotion has secured broadcasting deals in over 140 countries and in 28 languages, and sure, The Ultimate Fighter is seemingly being filmed in more countries than Survivor nowadays, but has any of this expansion led to better numbers amongst casual fans, the people the UFC are trying to draw in? I’ll allow the latest TUF ratings report to answer that question for me.

It’s not just that Fox Sports 1 is available in fewer homes than Spike. It’s not. It’s that the UFC is watering down its product in an attempt to gain more fans. It’s that hardcore followers of the sport, let alone casual fans, are struggling to keep up with the number of unrecognizable names and regional-level cards being thrown at us, and both the UFC’s and FS1?s ratings are suffering as a result. When even big-name, American draws like Jon Jones are seeing their PPV numbers slip lower than ever before, it’s safe to assume that oversaturation is at least partially to blame. Surely UFC 166 and Fight Night 31 would have seen better numbers had they not transpired a week apart from one another, would they not? The average UFC card is being given no breathing room, no time to be promoted or individualized from the cards before or after it, and it seems that this issue will only become more apparent in the coming years.

Look, I’m not trying to be Mr. Doom and Gloom here, and I’m certainly not saying that the signing of one potentially subpar fighter is some irreversible travesty. But I am saying that adopting the Philadelphia Eagles circa 1976 strategy of acquiring new talent is a dangerous move for the UFC, and one that will surely result in more substandard and ignored fight cards moving forward. Despite the tremendous amount of talent in the UFC’s roster, truly “stacked” cards — you know, the ones actually worth paying $50 for — are getting harder and harder to come by these days, and despite DW’s complaints that said roster is “too full,” the UFC seems to be taking a quantity-over-quality approach in regards to their fighters with acquisitions like Wee.

But who knows? Maybe Wee is a God damned killer. Maybe Dana White & Co. are thinking 40, 50 years down the road and I am the short-sighted one. Maybe they think that by establishing their brand in countries where the sport is severely underdeveloped in terms of talent, they can in turn monopolize said talent once (if) the sport catches on. But then why the emphasis on securing local, almost completely untested fighters already? Has Super Fight League not shown us that this might be a bad business strategy?

At the end of the day, we wish Royston all the best in his UFC debut. Hopefully, he can invalidate these 1,600+ words I have spent on him come January 4th. But at the same time, we can’t help but think that maybe the pride of the Singaporean nation would be better placed on the shoulders of a guy who has truly proven himself to be an *elite* member of his division. Because after twenty years spent dragging MMA out of the dark ages, that’s what the UFC is supposed to be about: Showcasing the *elite* members of the sport in action. We have Bellator and RFA and countless other lower-level promotions to watch raw talent be molded into something more. What is supposed to separate the UFC from those promotions, especially among casual fans, is the *quality* of fights on the average card. By signing guys who have yet to pick up a credible victory (and based seemingly on their countries of origin), the UFC is failing to achieve this distinction.

*Oh yeah, the UFC also made offers to Shinya Aoki and Eddie Ng, but both turned them down for One FC’s “more favorable economics.” Just allow that to sink in for a moment. 

-J. Jones

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