“The night is always darkest before the dawn.” — Two-Face, quoting Plato or some shit.
MMA is facing a crisis, Nation. Or so we’re being told. Not one of irrelevance, a lack of funding, or societal ignorance like it faced during the so-called “Dark Ages,” but one of complacency, of apathy. Over the past several years, we have seen the sport rise to a level of popularity we previously thought unattainable. With more major network deals, cross-promotion with major brands, and movies featuring UFC stars popping up by the day, it’s hard to argue that MMA is exactly struggling to generate interest amongst fans.
But somewhere between the death of Strikeforce and the Fight Pass subscriptions, MMA (or at least, its premiere organization) reached a tipping point. Despite an ever-burgeoning roster, the quality of the average card started to slip. Viewership began to decline. Truly “stacked” cards started to come further and further between, as did the number of marketable stars present on them.
While the UFC was busy making efforts to dominate the fucking world, its stateside presence slowly began to diminish with each lackluster “Fight Night” card, the majority of which have been spread across three channels and subscriptions-only networks. It isn’t helping that the UFC is now nickel and diming those of us hoping to watch their international events and prelims, adding to the growing “UFC is in trouble” sentiment among fans. The UFC has gotten greedy, and our view of the sport has slowly begun to shift from optimistic to apathetic as a result.
Is it simply a case of the UFC expanding too fast and oversaturating it’s niche market, as many followers of the sport will tell you? Or have fans simply lost interest in the sport now that it has become a globally recognized, increasingly expensive commodity?
Actually, the answer is a firm “no” to both of those questions. MMA is NOT rapidly descending into the watered-down, passionless, corporate-sponsored hellscape we all think it is, and everyone needs to man (or woman) the fuck up and stop acting like the sport is a lost cause.
As CP reader Mike Grant asked us in a somewhat heated email (entitled “Screw you guys”):
Is the UFC really ruining this sport so completely? I mean, I know that they seem to think they are short in the “marketable fighters” department, but I don’t think that’s true at all. Maybe if the UFC and the shills who cover it would get their heads out of Ronda Rousey’s ass for some fresh air, they would see they have an All-American champion (and a pretty fucking good guy) in Chris Weidman. What about Carlos Condit? He’s a fucking machine. I know he has lost to the top guys in his division but you cannot deny that he is the embodiment of will and toughness. Johny Hendricks is another good guy/soon-to-be-champion. He’s a family man and a great spokesperson for MMA.
Can you write something a bit more uplifting about the future of MMA?
And you know what, he’s right. True, it is becoming more and more expensive (not to mention time-consuming) to be a “diehard” fan of MMA/the UFC these days, and our recent headlines haven’t exactly been comforting to the average MMA fan. But not all is lost, Nation.
You say the UFC is failing to generate new stars? Johny Hendrick’s Reebok deal surely seems to dispute that. As does the first co-ed season of The Ultimate Fighter, TUF 20, and truly, the rise of women’s MMA in general. The UFC may not be pushing Jon Jones like they are Ronda Rousey, but he’s still a bonafide star among anyone who follows the sport. The same goes for Cain Velasquez, the face of Metro PCS, and Conor McGregor, Heineken’s latest brand rep and the star of his own upcoming feature-length RTE documentary.
And besides, major stars aren’t what drives the sport. They never have been. Great fights are what drives the sport, and thanks to the UFC’s (and Bellator’s, I guess) ever-expanding roster, the potential for witnessing amazing fights is at an all-time high. Question: What has been the most exciting card of 2014 so far? Did you say the TUF China Finale? Because the correct answer is the TUF China Finale, which featured fuck-all in terms of star power. As MMAFighting’s Dave Meltzer wrote:
The reality is before every UFC event, every consumer will decide, based on the lineup, whether the show is worth their time to either pay for, or watch for free. But a lineup that doesn’t look interesting can, and often is, a better show that a lineup that going in looks like it can’t miss.
The show was filled with unknown debuting fighters, including names only familiar to those who watched TUF China. Given that the show didn’t air anywhere in North America, and even those who were able to find it on the Internet had to watch a show mostly in Chinese, there wasn’t exactly a ground swell of interest in whether Wang Sai or Zhang Lipeng would win a UFC contract, let alone people salivating at the prospect of Kazuki Tokudome and Yui Chul Nam.
It ended up being UFC’s most entertaining show of a year that has had its share of lackluster nights. There were only eight fights, the least of any UFC show in recent memory. But there was nothing remotely close to a bad fight, and the presentation on Fight Pass, with no commercials except for UFC events and shows between fights, seemed to almost breeze by. And even the commercials were highlights on this night, in particular a lengthy preview to the upcoming TUF Brazil featuring Chael Sonnen and Wanderlei Silva. An edited version of that commercial on YouTube was at just under 1.3 million views over the next 48 hours.
While it’s undoubtedly true that MMA/the UFC will always need its Chuck Liddells and Anderson Silvas to really drive up fan interest and pay-per-view numbers, let’s not act like a few lackluster cards and minorly increased pay-per-view prices are the end of the world. The UFC has a long way to go before it reaches the level of the NBA or NFL, regardless of what Dana White tells you, and maybe I’m just being optimistic here, but I’d like to think that our hard-earned cash is helping build a brand and a sport we love until it can one day compete with those other sports through the same mediums, relatively free of charge. International TUF events and “Fight Night” cards are appetizers. They’re opening bands that get you excited for the main act. Whether you choose to indulge in them is entirely up to you, and most of the time, you can catch the highlights from said events (again, free of charge) through the all-encompassing power of the Internet within minutes of the events themselves.
Despite the sport’s immense rise over the years, there are still many kinks in need of being worked out. But if the Gilbert Melendez contract fiasco taught us anything, it’s that the UFC might not have the stronghold on the sport we once thought it did. MMA is here to stay, and where one organization drops the ball, the other will hopefully be there to pick it up. Entire divisions are being added to the UFC. Female fighters are not only headlining pay-per-views, but generating heaps of fan interest at the mere mention of a “huge announcement.” Previously unknown fighters among casual fans like Demetrious Johnson and Renan Barao are well on their way to becoming household names. It is an exciting, if transitional time to be an MMA fan to say the least.
So let’s all hold hands, take a deep breath, and repeat after me, “Everything is going to be fine. *MMA* is going to be fine.”