You’re a casual fan of MMA. Name a UFC fighter on their roster. Conor McGregor? Yeah, it’s kind of hard to miss that name right now. Ronda Rousey? Maybe, although she only fought one time in 2016 and there’s a strong possibility that she’s not returning after her December 2016 loss to Amanda Nunes was more one sided and brutal than her November 2015 loss to Holly Holm. That Diaz guy? Well, there are two of them actually. Nick has fought one time since his March 2013 loss to GSP, and that was two full years ago. Nate has only fought four times in 2014, 2015, and 2016 combined. What about that Bendo guy who was all over their free TV cards? Benson Henderson hasn’t been with the UFC since late 2015.
Now, if you’re an MMA hardcore fan you can probably reel off the top ten fighter list for every weight class as well as name the organization each fighter works for. The problem with that though is that no form of televised sporting event or entertainment can survive long on just the hardcore fanbase, and certainly few can actually thrive on just that hardcore fanbase. This might start becoming a problem for the UFC.
Ten years ago, I knew a lot of casual MMA fans. Maybe only five years before that, I was one myself. Now, I’ve always loved combat sports. I grew up watching boxing like seemingly most everyone else in the 1970s and early 1980s, but I also used to watch karate and kickboxing whenever it was carried by a channel like ESPN. I might not have been able to name the top 20 karate and kickboxing competitors in the country, but I would make a point of tuning in if I saw the competitions listed on the TV guide.
MMA, or more precisely the UFC, made a big noise in the 1990s. I liked the concept of it. It was in essence what everyone always talked about when I was growing up. Who would win the fight between the master of this discipline and the master of that completely different discipline? But their own promotional materials did them no favors by making it come across as a no rules blood sport. That changed when Zuffa came along and bought the UFC.
Getting people to see MMA as a legitimate sport rather than human dog fighting was one of Zuffa’s major early goals with the UFC. It was a smart move, and it was one of the things that allowed them to start growing the UFC into a major company. But there was something else that allowed them to enjoy their rapid popular culture rise in the early 2000s, and that was star power.
While a lot of the hardcore MMA fans may have been more into Pride than UFC, UFC started to build a strong following among both the hardcore MMA fans and, more importantly, the casual fans. A part of what helped this was the large number of fighters with dynamic personalities, larger than life personas, and strongly identifiable visual styles. To a large degree you saw the same with a number of the top fighters in Pride, and Pride promoted this kind of thing heavily with a lot of showmanship during their broadcasts. It wasn’t just the champions either.
The UFC also learned very well from the inaugural season of The Ultimate Fighter that promoting personalities makes big ratings. The how helped create more buzz around the already buzzworthy Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture rivalry, but the buzz created around Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar was massive. It took two guys that no one knew, promoted their personalities, created “sides” for fans to get behind, and resulted in a fight that was called the fight that saved the UFC and is considered one of their greatest fights by many.
Here’s the thing about that fight though; it was a sloppy brawl. Watch that fight without knowing a thing about either man and you have a fight between two guys who are still green and a little sloppy even if they’re showing a load of heart. The fight itself is not a particularly great fight as far as displaying technique and skill, but they built up both guys and built up the story of their heart and determination. The result of combining all of that created a fight that hugely eclipsed the better fights on the card. It also helped launch Griffin and Bonnar as MMA stars in a way that just walking in the door as newly signed fighters never would have.
The later influx of some of the best fighters from the defunct Pride was likewise filled with guys who had larger than life personas. There were guys that were stars because they were just good fighters, but there were a lot of guys who were stars because they knew how to be characters and knew how to project that character to the viewing audience not only in the arena but at home as well.
A lot of that seems be falling by the wayside with today’s fighters. Conor McGregor is an obvious exception, and Ronda Rousey had the raw charisma needed for the UFC promotion machine to make her one of the biggest stars in MMA, but it’s a very short list of fighters in the UFC who are legit stars right now. This is a problem.
The hardcore fans will tune in and spend money to see fights that are basically going to be technique clinics, but by and large the casual fans won’t. People tune in when fighters can talk people into the seats. I’ll put it to you with this example. Muhammad Ali as a boxer without the persona and the gimmick is one of the biggest stars in boxing history with some of the most viewed fights ever as well as being one of the greatest of all time. Muhammad Ali as just a practitioner of the sweet science is just one of the greatest champions who filled a few venues nicely and hardcore fight fans remember for his skills.
If you remove Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey from the possible list of answers, what are your two biggest buzz moments and draws of the last few years in MMA? In the UFC it was Brock Lesnar returning and CM Punk being signed. In Bellator it was basically two freakshow fights with a returning Kimbo Slice vs a seriously over the hill Ken Shamrock and then vs Dada 5000, an out of shape streetfighter who almost died because of the fight.
The single biggest buzz fights of the last few years not involving McGregor and Rousey were fights involving a pro wrestler who hadn’t been in MMA for five years, and a pro wrestler who had never had a single pro MMA fight before debuting in the UFC.
Punk’s fight against another unknown fighter with a 2-0 record was promoted more heavily than most of the other fights on the card. Punk was paid a huge amount of money for the fight, more than many established UFC fighters, and the end result was Punk losing a one-sided beating in two minutes and 14 seconds.
The other end result that made the UFC happy was that UFC 203, the card the Punk fight was on, outperformed most of that year’s cards not having McGregor, Rousey, or Brock on them. They paid CM Punk $500,000 for his UFC 2013 fight. Of the 20 fighters on the overall fight card, only two fighters were paid more than Punk, and many didn’t break $50,000.
But they paid that money gladly, because the UFC has very few true stars left. In order to try and have a name fighter as a draw on their first fight card of the year, they put BJ Penn in the main event. BJ Penn has retired multiple times over the past several years, and every time he returns to fighting he gets destroyed. They knew he wasn’t going to be worth a damn as a fighter, but they hoped the name might draw some old fans in as viewers.
The UFC like to point at Bellator and condemn them for promoting freakshow fights, but the UFC has been doing the same for a while now; they just typically run a higher quality of feakshow fight. Even the Rousey/Nunes fight was something of a freakshow fight in the way it was handled. UFC fans- and some officials -ridiculed Bellator for running fights with over the hill fighters to draw on name value, but the UFC did that in January by letting BJ Penn fight in the main event. But I’m sure they feel they don’t have a choice. The Ultimate Fighter has turned into a poor joke of a show, they’ve done a horrible job of creating new stars on the men’s roster, and the only woman’s champion they’ve made any real promotional efforts behind was Rousey.
Some of this is the fault if the UFC and some of the very vocal hardcore fans. When people would point to the showmanship of Pride and other Japanese promotions, the mantra would be repeating how UFC is a sport, not pro wrestling, and the fighting is what it’s about. Guys like Chael Sonnen proved they could talk people into wanting to see them fight, and the complaint from the very vocal minority was they were ruining the sport of MMA with their “phony, pro wrestling” antics. Of course, guys like Chael, and even guys like McGregor, have nothing on the “phony, pro wrestling” antics Muhammad Ali employed, or, for that matter, Ronda Rousey.
The UFC really has only two choices going forward. Get back into promoting characters and let the fighters play around with being larger than life if they can or keep going for short-term gain by spending huge amounts of money to bring characters like Brock and Punk in here and there while leaning on over the hill fighters for nostalgia name value on cards. The first path gives them the potential of a stronger pool of viewer drawing talent by appealing to the casual fans with the personas and the hardcore fans with the fighter talent. The second path actually turns off the diehards while potentially burning out the casual fans who will quickly tire of freakshow fights that don’t pay off with regards to entertainment value.
This shouldn’t be a hard nut to crack for them. It wasn’t that long ago that they were finding that balance between sport and entertainment, between appeasing the hardcore fans and pleasing the casual fans. They’ve got the blueprint already. They just need to dust it off and learn from it again.
Jerry Chandler follows geek stuff. When not found writing here he can be found writing for Gruesome Magazine and his own blog. He has a Twitter. He can also occasionally be heard talking pro wrestling with the amazingly talented crew at of the ESO Pro: The Pro-Wrestling Roundtable podcast.