Special MMA Mixology Edition: The State of the UFC
It seems the landscape of just about everything in this world has changed. With that said, I am going to keep this in the arena of MMA and how it has changed for the better and for the worse. Before we jump ahead of ourselves, I would like to take a journey back into time where it all began…
November 12, 1993, at McNichols Sports Arena in Denver Colorado, 7,800 people present and 84,000 viewers from home had no clue what they were about to experience. This was basically landscaped as a night which would be a genius marketing tool to bring all disciplines of Martial Arts together to showcase what form truly reigns supreme. The Gracie Family was well aware their form of Grappling was extremely uncharted waters for most and the traditional forms would most likely have no answers for it. In turn, they would be able to display their art form by reaching the eyes of the unreachable at that point. Men from all forms of Martial Arts were now on blast to prove the effectiveness of their chosen craft, at a high level, in a real situation, and not just in tailored Tournament Play.
It would be a one-night Elimination Tournament consisting of one Alternative Bout, Quarter-Finals, Semi-Finals and finally the Finals. This was an eight-man tournament with no Weight Limit, no time limit, no timeouts and no judges. The format was erected with only three ways to win, which was Knockout, Submission, or if a corner decided their fighter has had enough. The only two rules were no eye gouging and no biting, which would leave you with a $1,500 fine for any of those two fouls. The Winner would receive $50,000 when all was said and done.
Rorion Gracie’s amazing plan would prove to be the initial springboard of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu as it is today. With Royce Gracie winning UFC 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5, all other forms of Martial Arts were now put on blast and MMA began to start taking on a head of its own. The word was now out and companies like Pride would come into the mix, bringing in men that were becoming much more prepared and well rounded, taking elements of every art form, trying to formulate the perfect and most unstoppable fighting style. Athletes from all over the world would start to engage in battles that looked much less like a street fight and much more like a science in the art of war. Combining traditional martial arts with Boxing, Wrestling and BJJ would soon become a common theme in these larger than life athletes.
There were no options to pick opponents; you took the prize money that was offered to you, and although these men did fight for money, there wasn’t enough money in the pool to make this a liveable means of life. The competition was fierce and the men fought for pride, respect and the honor of their craft. If you notice back in the day, many of the legends have balanced records of wins and loses. There were very few fighters with undefeated records. This was due to the fact of matchmaking not being optional. You fought the best of the best, and there was no ifs, ands or buts about it. It was pure, it was organic, and it was still extremely raw in its approach.
Times have changed. The business has become mainstream, and with money comes greed and entitlement. I do understand, without the fighters, there would be no company. The fighters now are the company and they deserve every dollar they receive, but it does seem the MMA model has lost its way a bit. It seems they let go of the reigns slightly to appease one or two fighters, and now they are all trying to call their shots. Once you open that window slightly and stray from the model, then it is very hard to close the floodgates when another model begins to take shape. I feel as if some of these fighters have a stranglehold on the sport, which is crippling down the organic process of matchmaking. The chips are no longer falling into place organically, nor are they making much sense these days.
How many times have we seen fights that just make no sense? How many times have we known what the obvious matchup should be, but yet, it either never happens or ends up stalling out for another fight or two? This is not a finger pointing contest and the blame is on both sides.
On the UFC’s end, they are walking a fine line with star power, and the only way any sport can survive is with athletes who can make people magnetize to them. Marketing is one of the most important tools in today’s society, and a fighter’s marketability is everything in this era. In a sport that really doesn’t have the longest career shelf life, it is important to continuously bring up talent at a rapid pace. The problem is the majority of the fighters are not marketable enough to be a cash cow, and the UFC knows this. So what are they doing? They have an assembly line of fighters waiting in the wings for their chance to prove their worth, and at the rate things are going with the number of events they throw, they will surely get their chance.
So what do they do if they find a fighter that has something to market?
Well, with the few fighters they feel are possible to get behind, they are grooming them and padding their records the best way they can. Don’t get it twisted here, they still have to win, but there is a clear pattern of spoon feeding for certain fighters. They are giving certain fighters every opportunity to shine, and if they do, then great! And if they don’t, then on to the next they go.
On the fighters’ end, they see now that the superstar platform is small and history has shown how few make it to a superstar level. This, in turn, will make them try way too hard to be something they are truly not, coming across scripted and even corny. Marketing is truly a blessing or a curse today. It is all about if the fighter is relatable to the target audience; if they have the look, personality and timing are the most important things in marketing today. The quintessential example of perfectly timed marketing is Ronda Rousey. As overrated as she was as a fighter in my eyes, she was marketed properly at the ideal time.
At one time, Dana White is quoted by saying, “he would never allow women in the UFC.” He did not think there was a place for it and blindly chopped out a completely new and large revenue stream by doing so. Then comes Ronda Rousey and the money rolled in quicker than White can count.
The floodgates of Women’s MMA were now wide open and the talent flowed in thirsty for their shot. Ronda played a big roll in this, but it was more of the timing being perfect. The UFC was starving for something; starving for a star and starving to have a person who people will latch onto and follow. Other companies like StrikeForce had women like Gina Carano and Cyborg, who without a doubt had some traction, but Dana White and the UFC would be the recipient of the golden child and a very big reason for that was the power of Marketing they possessed.
The sport has officially changed, and keeping track of the talent pool coming in and out is almost impossible. Fighters turning down fights, calling their own shots, and belts don’t have the same prestige as they once did. Today, you have champions, interim champions, and everything in between. It has become a crowded playground where everyone wants to bat cleanup and no one truly knows their role anymore. Although the fighters are far more superior athletically and well rounded, like every other situation, when money is presented into the equation, everything comes with a sprinkle of problems. In the midst of all of it, there is really just one man trying to play cop throughout the free for all. That is Dana White...
Now I don’t agree with all of his decisions, but in the grand scheme of it all, the UFC would be lost without him. By no point in time would I believe someone could just step in and do a better job then he has done. People fail to remember that he really shaped things the way they are in the UFC. People seem to have a love or hate relationship with him for a multitude of reasons, but he is a genius at what he does and it works. His outspoken, brash, and nonfiltered persona is everything we should want in MMA. This is not chess, curling, golf or any of those gentlemen sports. This is fighting and having a guy as the face of the company that talks like he talks around his friends, shooting from the hip, serves well.
I don’t want some suit in there, being politically correct, with a degree from some Ivy League school, talking in terms we can really give two shits about. Love him or Hate him, Dana White is a clear-cut shoot from the hip type of a guy, and from his public persona, he has a Man’s Man type of swag to him. Someone you can see yourself sitting in a lounge with, huffing on a Gurkha Majesty Reserve cigar, sipping on some fine, unwatered down private sock, and talking fights for hours on end. As far as behind the scenes and business end of it that we don’t see, I can’t deny nor can I confirm what side is right or wrong, but what can not be ignored is his ability to take this company and be one of the most intricate parts of its success.
With the reigns becoming looser and looser, Dana White still has a firm grasp of what flies and what doesn’t. He understands that under no circumstance is anyone bigger than the UFC name, and if you have star power, then yes, you will get a lot more rope then most fighters. But if push came to shove, then he will always make sure he has the final slam of the gavel. Now, I am not sitting here praising all of his decisions and actions, but to think for one second the UFC would be anywhere close to the heights it is without his thumb on it would be a completely uneducated statement and thought.
So, should we be worried when and if Dana White decides to leave and ride off into the sunset? The answer is ABSOLUTELY. If the WME had full control of the reigns and how things go down, then you can see a very different scene. This can very well turn out to be a WWE production, taking away from the organic nature of fighting. Not all change is bad, but not all change is good either.
The landscape of the UFC would be hard to gauge on which way it goes without Dana at the helm, but you can bet the landscape will surely change. As far as being ready for it? I come from the old school where guys made the walk, stood cage side to make sure they were within the guidelines of the rules (equipment wise), get into that cage, take a lap, and start throwing leather. I am not sure what WME has in mind for the future, but as long as it doesn’t take away from the fighters’ prestige, the magnitude of the actual fight, and the true meaning of The Art of War, then I am open for it to see what is presented upon me.
Time will only tell, as we all sit back and wait patiently, to see just how big this already huge sport can go. I, for one, hope Dana White stays around to guide them until the blueprint is locked and loaded. Love him or Hate him, you have to respect him, his vision, and what he has done for this great sport.