This past month rounding out the 2010 MMA calendar and transitioning into the New Year has been thrilling. UFC 124: St. Pierre vs. Koscheck II was for all intents and purposes an exciting affair. “Rush” Georges St. Pierre (21-2) put on another picture perfect fight against perennial contender “Kos” Josh Koscheck (15-5) and “Pitbull” Thiago Alves (18-7) showed he could stay relevant at welterweight by testing the iron chin of “Doomsday” John Howard (14-6), Strikeforce: Henderson vs. Babalu 2 was quite literally a knockout, WEC 53: Henderson vs. Pettis was an explosive send-off for the exciting organization, and the main event at UFC 125: Resolution featured lightweight champ “The Answer” Frankie Edgar (13-1-1) and his challenger, NCAA Div. I wrestler “The Bully” Gray Maynard (10-0-1), partaking in a five round war dominated by stand-up that rather surprisingly resulted in a Draw. However a disturbing realization has come to light. It is likely that given the growth of MMA, especially the UFC, this beloved sport one day will begin to emulate the stale monotony of professional boxing. As the UFC and MMA continue to grow into the meganaut of combat sports, mainstream growth’s effect on the sport, its entertainment value, and its fighters will only become progressively more apparent.
The sheer size of the UFC roster is starting to wreak havoc on fight cards in the form over-saturation. Recently, UFC President Dana White said that his organization plans on hosting over 30 live events in 2011. That is at least a pair of events in any given month. This is not only an aspiration for the UFC, but a necessity to keep the promotion’s fighters working. The UFC is, at times, home to as many as 200 fighters, an impressive but demanding list of employees. More fights is not a bad thing, but the constant feed of shows throughout the month – coupled with TUF shows and other organizations like Bellator Fighting Championship (BFC, better known as Bellator), Strikeforce, and DREAM can eventually lead to waning interest. So how can the UFC combat its audience becoming jaded? More title fights.
Enter the WEC/UFC merger that recently took place. In November, “Junior” Jose Aldo (17-1) was awarded the first ever UFC Featherweight Championship belt and at WEC 53, “The Dominator” Dominick Cruz (17-1) was crowned the first UFC Bantamweight Champion. A third belt will likely be established late next year in the flyweight division and there has even been talk of a 195lbs. division in the UFC. So with three new titles soon to grace the UFC emblem, the problem should be fixed, right? Perhaps not. The issue with more titles is that it obviously involves additional weight divisions; having so many begins to emulate the ugly pattern of boxing’s current state of stagnation. In other words, more fighters bring pressure to add more weight classes so that more titles will be on the line. This leads to confusion among the fan base and a devaluing of the titles themselves. After all, when was the last time fans cared what title was being defended in boxing? In the same 15lb. grouping, an elite boxer may hold six belts over two or three weight divisions fans have to keep up with. Worse yet, there may be two or three “unified world champions” in one weight division! The 205lbs. title is a prime example. This was something that set MMA apart from boxing. Be it the UFC’s now retired legend “The Iceman” Chuck Liddell (21-8) or PRIDE’s “The Axe Murderer” Wanderlei Silva (33-10-1), when those belts were on the line people sat up and took notice. These men dominated the competition from 185-205lbs. The established divisions in MMA have allowed fans to really connect with fighters and follow the road to the belt much more easily over the years. With more weight classes, that same dominant champion can hold belts in three divisions over the same 15lbs. spread. Sounds interesting, but again, which belt are fans most excited to see “Pacman” Manny Pacquiao defend? The answer is none of them. They tune in to see “Pacman” – the titles mean absolutely nothing. The number of divisions and titles in boxing has diminished the lure of the belt. Losing that distinction in MMA would be a shame. Luckily enough, MMA fighters more often than not put on a great showing and that should counter-act the lost interest in title fights.
But wait, there is another problem. As the UFC swells to massive proportions keeping a job in the organization becomes a very difficult task. Recent cuts of The Ultimate Fighter Season 8 winner Efrain Escudero (9-2), “Hurricane” Gerald Harris (17-3), and TUF Season 6 and American Top Team stand-out “Killa B” Ben Saunders (9-3-2) have left some scratching their heads. There is little room for error now in the UFC. If a fighter loses his bout or even wins but puts on a lackluster performance, he is at a higher risk than ever before of being cut from the promotion. This is a disservice to fans and fighters as the process of becoming an established fighter becomes more difficult. The UFC’s exceptionally high (in most cases) performance standards prompts fighters to be nervous of their neck being the next on the chopping block, and often leads them to fight safe so as not to lose as opposed to fighting to win. This in itself changes the dynamics of mixed martial arts and serves as a cardinal sin to the hardcore fans as well as grievance for even casual fans. Those who carry the flag for MMA in the battle for supremacy over boxing have often pointed to the frequency of finished fights as a reason that MMA is the superior form of combat sports entertainment. This issue is functionally killing that argument. In the young sport’s more recent history, statistics show that MMA fights are not only going to decision more often overall, but that decisions are more common among the mid- to upper echelon fighters in each respective weight class. Once a mixed martial artist earns his place in a promotion, he does what he can to maintain or advance, and that often results in fighting “safe”. Boxing became stale when the point fighters replaced the sluggers and knockout artists. It can happen here too, and it looks as though the process is already underway.
So what to do then? How does a promoter sell fighters who now fight methodically rather than viscerally? They hire master smack talkers like Josh Koscheck, Chael Sonnen (24-11-1), or “Big Sexy” Sean McCorkle (10-1). They bring in “The Huntington Beach Bad Boy” Tito Ortiz (15-8-1) and “The World’s Most Dangerous Man” Ken Shamrock (28-14-2) or Brock Lesnar (5-2) or resurrect any number of grudge matches. Let’s face it – the fans all buy into that, and numbers show that trash talk, grudge matches, and hype sell fights. They always will. But again this feels familiar. Boxing promoter Don King could sell any fight – he just needed a heaping portion of smack talk, a dash of rivalry, and enough spin to get the fans to believe the fight they were going to watch was going to be the most explosive battle anyone had ever witnessed.
Hype has since become almost equally important as a solid fight card in promoting a particular event. It is a sign of the times that fights alone can’t sell MMA cards anymore and while Chael, “Kos” and Tito do their jobs well, it might not always pay off for them or the fans in the end. Then there are the “The Lunatik” Junie Brownings (3-3) and the “Kimbo Slice” Kevin Fergusons (4-2), whose sole purpose is to reel in casual fans if only for that brief moment they are in the spotlight. It always seemed MMA didn’t need those impulse buys; that fans were in it for the long haul to watch fighters progress and become great. Even Sean McCorkle managed to trash talk his way from undercard fighter to co-headliner with his UFC 124 bout against “Skyscraper” Stefan Struve (18-4). Boxing managed to sell that kind of hype only for a very short period of time. How long will MMA be able to rely on that? Did Koscheck or McCorkle’s trash talk leading up to UFC 124 make their fights themselves more exciting? The answer to such a question usually is dependent on an individual’s perception of the loose-lipped fighter, but that is beside the point. The point is hype is just that: hype. It sells tickets and Pay-Per-Views. Rarely – especially at the highest levels of the sport – does hype do anything but garner media interest and viewership for that brief time before it all begins to sound like the same story as the last fight.
So the smack talker brings fans in and likely pays for his or her disrespect when the heroes serve their own brand of justice. But now, the heroes once again stand atop their divisions, waiting for that true threat to their title. Fans and pundits alike do crave this type of champion, be it MMA or boxing. But while MMA is in its respective infancy, boxing is showing the ill effects of the unbeatable champ. One would be hard-pressed to find a front-page article on boxing’s last big heavyweight title fight in the sports section. It was once the marquee division of the sport, the only way to make fans buy Pay-Per-Views. What happened? Wladimir Klitschko happened. His dominance became, quite frankly, boring. The lack of real threats to Klitschko caused fans to simply turn to something else. One of the currently most well-known boxers in the world is Manny Pacquiao, who, much like the UFC Welterweight Champion Georges St. Pierre or UFC Middleweight Champion “The Spider” Anderson Silva (27-4), tears through one opponent after another. But Manny only has so many fights left. Then what? Boxing has made the hype about Manny’s name, not his titles. Where do they turn to rebuild the fans’ interest when he retires or worse, loses? St. Pierre is at his peak now, but if he plans on moving up in weight, the fights will be much more difficult and his air of invincibility could be lost. And once a fighter of that caliber loses that can lead to loss in revenue, viewership, and media interest and potentially plunges MMA back into the dark ages. Just ask “The Last Emperor” Fedor Emelianenko (31-2) what a loss can do to a “brand”. Ultimately, MMA’s over-saturation is breeding this environment, because it is becoming less conducive to building up rosters of top fighters. MMA now relies only on a few marquee fighters, the crutch that has plagued boxing.
The UFC will continue to grow. There is already talk of expansion of The Ultimate Fighter into other countries as well a UFC network. Such avenues will provide unprecedented access to MMA worldwide, an exciting prospect for hardcore, casual, and new fans alike. The flip side to this growth, however, will be stagnation. There are great boxing events taking place every month but outside of the hardcore viewership, which is a deteriorating demographic, those fights are rarely seen or talked about by the masses. But when “Pacman” books a fight or Floyd Mayweather Jr. comes out of hiding, the public converges on them for that one big night. MMA will become that once again. Yes, again. Moguls like Dana White and Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker have tried very hard for years to make MMA a relevant sport year-round and have succeeded for now. Eventually, when MMA stars’ wages balloon up and over-saturation leads to drop in demand for the sport things will start to look a lot like boxing. A dwindling hardcore fan base will watch religiously and the public will take notice only once or twice a year. Maybe “The Spider” Anderson Silva will come out of retirement to fight a young stud. Perhaps an aging Chuck Liddell will win a title in some flash KO, much like famous-boxer-turned-grill-master George Foreman did. And there will be phenoms of the sport, young blood like “Junior” Jose Aldo (17-1) or “Bones” Jon Jones (11-1) who will fight once or twice a year. They will be shining beacons of a sport once so dizzyingly full of talent it was sometimes hard to choose which fight to watch that weekend. Dana White has been quoted as saying that if and when MMA becomes like boxing, he will bow out of combat sports. Quite frankly, he is a guy the sport can’t afford to lose. And while this bleak future is perhaps still far off in the distant future, its low, foreboding thunder can be heard rolling through the present.