An edited version of this piece was published by Deadspin on 2/1/2014, here. Many thanks to Deadspin and Tim Marchman for their support.
Sometime late Saturday night two UFC champions with stellar records will defend their belts against legitimate challengers with probably not all that many people watching.
José Aldo and Renan “Barão” Pegado are 23-1 and 31-1 respectively. Both are undefeated in WEC and UFC fights. They’re both preternaturally athletic Cuisinart strikers that also happen to possess black belts in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. The cherry perched atop all of this is that the two of them are entertaining as hell and prone to unleash improbable kinetic destruction that ends with some Sports Center anchor trying to hastily pronounce their names during a top ten countdown. In his previous fight, Aldo noticed Chan Sung Jung’s shoulder pop out and started kicking the bejesus out of it. Barão last landed this spinning fabulousness on Eddie Wineland and then grooved. If you needed an added bonus, one of them is even fighting Urijah Faber, a one time WEC champion, perennial contender in two divisions and a borderline star in his own right.
There’s no obvious explanation for the relative lack of excitement regarding these fights. Except that the UFC is broken. The UFC, and MMA in general, are hopelessly busted in myriad ways, but this particular flaw concerns their ability to market a sport. Specifically, they don’t (or can’t, or won’t) market athletes or a sport. They market a loud, tacky, brutal spectacle fronted by an initialism logo and shouting bald men that don’t actually participate in any of the fighting. They sell a tremendously loud brand.
The UFC’s sole focus is selling the letters “U,” “F,” “C.” Through a combination of stubborn hubris and willful ignorance they push the organization above everything else, including the sport that it in theory promotes. They struggle to build characters and stars that don’t readily present themselves. They live in a universe of logic where the NBA, without extraordinarily high quality basketball, or the rivalry of clashing personalities in Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, or the transcendent talent of Michael Jordan, is simply successful because it is the NBA and it should just scream that it is the NBA at an excessive volume to continue being successful. They don’t realize that Lebron James is special as a hero and a villain and they don’t understand that Kevin Durant is sublime and that people will pay to watch sublime. Time and time again, in an awkward uncomfortable pattern, they’re willing to publicly bury even their biggest names, sometimes over petty or seemingly insignificant slights. They are convinced that the UFC in and of itself, drenched in nü-metal and machismo and cliches about warriors and oh my god so much yelling, is the alpha and omega star.
Zuffa, the Fertitta brothers and Dana White have done an impressive job doing what many thought was impossible. They bought a floundering organization in a struggling, controversial sport and they not only nursed it back to health, but spurred an impressive boom that has brought the sport to the cusp of legitimacy and mainstream acceptance. This is commendable. However, they’ve hit a plateau, and leveled off at a point that pro wrestling fans are intimately familiar with. They’ve reached a critical mass, at least in their largest markets, of fans who wholeheartedly embrace the dude-bro culture or love the sport enough to tolerate it regardless. There are only so many people who will watch regardless of who is fighting, or how well, simply in the hopes that two people who are lacking in strategic options but possessing an abundance of fortitude stand in the center of the cage and pound each other senseless. There are only so many hardcore aficionados and gamblers who will be sure to catch two C+ fighters on the bottom of the undercard, or increasingly, climbing up the main card, engaging in M-1 grappling and local Y boxing. There are certainly people who love Dana White, just as there are people who love or love to hate Vince McMahon, but there are far more people who would be more interested in the athletes; take note of how often the NFL unleashes Roger Goodell on us, howling and sweating and carny shilling.
If the UFC wants surpass that barrier and inundate the public at large, they need sports fans. They need casual people who aren’t even sports fans who won’t actively turn them off. They need to intrigue people who enjoy seeing the highest levels of physical competition executed by peak athletes. They need not only fans who turn in for the brutality, but in spite of it. They need stars that audiences will back like their local team sports. They need to highlight talent, and competition, and stories.
They need honesty. If every undercard journeyman is a stone cold, force of nature, killer assassin how do casual fans differentiate between several hundred ever rotating faces. If every shoddy fight between gassed-out gatekeepers is a clash of the titans, people are desensitized by the time you try to sell them a actual superfight. They need to show people doing shit they normally only see from Tony Jaa and Jason Statham, but in real time and to other resisting professional athletes, and convince them that this is the glory that you could potentially catch anytime you watch a card, but particularly when you watch a card filled with glorious sportsmen and women.
They need non-MMA sports media to take them seriously and in order to do that they need to stop acting like assholes to sports media. They need MMA media to be better and in order to do that they need to stop actively attracting assholes.
Nurturing or building or finding stars isn’t remotely an exact science. And you can’t create talent on demand. An environment where talent can thrive certainly helps. The more athletes that can train full time, with a top tier camp, the higher the overall level of execution and the more phenomenal athletes will rise to the top. This takes money, which is currently something the UFC is not interested in giving to its athletes in any considerable amount. It takes money that might entice more world class athletes to partake in a sport that involves having your brain rattle around the inside of your skull while someone tries to turn your elbow inside-out. An environment where (not technically) employees aren’t bullied and demeaned every time your president throws a tantrum and where fighters that have served you well, even if they didn’t wing bombs or hoist championship belts, are treated with loyalty and respect, might help too.
You can’t force fans to be interested in Aldo or Barão. What you can do is publicize them. Give them visibility. Elevate them like the champions that they are. Convince people that what you do is, in fact, a sport, and explain to people that Aldo and Barão are better at that sport than all but a tiny fraction of all the other human beings on the planet. Show fans clips of them kneeing other fighters in the face with impeccable timing and rhythm. There are so many of these clips. Publicize current opponents and other future opponents, so that when Ricardo Lamas wins four fights in a row against quality competition and shows up in a title fight, people don’t ask “Who?”
José Aldo and Renan Pegado are exceptional fighters with exceptional records who also happen to be consistently exciting. If you can’t sell athletes like this, who most certainly will not drop out of the sky into your lap every day, how can you sell the average MMA fighter? What can you sell besides a brand name?
Contacts welcome at HugeMantis on Twitter and Gmail.