As the UFC settles into an era of new ownership, retired UFC and WEC fighter Danny Downes joins MMAjunkie columnist Ben Fowlkes to look at what’s changed, what hasn’t, and what it means for MMA’s future in this week’s Trading Shots.
Downes: Ben, when WME-IMG bought the UFC this past July, there was a lot of uncertainty. Everyone had a lot of theories about how things might change, but nobody had any real evidence.
Now that we’ve had some time to see how the new ownership group operates, has anything really changed? They’ve trimmed the fight roster and cut a lot of staff, but is the core product any different? MMA fans and your buddies in the so-called media have never been known for their optimism, but the levels of anxiety and skepticism seem to be at all-time highs. Are the skies above Mt. Xyience really falling, or have people overreacted?
Fowlkes: A little overreaction is to be expected, especially when people have braced themselves for major changes and are watching so closely for any sign that they may have arrived. But are people really as anxious as you make them out to be?
Seems to me that everything we’ve seen so far in the WME-IMG era could be described as a continuation of the philosophy from the late-Zuffa ownership era. The last few years of the Fertitta reign saw a shift away from the old goals of trying to establish MMA as a serious sport in the heart of the mainstream and more toward maximizing profits in the short-term by chasing the trends of the moment.
Ronda Rousey started to blow up in Strikeforce, so the UFC went all-in with her. Conor McGregor brought the force of an entire nation with him, and the UFC hitched itself to that wagon. It signed an apparel deal with Reebok that was deeply unpopular with fighters, but probably looked good on paper for potential investors. It went after a guy like CM Punk, who had no business fighting at that level but at least brought some fresh eyeballs.
These were all Zuffa moves, but the thinking behind them isn’t so different from what we see in the UFC now. The “money fights,” the reliance on famous names even when their skills start to fade, the focus on the next pay-per-view at the possible expense of next year, even the roster purges that end up dumping talented though maybe not highly marketable fighters, these wheels were all in motion before the sale. So what can we say has really changed?
Downes: Perhaps nothing has overtly changed since the takeover, but even you have to admit that there are long-term consequences for the early moves. The roster changes will reverberate for years and there’s no telling what the staff cuts might mean for the future of the organization.
The optimistic point of view at the time of the sale was that WME-IMG was a global juggernaut. With its power, money, and connections, it would propel the UFC and its athletes into an entire new level. Where do we see any evidence of that in the short term?
Even if the moves of the current ownership are simply a “continuation of the philosophy of the late-Zuffa era,” it doesn’t change the core question. Is the UFC becoming a totally different type of organization? And if so, is it a drastic change (i.e. pre-Zuffa compared to current iteration) or simply the slow evolution that every sport undergoes? NBA games from the ‘80s have a different style of play from today, but it’s essentially the same game. Will we be saying the same about the UFC?
I think that part of the problem with the transition comes from the fact that there was always this cult of personality around the Fertittas (and Dana White). Some people feel that the Fertittas get too much credit for the rise of MMA, ignoring the work of the pre-Zuffa era and MMA in other countries, but their ownership was important for one major reason: It was a vanity project.
Sure, they made a ton of money by selling the UFC, but their major business focus was the Station Casinos group. They gave former fighters like Chuck Liddell and Matt Hughes cushy jobs at the UFC and put them on the payroll. They were playing with house money.
Now with WME-IMG, the family business becomes a corporation. Many of the recent moves appear to be short-term cash grabs. That’s one of the reasons this Mayweather vs. McGregor nonsense won’t die out.
You decided to become a writer, so you clearly have little understanding of business and making money, but even you can realize that the economics of the deal and a focus on short cash infusions creates an entirely different modus operandi. You’re normally so cynical, I guess it’s refreshing to see you be naive.
Fowlkes: One of the things that gets to me about that old tale wherein the Fertitta brothers join with Dana White to save the fledgling sport of MMA is not just that it’s oversimplified to the point of being inaccurate, but that it ignores why they worked so hard (and they did) to keep this going and make the UFC into the behemoth it is today. It wasn’t out of pure, unselfish love of the sport, though, sure, that might have been a factor. But mostly it was for money. It was because they saw the potential profitability of this thing, and they mapped out a plan to get there.
In the early days that plan included a play for mainstream acceptance, which meant making this look more like a sport than a spectacle. And, to an extent, that worked. But when the UFC ran up against the limitations of that strategy (turns out MMA is actually still not bigger than soccer, so go figure), the owners began looking at other paths to the same financially lucrative waterfall.
I agree that those tactical shifts have consequences. I also think that sometimes we assume we know what the consequences are going to be before the results are in. While I totally understand why people worry about the trend of ignoring rankings in favor of “money fights,” I also think it’s worth acknowledging that the only reason those fights make money is because so many people want to see them. And whatever we like to tell ourselves, at the end of the day that’s the metric that matters most to the people in charge.
Ben Fowlkes is MMAjunkie and USA TODAY’s MMA columnist. Danny Downes, a retired UFC and WEC fighter, is an MMAjunkie contributor who has also written for UFC.com and UFC 360. Follow them on twitter at @benfowlkesMMA and @dannyboydownes.