During this Thanksgiving week, there's much to appreciative of in the MMA world. We're at a time when the sport may be able to match two of the sport's all-time best. Yet remarkably, in the MMA community, there seems to be less interest in the fight than ever. Does that mean the UFC should scrap plans for the mega-bout and look elsewhere?
In this week's Roundtable, Dave Doyle and I examine that question along with whether Dana White's public outing of fighters who turn down bouts is fair, if Ronda Rousey as a pay-per-view headliner is a good call, and if there's something wrong with the UFC promoting fighters currently on suspension.
1. Surprisingly, there seems to be a movement against an Anderson Silva vs. Georges St-Pierre fight. Does it make sense to bail on it?
Doyle: No. St-Pierre vs. Silva is the biggest money fight the UFC can put on in the first half of 2013, and all the signals the company has sent out in recent weeks indicate the UFC is looking to go big next year.
That said, I understand why a segment of the audience wants to see both GSP and Silva fight other opponents. Both guys have intriguing potential fights in their divisions: St-Pierre with Johny Hendricks and potentially Nick Diaz (in theory, Diaz shouldn’t get an immediate title fight coming off a suspension and a loss in his last fight, but the booking of Jon Jones vs. Chael Sonnen says that title fights making sense in the division is out the window); Silva with whomever comes out of the pack with guys like Michael Bisping, Chris Weidman, Alan Belcher and others.
The idea of wanting to see St-Pierre vs. Hendricks or Silva vs. Weidman instead of Silva-GSP is valid. They’d be potentially great fights. But let’s not make the mistake of confusing the desires of some of the hardcore fan base with the casual fans who make the difference in creating the biggest events of the year. They’re still a lot more likely to buy what would be pushed as a once-in-a -generation, historic matchup of the two longest-reigning champions in UFC history than they would just another title defense against a fighter they’re likely to view, right or wrong, as the challenger of the month. And as long as that’s the case, it doesn’t make sense for the UFC to bail on Silva vs. GSP.
Chiappetta: I mostly agree with Dave here, except for the fact that I think the other option hardcores are pushing for is Silva vs. Jon Jones, and I get the appeal. The two are closer in height and weight than Silva and GSP are, and so those pushing for it seem to think it's a fairer and perhaps more exciting matchup.
But the reason I agree with Dave that Silva vs. St-Pierre is the proper direction is for exactly the reason he states about drawing in the larger public. This may sound dismissive, but it really doesn't matter what those of us who follow the sport on a daily basis think. Deep down, we all know that whether the UFC puts together St-Pierre vs. Silva or St-Pierre vs. Hendricks, we'll watch or at least pay close attention. But if you want to put together a mega-event, there is only one real option.
In the movie business, there are films that studios call "tent-pole" projects because they're so huge they can support the entire company's finances despite other failures. These are the blockbusters like the James Bond series and Star Wars films. They are massive and spectacular and catered towards the masses, and that's what St-Pierre vs. Silva is, the No. 1 pay-per-view draw against the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter. It's a fight that boxing can't make but it's in MMA's power to do so. To reignite the fortunes of the UFC, it's a no-brainer.
2) Dana White continues to publicly name fighters who turn down bouts. Some say he's trying to bully them or send a message to the roster. Is he justified in what he's doing?
Chiappetta: I have no problem with White's public outing of declined fight offerings. The bigger issue is with the way he characterizes the athletes who turn down fights, particularly bouts on short-notice. Every case brings with it its own set of circumstances, and his declaration that "you're either a fighter or you're not" paints with way too broad a stroke. Sometimes, an injury is simply too much, or a family problem stands in the way. The UFC has spent plenty of time and money lobbying to be taken seriously as a sport, and if White truly believes that, he should consider his roster professional athletes with a personal duty to seriously consider every move of their careers. If they feel unprepared to take a short-notice fight, they are well within their rights to decline it.
To be fair about it all, it's not like he has held many long-term grudges for the practice. For example, after turning down fights, Jon Jones went from pariah to UFC 152 headliner, Shogun Rua headlined a FOX card and most recently, Matt Mitrione got himself a main event.
I think it's fair for him to hold a reasonable expectation that his athletes stay in shape year-round. He often tells fighters to be prepared for unexpected opportunity, and it's obvious that many of them don't take that advice to heart. While White makes headlines with nearly every word he says, it's up to the public to consider what he's saying and whether it's fair.
Doyle: I think we’re watching White’s public attempt to come to grips with the fact that the dynamics are slowly shifting in the way the UFC makes matches. The type of fighter who is willing to accept all challenges has long been admired and will continue to be so. But the bigger the sport becomes and the bigger the monetary stakes grow, the more we’re going to see fighters with the leverage to do so become more careful in picking and choosing their career spots.
That said, let’s take a look at the fighter who has been the biggest target of White’s most recent ire: Cheick Kongo, whom White claims has twice turned down fights recently. Kongo is a 37-year-old gatekeeper whose last two fights were a loss to Mark Hunt and a win over Shawn Jordan in a bout that might win Worst Fight of the Year. How many bosses long tolerate workers of declining upside who are also difficult to deal with? Maybe White shouldn’t publicly throw Kongo under the bus, but let’s not pretend like Kongo is doing himself any career favors here, either.
3. Over the weekend, Dana White said that Ronda Rousey is likely to main event a pay-per-view when she makes her UFC debut. Good call?
Doyle: It would be a bold call, that’s for sure. There’s no doubt Rousey is a star on the Internet and a mainstream sports curiosity. But the hard numbers say she’s not quite there as a headliner yet: Rousey’s Aug. 18 fight against Sarah Kaufman, amid a full-on PR blitz, drew just 3,502 fans and a $145K gate in San Diego. And while the television audience of 529,000 for the overall broadcast and 676,000 for the main event were Showtime’s best in 2012, those aren’t superstar-level numbers.
There’s no doubt Rousey has the potential to be a superstar. But it’s still a big jump from headlining an event which tanks at the box office while drawing a good-but-not-killer TV number and getting the masses to pay $50 for a pay-per-view. It seems to make sense for Rousey’s first UFC fight to be something that gives her high exposure to fight fans while not having to carry the load for the show: A co-main event slot on, say, the Jones-Sonnen event, or maybe a slot on a UFC on FOX main broadcast. But a pay-per-view main event right out of the gate seems a bit of a stretch.
Chiappetta: Great call. Not every pay-per-view needs to sell 750,000 units to be considered successful. You put on a Rousey vs. Cris Cyborg main event with a strong co-main event underneath it, and I think you have the makings of a very solid show. It's not really fair to judge Rousey as a draw under the Strikeforce brand because a) it's been a slowly dying company that has naturally turned off fans, b) it's available in a limited number of households and c) it doesn't have the UFC name behind it.
If you think Rousey got a lot of media attention before, think how much she will get when she becomes not only the first woman to fight in the UFC, but the first to headline a show. I'm not going to pretend to guess how many fans will tune in, but the masses will certainly know about it, and that's half of the battle in the sports/entertainment promotion business. If it does great, there's your proof she's a star. If it does OK, you have a building block. And if it tanks, well, then there's still work to do.
4) The UFC got permission from NSAC to promote an Alistair Overeem fight even though he's currently under suspension. The same was not allowed for Nick Diaz. What kind of precedent does this set?
Chiappetta: I'm not against Overeem making a living, but why doesn't he have to serve out the full term of his suspension before moving on with his career like everybody else does? Dana White was on the record in the past as saying the UFC wouldn't book a fighter under suspension. In this case, the UFC did ask for and receive permission to set up Overeem, but I think it's out of line even to make such a request. Why? It puts the NSAC in a very awkward position. They already made their ruling by suspended him. By asking if it's OK to promote him before the suspension is up, the UFC is letting them know that there's a big event coming up and since the commission receives a gate tax, well, of course it's in their best interest to license Overeem.
Here's where this affects the fan: when tickets go on sale, Overeem can be marketed to the public even though he is no sure thing to be re-licensed. So what happens if he isn't? The tickets have already been sold and the fine print reads "Card subject to change," doesn't it? To be fair, many fighters are promoted before they are officially licensed, but most don't have to appear before the commission to explain prior actions as Overeem will.
It's all very messy and it would be in everyone's best interest to simply wait until the suspension is over to move forward.
Doyle: Are we comparing Overeem’s case to Diaz? If so, I think there’s an important distinction: Overeem is a first-time offender who has more or less followed the terms of his suspension (even if he did unsuccessfully try to scheme for a Dec. 29 bout with Junior dos Santos). Diaz is not only under suspension in Nevada for the second time, but he also has been a thorn in the NSAC’s side every step of the way, going so far as to file a lawsuit against the commission. So comparing Overeem and Diaz’s situation isn’t necessarily an apples-to-apples assessment.
As Mike notes, this isn’t the first time a fighter has been promoted before he’s been licensed. In fact, taking such a gamble ultimately forced Affliction to have to fold its fight promotion after Josh Barnett couldn’t get licensed in California for his fight against Fedor Emelianenko. That episode illustrates that if the UFC wants to promote Overeem for its Feb. 2 event in Las Vegas knowing that things could still go wrong between Overeem and the NSAC, then the risk falls squarely on the company’s shoulders.