Understanding the UFC: Why fewer cards do not make sense, more so without Strikeforce

In light of the UFC’s card juggling at UFC 153, the complete rebuilding of UFC 152, and UFC 151’s historic cancellation, the promotion has been battered with criticism after criticism regarding the number of events they have chosen to run. A majority (well actually all of what I’ve read reflects the same feedback, but just in case I missed something in the bowels of MMA, I’ll use majority) of the feedback from the community, and most recently from Shaun Al-Shatti’s chosen Fanpost of the day, seems to uphold the idea that more cards means less quality of each card. The perception of the declining quality as a result of increased quantity is a very common feature in nearly everything we observe in our world today, specifically, mass production. Unfortunately, most fans and sports journalists seem to fail to understand that the UFC is growing (more importantly that it needs to grow), and it was only about a week ago, in an MMA Hour episode, that we heard Ariel Helwani finally consider the number of UFC fighters as a reason why the UFC cannot possibly run fewer events. Sadly this was a rarity since most have simply forgotten about the large size of the UFC stable and instead have chosen to continually attack the UFC’s prolific event planning.

I came to the realization about the UFC’s large stable a few months ago as I was digging through online lists of the pound for pound best in the world. That search led to segmenting the pound for pound list by weight division and finding that the light and welterweight divisions stand head and shoulders above any other in the organization. I hope to further elaborate on why I was digging through the pound for pound list, but suffice it to say, a quick look through the UFC’s list of fighter reveals a lot about the organization. Reviewing the current stats of the UFC we find that as of the first week of November, they have 340+ fighters listed on their website. With a little bit of math we have 340 fighters who have to fight at least twice per year leaving us with 340 matches to be made. Assuming the UFC does the normal 10 matches per event we get 34 events that should be completed in the year.

In 2012 the UFC is set to run a combined 30 events with 14 being PPVs, 15 if UFC 151 were not cancelled. Taking another organization’s stats we see that Bellator, arguably the second biggest organization (post Strikeforce), has approximately 170 fighters and 24 events for 2012. How could an organization like the UFC have 100% more fighters as Bellator and only run 25% more events? Even if you factor the UFC running 11 fights per event, like in UFC 147, that would still leave you with 31 events for the year. That’s still more than the number events they ran/will run this year, and to top it off is still just a bit more than 25% than Bellator. Given all that, how could the UFC possibly run fewer events and still pay their fighters?

The UFC would have to start cutting fighters left and right, giving fighters, who provide us with even the most memorable performances, the axe because of a loss through a hotly contested decision. In some ways it would be a welcome change. Mercifully, we no longer get a "what about Gerald Harris" post whenever a fighter gets cut from the promotion after a single loss. But in many ways, we, the fans, would lose out on a lot of fighters who come back from their losses to put on amazing performances like John Fitch, Cowboy Cerrone, and Joe Lauzon. The UFC reducing their stable also leads to the growth of other organizations. While on the surface that doesn’t seem to be a problem, I fear that the state of a championship belt would ultimately become watered down like it is in Boxing. Face it, in boxing there are 4 organizations with 17 weight classes each. There are, at some point in time, 68 people who can claim the title of world champion in boxing and each with a legitimate claim to be the best. While there are belts in other organizations like Strikeforce (whoops) and Bellator, the weight of UFC gold just seems to be incomparable to the rest. I believe that the quality of UFC gold is what makes the organization stand above others and is the reason the UFC must continually grow and build a larger stable.

I wrote out this post a few weeks ago and I think it was fairly serendipitous that Shaun Al-Shatti’s chosen Fanpost yesterday and the news regarding the folding of Strikeforce on the same day are directly linked to this post, making it worthwhile to release it today. The Fanpost by HaterSlayer argues that Zuffa should run fewer shows to uphold the UFC brand, stating that "the more you us it the less impact it has." The folding of Strikeforce will add further weight to the fighter stable argument. With Strikeforce’s demise, the UFC will find itself with a larger talent pool, and presumably a female pool as well with Ronda Rousey joining the organization, on top of its current 340+ fighters. All signs point to the UFC having to run events north of 35 just to keep their fighters paid, and mind you that’s with 2 fights a year -a luxury that only champions could afford a few years ago.

HaterSlayer is voicing out the concern mentioned earlier but also in a bit of a twist regarding the reduction of quality with quantity. The Fanpost isn’t just talking about the quality of a fight card, but rather the quality of UFC event being special and no longer being special if there are so many other UFC events being held in the year. He made comparisons to the NFL running more games and of course decreasing the perceived quality if more games are run. His arguments, as well as most comments regarding the quality issue, are faulty for several reasons. Primarily they are faulty because the UFC does not, as the NFL would not, cut corners to push out more fights or games; the quality of each event would be the same as any other. Joe Silva will continue to uphold his standards for match making, the promotion will still put on a great event experience for the fans in attendance, and the TV viewers will undoubtedly get more as the UFC shifts towards televised events to help pay its stable. For some reason, people seem to be looking at star power more so than fights as determining factors for what makes a stacked card, I believe that this might be the key reason for the perceived degradation in quality, even though the level of fights haven’t slipped. I will elaborate on this in a future post because quite frankly it’s too loaded of a subject to discuss at the moment. But before leaving it altogether, look back at WSOF1 with its use of UFC vets and rising talents as draws coupled with questionable matchmaking. Ask yourself if you think the number of star names outweighs the matches made and their uneventful conclusions (for crying out loud, Tyrone Spong did not have a single bead of sweat after the fight –not one).

An additional issue with the comments regarding quality degradation by expansion of the UFC is linked with my initial argument regarding the weight of UFC gold, and the reason I began looking into the pound for pound best in the first place. While many may be happy with other organizations matching the UFC’s size and impact in MMA, the expansion of the UFC is necessary to reach the ultimate goal of finding the world’s greatest fighters and allowing them to fight each other. The greatest fights in the world have never happened because the best fighters were in different organizations (Oh that’s right Chuck and Wandy eventually fought, maybe I’m wrong). If you’re Gilbert Melendez or Luke Rockhold, are you really content with calling yourself a champion, or would you rather be the champion? Until there is something in place that will allow champions from different organizations to fight one another, as in boxing to unify belts, there needs to be a large organization to house the best talent to truly formulate a world ranking of fighters. Once again, a lot to discuss but I am really pushing the limits of a single Fanpost.

The UFC is growing, and it will continue to grow. The perception that the brand is watered down is a true misperception in my opinion. If you read my previous post regarding Dana White’s comment "if you don’t like it, don’t buy it" after realizing just how large the UFC really is and how many events it needs to run to complete its obligations to its fighters, the previous post, and hopefully Dana White’s comment, should make a bit more sense. Another reason that the UFC must continue to grow is because the UFC is MMA to the casual fan. At first blush this is a stupid and insulting statement to MMA fans, but do you really think that Strikeforce, Bellator, or WSOF can open MMA doors in Madison Square Garden? Do you believe that the niche sport of MMA can continue to reach the average household to eventually equal the popularity or acceptance of boxing as a sport without the UFC? For MMA to grow, the UFC must grow, at least for now. Fewer events make absolutely no sense whatsoever with the current state of MMA and the UFC.

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