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The UFC of Christmas present is pretty different from those of Christmases past

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Lorenzo Fertitta Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Happy Holidays!

You know, every time a piece of troubling news comes across the MMA wire these days I like to imagine us (somehow) cutting to Lorenzo Fertitta, who is gaily going about life as an unfettered billionaire.

Nate Diaz wants $20 million just to answer his phone? Cut to Lorenzo on a conga line down in Mexico.

Cyborg pops hot for a banned substance? Cut to Lorenzo taking selfies with the yeomen warders at the Tower of London.

There’s an MMA association forming? Cut to Lorenzo getting a little daiquiri foam on his beard, and giggling ticklishly as two bikini-clad women dab it with a handkerchief.

The winds of change are blowing in the UFC, and Lorenzo got out just in time. All that’s left of the product we’ve come to love is a pouting Ronda Rousey, a vacant Dana White, a pack of mute owners, and a bunch of disgruntled fighters.

Not that it’s all bad. There’s still a Conor McGregor out there posting photos of himself in flesh-toned skivvies, yet even there — who do you think started a lot of this? It was McGregor and the special treatment. McGregor cutting the line. McGregor making people vitally aware of fighter pay. McGregor winning belts and never defending a damn thing. McGregor forcing us into interim situations and poking the bear and making UFC execs squirm at the podium. It’s good and bad and great and confusing.

It wasn’t always like this.

A few years ago, back when there wasn’t a FOX deal in place, and people could still pose as human billboards for Dude Wipes (or whatever) in the cage, and USADA wasn’t showing up at people’s doors at 6 in the morning, this was a crazy fringe sport with a warm glow to it. It was like a big family. Anybody who followed MMA in the mid-aughts caught the true boom era, when it was all moving abstractly into the Bigger Sphere of Things. There was a feeling of being in on a secret that was about to be revealed. We were told that fighting was in our “DNA,” and that MMA was safer than cheerleading. Everyone was arguing over topics as abstruse as “legitimacy,” and inventing colorful words like “douchery.” The events were still Events (for the most part), and Dana’s fibs were mostly looked over because everybody had the same mindset, which went something like this: We’re all in this together, so let’s make this thing bigger.

It has definitely gotten bigger. Yet as we come to the end of 2016, the question becomes: Is the sport in a better place than it was a decade ago?

This has been one hell of a year in mixed martial arts, a year with something like four billion plot twists. There are plenty of improvements. For instance, there’s such a thing as free agency now, which really means that Bellator has a lot of desired amenities for fighters to explore. That seems like a good thing, overall — who doesn’t like options? Women have excelled in the UFC, which is tremendous. What other sport could provide an equal platform for men and women? MMA is legal in New York, at last. It’s no longer taboo in any one state in America. And USADA is red-flagging fighters in and out of competition. Every time somebody gets popped the game distorts one degree uglier, it’s true, but in the big picture, cleaning up the sport is a good thing. (This also suggests that our enthusiasm for the sport in, say, 2008, was really just a form of ignorant bliss…and that also kind of sucks).

Oh, and there are far fewer shills now than there were then. The manufacturing of puff pieces has slowed down a little bit (but not entirely).

Still, there’s less to love than there used to be, and maybe it’s because we know so much more than we did then. Dana’s fibs these days come off as lies. He cashed out with hundreds of millions of dollars in the sale to WME-IMG, and has a new bodyguard. Only TMZ and Colin Cowherd remain gullible to his every word.

But it’s not just that. It’s the $4 billion price tag, and the curious movement of the new owners. Is there passion in that corporate ownership group for this sport? It’s the percentages we hear, the greed coming to light, the fighters finding awareness. It’s brain studies, and the lawsuit, and weight-cutting issues. It’s the conflicts of interest between the new owners and their clients, and the death of the rankings meritocracy. It’s Reebok. It’s the growing number of disenfranchised fighters, and all the layoffs at Zuffa, and the broken scoring system.

(Cut to Lorenzo in his Las Vegas Raiders footy jammies, feeding $100 bills into his orange fireplace).

There are so many events it’s easy to lose track of what’s going on at the end of 2016 — so many that the UFC had to invent the women’s 145-pound division (between two women not named Cyborg) just to give a pay-per-view a symbol. Where is that nonsense headed? Same place as the featherweight interim belt that Max Holloway has. To some other side street that leads to a detour that ultimately leads to the control tower of how we perceive things.


Things are changing in the UFC. A lot of it is for the better. A lot of it is completely necessary or long overdue. Much of it is ridiculous. Some of it makes no sense whatsoever. It’s the remnants of an old hungry-days ideology meeting the contented reality of our times. The UFC has pushed its Octagon to the carwash at ESPN and beyond. It has accomplished a great many things in the last decade that would have seemed impossible to contemplate at the time. Lorenzo (and Co.) sold right when things were about to get crazy. Now, with so much in flux and new ownership, it’s headed in a direction that isn’t as easily understood. Is it for the better?

I don’t know, but this is one of the first Christmases in a long time where the family isn’t gathered.