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Click Debate: Has 2016 shown us that MMA isn’t what we thought it was?

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Next month, a 46-year-old fighter with two wins in his last five fights will compete for a UFC title.

Just a few weeks ago, the UFC featherweight champion and a lightweight contender fought at welterweight and it drew the most pay-per-view buys in promotion history. No title on the line.

And just eight days ago, a former pro-wrestling star with little martial arts experience before last year made his MMA debut on the main card of a UFC pay-per-view. The ex-WWE headliner made more money than most UFC champions do in the process.

Situations like this have been going on since the birth of MMA. Actually, it's kind of what MMA was founded on: spectacle over sport. Posters promising fights that can end in death.

Over the last decade or so, it did seem like mixed martial arts, specifically the UFC, was embracing the sporting aspect of things more and more. That may no longer be the case when you consider the aforementioned: Dan Henderson fighting for the middleweight title, McGregor and Diaz's "moneyweight" exploits and the whole CM Punk experiment.

The circus act isn't exclusive to the UFC, either. Bellator's highest rated card ever featured two over-the-hill, long-past-their-prime legends in Royce Gracie and Ken Shamrock and a co-main event between Kimbo Slice and Dada 5000, two men who became famous from videos of them beating people up in backyards. Last week, Bellator also smartly signed carnival barker Chael Sonnen, who is still one of the best storytellers (some even true) — and draws — in MMA despite his age (39) and braggadocio about past performance-enhancing drug use.

At some point, the hardcore fans — the ones who watch every Fight Night voraciously from Fight Pass prelims on up — and even the fighters themselves have to start facing some hard truths about what MMA really is.

It's not about the best fighting the best, at least not just about that. Maybe it never has been. It's possible it never will be. It's not even about exciting fights and fighters, because fans plunk down their hard-earned money before a bout goes down. There's no predicting if it'll be any good or not. Robbie Lawler is a Fight of the Year machine, but has never been a top draw.

As long as MMA is driven by pay-per-view buys and television ratings, there is a clear incentive for promotions to seek out not the best possible fights, but the ones the most people will watch. That's how CM Punk ends up on a UFC pay-per-view, getting paid $500,000 in disclosed money and likely over a million when you add his share of the PPV revenue.

That's the exact same disclosed figure earned by Jon Jones at UFC 197. Jones is the best fighter on the planet, maybe the greatest of all time. Punk might not have been the second best fighter in the Octagon at UFC 203. I know I wouldn't mess with referee Keith Peterson.

MMA isn't as much about being good at fighting as it is being good at getting people to watch you fight. Demetrious Johnson is one of the best pound-for-pound fighters ever. He's also known for having some of the lowest pay-per-view buyrates ever for cards he has headlined. The late Kimbo Slice had that special "it" factor that allowed him to set multiple ratings records even if he was really never all that good at MMA for the level he was fighting in.

All of this is difficult for the most ardent fans to accept. It's even more infuriating for fighters. They're professional athletes focused on training to be the best they can possibly be inside the confines of the cage. No one has ever cared about the ratings LeBron James pulls compared to his peers, because he's paid and judged based on his performance. Fighters are paid based on their drawing power, how many people watch their fights.

The major sports leagues like the NFL, NBA and MLB don't have to worry much about ratings and TV deals. While it is a concern for some in those organizations, those sports have already made it. There is a massive audience for them no matter who is playing -- a much greater base audience than MMA has, perhaps more than MMA will ever have.

What drives up that audience number for MMA is larger-than-life personalities (like McGregor, Ronda Rousey and Slice); well-promoted storylines and grudges (Bisping vs. Henderson; McGregor vs. Diaz; Rousey vs. Correia); and novelty acts (CM Punk and legends fights).

The hardcore audience will always be there for everything, but frankly just No. 1 and No. 2 fighting each other does not have mass appeal. There has to be a story there, someone to root for or against. Fighting is simply not that popular on its own merits. Something else needs to be involved to suck people in.

The UFC has begun to figure that out more and more, and it is finding the sweet spot now more than ever. It's no coincidence that 2015 and 2016 are going to be the most profitable years in UFC history. The promotion has rode their celebrity fighters McGregor and Rousey to gigantic numbers.

And those numbers don't lie. If what the UFC was doing wasn't working, it would stop. But the money is flowing in. MMA Fighting's Dave Meltzer is estimating UFC 203 pulling in anywhere from 425,000 to 475,000 pay-per-view buys. That's probably about 200,000 more than the card, headlined by heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic against Alistair Overeem, would have done without CM Punk.

Many fighters took to Twitter last week to express anger and frustration about how much Punk made, when from a business standpoint he was actually a bargain for the UFC. Fighters are treating MMA like it's a sport, whereas the UFC is treating it like it's a business. Neither side is wrong and that's why fighters need to unionize, to gain a balance.

It's also worth noting that things selling well is not a mark of quality. This is a society that has made millionaires out of the Kardashians, turned on "First Take" and Fox News in droves and sustained the existence of hundreds of clickbait websites.

Fans disturbed by the way the industry is trending have only one way of fighting back: Stop watching.

But let's be honest here for a second. Even the purist of the purists, the hippest of the hipsters are secretly salivating over the future possibility of McGregor-Diaz 3, Sonnen's Bellator debut and yeah, even CM Punk's next fight.

Because if these are the fights making money, the ones keeping the sport healthy, it only means one thing: more MMA.

And you all can't get enough, can you?

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