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Click Debate: Has MMA really changed in the WME era?

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Would Michael Bisping vs. Georges St-Pierre have happened during the Fertitta era of the UFC?
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

“This just wouldn’t be sports, it would be spectacle.”

That quote above is not from the mouth of WME-IMG co-CEO Ari Emanuel. Or UFC president Dana White or one of the promotion’s current matchmakers. It was taken directly from the book Is This Legal? written by UFC co-creator Art Davie (and co-authored by Sean Wheelock) about his vision for the UFC.

If we’re going to have a discussion about where the UFC — and the sport that would later be dubbed mixed martial arts — is right now and whether it is different, it’s worth noting its history. The UFC was never created to become the next NBA or MLB. Its goal from the beginning, and to a great extent now, was entertainment.

Obviously, plenty has changed since 1993. MMA is now considered a combat sport, regulated and sanctioned by state governments. Many rules and weight classes have been added. It certainly looks more like a sport at times. The Reebok deal has added a new layer to that. But we still don’t call the UFC a league. It’s a promotion, more like boxing and pro wrestling than the NFL.

The UFC’s purpose and dynamic is a constant, fluid topic. And it’s one that has come up quite a bit recently with two controversial fights, one on the horizon, the other in the planning stages. One take has been that WME-IMG, the Hollywood talent agency and the UFC’s new owners following a $4 billion purchase last year, are making decisions that the previous regime, under Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta, would not.

Conor McGregor, the UFC lightweight champion, is in serious talks about competing against undefeated, legendary boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. in a boxing match. The UFC will more than likely be in on the promotion and certainly the copious amounts of revenue generated from the unorthodox and historic bout, since McGregor remains under the UFC’s rigid contract.

Georges St-Pierre, the former UFC welterweight champion, is returning after nearly four years away from the Octagon to an immediate title shot against middleweight champion Michael Bisping. GSP has never competed in the UFC’s middleweight division before, yet he is hurdling far more deserving contenders for a title shot.

Why these things are happening is pretty obvious: money. MMA is capitalism in a cage.

McGregor vs. Mayweather, if it happens, will probably sell more than three million pay per views and generate somewhere in the range of a half-a-billion dollars. St-Pierre is one of the UFC’s most consistent pay-per-view draws historically and Bisping is an excellent, trash-talking foil.

Now, there are opponents for GSP that would probably draw more — Nick Diaz and Anderson Silva come to mind — but this is obviously the first stage in a bigger plan for St-Pierre’s comeback. His coach Freddie Roach said as much in an interview with Ariel Helwani on The MMA Hour recently. That’s a conversation for a different day.

While it’s true that WME-IMG needs to hit earnings goals at certain deadlines in order to get relief on the hefty loans it took out to buy the UFC, is the new ownership really making decisions that the Fertittas obviously would not? That is very much up for debate.

Let’s not forget that the first fight between St-Pierre and Diaz, a welterweight title defense for GSP in 2013, came about with Diaz coming off a loss to Carlos Condit. Chael Sonnen went from losing to Anderson Silva for a second time in a UFC middleweight title fight in 2012 to fighting Jon Jones for the light heavyweight title nine months later.

Those didn’t happen because Diaz and Sonnen were the No. 1 contenders; they happened because both men can draw money. Guess what? It was effective. GSP-Diaz at UFC 158 might have been St-Pierre’s best-drawing event. Jones-Sonnen at UFC 159 was Jones’ second-best event from a revenue perspective at the time with his grudge match against Rashad Evans first.

You can make an argument that St-Pierre has a far better résumé in his career, albeit not in the division in question, to constitute a title shot than Diaz or Sonnen did. St-Pierre is still on a 12-fight winning streak.

I’m not even saying I love the fight. Yoel Romero is the rightful top contender and should be fighting Bisping, with St-Pierre fighting Silva or Diaz in his first fight back. But let’s not pretend WME-IMG is doing something that the Fertittas would not. Just look at the history.

And would the Fertittas really have passed on the kind of money that Mayweather vs. McGregor would generate? They threw former boxing champion James Toney into the Octagon against Randy Couture in 2010 and that was a fight that wouldn’t even draw much coin.

Nothing quite like Mayweather vs. McGregor came up during the Fertitta Era. It’s very much a unicorn, and a risky one at that, as MMA Fighting’s Dave Meltzer wrote in an excellent piece last week.

You can certainly make the argument that WME-IMG is interested in that short-term payoff because of the revenue goals it must meet, but that doesn’t mean the Fertittas would not have rolled that same dice years ago when the long-term future of the UFC was uncertain if this kind of opportunity presented itself.

There is a case that can be made that the UFC has sustained itself over the years because the Fertittas and White made decisions that would pay dividends in the future and didn’t take as many short-term risks. But you also cannot say that their matchmaking was strictly based on merit and WME-IMG is now going full WWE. That just wouldn’t be the case.

The truth is, we just don’t know enough about WME-IMG and its plans — present and future — for the UFC. Emanuel and fellow co-CEO Patrick Whitesell have said very little publicly about any vision. Some things, like the layoff of dozens of employees and willingness to let talented, young fighters leave, have been concerning. If WME-IMG is playing the long game and has a deeper vision, it certainly has not been made apparent to us yet.

Fans have a right to be antsy and skeptical, of course. MMA followers invest a lot in the sport. They shell out money to watch live and for pay per views, UFC Fight Pass and cable packages that have FS1 and FS2. It’s not cheap to be an MMA fan. Not by a long shot. And it’s a major time investment.

But we also cannot ignore that mixed martial arts (or NHB, as it was known back then) was built on and made for spectacle. Mirko Cro Cop knocked out a masked luchador and Fedor Emelianenko fought a 400-pound vale tudo fighter in Pride. Herschel Walker, nearly 50 years old at the time, fought for Strikeforce. CM Punk was signed by the UFC during the Fertitta era. The list goes on and on.

If the UFC’s hardcore fans, the ones that watch every FS1 show and buy even the leanest pay-per-views, are not happy with the way things are being run now, they have some power. They can refuse to buy GSP vs. Bisping. They can ignore Mayweather vs. McGregor. They can show the new powers that be that they want a merit-based, more sporting system.

That probably won’t happen, though. It’s hard to keep those voracious fans away and the UFC knows it, which is why a major portion of its business strategy is to cater to the casual fans, to grow the potential consumers for its product, thereby making more money.

Because there is a reason why the UFC, from Davie to Fertitta to Emanuel, have all at times chosen spectacle over sport.

It works.