The UFC has always been, and always will be, a struggle between sport and business.
As with any combat sport, there are people who will emerge as stars, become moneymakers, and the nature of the beast is that they will get favorable treatment. But over the last year, the struggle has been more about money vs. popularity and making new fans.
It’s a unique struggle, because historically, money, popularity and making new fans are all tied in together. When you increased popularity, you make new fans and make more money. That’s what makes the modern combat sports economy so unique at the top level.
The content economy for combat sports, and many other sports, has overhauled a century of rules, where making money and creating popularity and adding new fans are not only no longer tied together, but perhaps are opposites.
Saturday night was a perfect example of this, and it was hardly unique. The UFC’s show in Vancouver, British Columbia, was headlined by Donald Cerrone, the company’s all-time winningest fighter, and Justin Gaethje, one of the most exciting stylistic fighters of the modern era.
The main card ended up having some interesting stories. Tristan Connelly, a local heavily undersized underdog who was making his UFC debut on five days’ notice, took advantage of Michel Pereira tiring himself by dancing, doing flips and being an entertainer, and won a decision in front of his hometown crowd.
Misha Cirkunov and Jimmy Crute had an entertaining back-and-forth fight with a great submission finish that led to Crute’s first professional loss.
A hot Canadian crowd took big to Cerrone, one of the roster’s most popular fighters, but it wasn’t his night to shine. A long back-and-forth war didn’t happen. Instead, Gaethje was quicker, and finished Cerrone in the first round.
Last year, such a show would have been on television, and a million fans, perhaps more given the main event, would have seen this all transpire. Cerrone, charismatic in defeat, would have made people want to see him try to bounce back. People would want to see Gaethje face the elite in the lightweight division. And that did happen, only with much smaller numbers.
This year, on a streaming service, only the UFC die-hards likely watched it, but they are the ones already invested in the sport. Such shows make it harder to create new stars and new fans.
But financially, there is no arguing with the short-term benefits. The UFC is likely being watched weekly by fewer people in the U.S. than at any time in years, certainly since going to the expanded 40+ shows a year schedule.
With money guaranteed by ESPN, both for streaming and pay-per-view, the company will blow away all records for revenue. This money is guaranteed, whether they make the big fights, or whether they create new stars. For the UFC, in the past, the business was built on delivery to fans fights that they wanted to see. They still want to do that, but the pressure isn’t there, nor are the economics. Presenting a gigantic fight is no longer the windfall it once was. And the biggest stars no longer have the leverage to get great deals, nor are they as economically tied in with the idea that if they promote the fight hard, more people will buy and it will trickle down to their paycheck. Basically, the value of a pay-per-view people skip with one they can’t miss is no longer large. And the model of using television to create new stars, and monetize them by building the biggest fights on pay-per-view has changed. And in a business that has mostly been about what works now, this is all guaranteed through 2025.
Going forward, you’ll probably hear far less water cooler talk about the UFC. While it will always have its few top stars, the numbers that the general public cares about will be small. The second-level stars will be such to a fewer number of fans. It’s largely the UFC going along with its partners at ESPN, who believe the UFC is a great catalyst towards building its paid streaming platform and that owning their pay-per-view business will pay off in the long run. They’re the ones assuming most of the risk. The UFC is just giving them content. In doing so, whether the popularity grows or not, as a business, the UFC will be a rousing economic success.
Let’s look at how Fortunes Changed for Five Fighters from Saturday’s show.
JUSTIN GAETHJE - With a 21-2 record, 18 of those wins by knockout, Gaethje should be in line for a lightweight title fight.
The situation is unique. Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson, by all rights, should be the next title fight. If the UFC makes a date for that fight, it makes all the sense in the world to put Gaethje on that card. Nurmagomedov and Ferguson have been matched up countless times, and injuries have led to such a fight never happening. Gaethje is the perfect backup. And if the Nurmagomedov-Ferguson fight does happen, it’ll get a lot of eyeballs. Gaethje in a fight with someone on the same card would directly lead to the next title fight.
Of course, the perfect opponent for all this is Conor McGregor (21-4). But whether McGregor sees it that way is a very different story. With the value of pay-per-view down, having McGregor fighting making the difference between an average financial year and a fantastic one is no longer the case. Without that leverage, he himself may not have the economic incentive to come back.
Next on the list would be Charles Oliveira (27-8). It would be one of the great knockout fighters in modern UFC against one of the great submission fighters. Aside from that, the best advice may be for him to just wait out a title shot, as unless McGregor comes back, Gaethje would be the front runner for the Nurmagomedov vs. Ferguson winner.
DONALD CERRONE - At 36, Cerrone (36-13, 1 no contest) has lost two in a row, to Gaethje and Ferguson. Both were decisive and in fights he ended up overwhelmed in. Father Time eventually beats everyone, and in this sport, the lighter your weight division, the faster it catches up.
GLOVER TEIXEIRA - Teixeira (30-7) scored a split decision win, by taking the final round against his younger opponent. Reporters agreed with judges as 75 percent gave him the fight based on the MMA Decisions poll.
Teixeira is in a tough position, in the sense he’s one of the best guys in the division, but nobody believes he can beat Jon Jones. He’s a quality guy high on a card, like he was Saturday, but he shouldn’t be used as an opponent for guys getting ready for a title shot, either. A good next opponent would be Volkan Oezdemir (16-4).
NIKITA KRYLOV - Krylov (25-7) lost close in a fight that was a major career difference maker. He probably should next face Misha Cirkunov (15-5), who scored a submission win over previously unbeaten Jimmy Crute in Saturday’s main card opener.
URIAH HALL - Hall (15-9) has been best known in UFC for being inconsistent. Some days he looks like a world beater. Some days he looks like a guy who came in with big hype but wasn’t at that level. His split decision win on Saturday over Antonio Carlos Junior, fell in the middle, and, given 53 percent of media scores went to Hall, it was very much a fight that could have gone either way. A good next opponent for Hall would be one of the guys he called out after his win, Derek Brunson (20-7). Brunson knocked Hall out quickly in 2016. Hall also called for Israel Adesanya, but that fight doesn’t make any sense at the present time.