A couple of weeks ago, like many die-hard fight fans, I was tuned in to watch the UFC 216 event from a tiny, Wi-Fi-free cabin here in Moab. The event was incredibly exciting, and history was made all across the cards.
The fight of the night was undoubtedly Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson’s record-breaking 12th straight title defense against Ray Borg. Mighty Mouse was able to submit Borg in the fifth and final round with one of the most impressive arm-bars I’ve ever seen. Johnson tossed Borg through the air, grabbing his free arm as he fell. He then leapt over Borg’s torso, throwing his legs over Borg’s shoulder mid-air, and locking his arm in an airtight arm bar by the time both fighters hit the ground.
With this epic win, Johnson has essentially just solidified himself as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. The funny thing is, nobody, save for hardcore fight fans, even know who he is. Surely the UFC would be giving top priority to the pound-for-pound, record-breaking titleholder right?
Well, it’s complicated.
This is one of the biggest problems facing MMA as a whole; the fact that a UFC legend doesn’t garner top billing on a fight card is an issue. Other sports do not have this problem. If a tennis player has the best record in the world, they earn top billing, no questions asked. The UFC, believe it or not, is not actually a league — it’s a promoter.
Therein lies the problem. We have a single promoter acting as a league, which often leads to more marketable fighters earning all of the top fights, and the top dollars. Take Conor McGregor for example. He is a brilliant fighter, but he’s not the best. While Mighty Mouse has just won his 12th straight title match — the longest streak in UFC history — McGregor has lost two of his last five fights, including a boxing match with Floyd Mayweather.
MMA fighters are essentially left to their own devices when it comes to promotion. UFC President Dana White notoriously favors fighters (like McGregor) who can create a spectacle over fighters who actually earn status with their records. White recently publically chastised current Welterweight Champ Tyron Woodley after his victory over Jiu Jitsu legend Demian Maia because he wanted “more action.”
Essentially, a fighter can make all the right moves, win all the right fights, be polite and respectful in the press and saintly in their private lives, and it still won’t be enough to sell tickets. Dana White is still running the UFC like it’s a back-alley fight club and not a professional organization. This is coupled with the fact that most casual fight fans would rather tune in to watch a blood bath between epic trash-talkers — with a WWE level of bad blood — than a nuanced bout between two fighters who respect each other.
We more-than-casual fight fans would like to see MMA continue to grow as a sport, shucking its more theatric and barbaric elements in exchange for fair treatment and safer regulations. Only one thing is for sure: this new UFC, or whatever shape mixed martial arts takes in the future, will be a lot harder to sell.