It wasn't just the judges who have turned on former UFC lightweight champion Frankie Edgar. For the second bout in a row, three carefully impartial experts have rendered a verdict, maybe even a death sentence for his career at 155 pounds. "Not champion," they sang, perhaps dooming Edgar to a career at featherweight.
Judges aren't the only members of the MMA community who have scrutinized Edgar, reviewing what exactly he has to offer and finding him wanting. Fans have, and this is the pure power of fact speaking, rejected the New Jersey-based fighter.
In this case, the balloting is done with the pocketbook. Fans are voting with their dollars. They just aren't voting for Frankie Edgar, or any UFC fighter, under 170 pounds.
Setting the Scene
Business for the UFC, if you haven't noticed, is down across the board. It's not just a problem for the smaller fighters. In 2010, the UFC sold an estimated 9.145 million pay per views. In 2011, that number was just 6.79 million and the average per event was down to just over 400,000 buys.
In short, things are ugly out there, but trending is at its ugliest, Roseanne Barr ugly, when the smaller fighters take center stage. Edgar's two title fights with Gray Maynard were two of the three worst performing pay per views of 2011.
Former Yahoo MMA guru Dave Meltzer points the finger at a lack of stars, noting that the generation that helped the UFC grow into a business behemoth, men like Chuck Liddell, Randy Couture and Matt Hughes, have left the main-event scene and no one has filled in the gaps.
Particularly painful for the UFC's bottom line, according to Meltzer, has been the extended injury and then retirement of Brock Lesnar, their biggest star. When Lesnar was on fire in 2010, no one could touch his box-office impact:
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Lesnar fought twice over the past year, doing an estimated 2,100,000 buys combined for his main events against Shane Carwin on July 3 and his title loss to Cain Velasquez on October 23. In doing so, he became the second man in history to have two shows top 1 million buys in the same calendar year. The only other person to do so was Mike Tyson, who had three one million buy shows in 1996, in fights with Evander Holyfield, Frank Bruno and Bruce Seldon.
Of course, Lesnar's wasn't the only significant injury. The promotion's second leading star, welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre, is recovering from a serious knee injury, and UFC owner Lorenzo Fertitta tells the Los Angeles Times that injuries cost the promotion dearly in 2011:
"Yes, but our biggest issue lately has been 11 of our last 14 main events have fallen out and required replacement fighters. It's like there's been a hex over us. So it's been a challenge to run the business how we've planned to. Forcing to shuffle in guys, re-scramble … it takes the steam out of your sails. It helped having the Fox card in there, and, listen, we're still kicking [rear] by not cancelling shows like boxing would. If we get a stroke of luck with good health here, we're off to the races."
So far in 2012, instead of being off to the races, the UFC is running in place, averaging 456,000 buys per event, the second lowest total since 2007. It's not all doom and gloom. Jon Jones has joined St-Pierre as a fighter who guarantees a big night at the box office and Chael Sonnen has given rise to a new promotional strategy that might pay dividends down the road. But, as a whole, there's little doubt that revenue is down on pay per view, and that's where the UFC's bread is buttered.
Edgar and the Underdogs
It's important to set the scene here so that Edgar's failures at the box office aren't viewed in a vacuum. He and the featherweights, bantamweights and flyweights are operating during a very bleak time, when pay per view is down across the board.
That's an important mitigating factor, but it doesn't in itself explain Edgar's complete lack of success. Each of his three main events in the last two years have underperformed the company's average, averaging only 276,000 buys, more than 150,000 below the company average during the period.
Even more damning for Edgar? An MMA Payout study clearly shows that title fights are in themselves a box office draw, adding more than 200,000 buys on average. Edgar is a bad box office draw by any measure. Judged against fellow champions, however, and bad starts to look a lot like abysmal.
Edgar can take heart though—with the addition of featherweights and bantamweights to the UFC roster, he no longer sits alone at the bottom of the barrel. Both 145-pound champion Jose Aldo and 135-pound kingpins Urijah Faber and Dominick Cruz have failed to attract an audience on pay per view, averaging just 235,000 buys in 2012.
Problem Identified. But What is the Cause?
We know the little guys are failing to spark interest among UFC fans. That's been established with the power of math, a cold and unfeeling science. But behind those numbers are people, people who are making choices with their entertainment dollars.
Why aren't they buying into the smaller weight classes? In boxing, fans have embraced diminutive fighters, making Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao kings of their sport. UFC fans have had the same opportunity with Edgar, but have made the choice to save their bucks for scraps with bigger men, and presumably in their minds, bigger stakes.
I'm not sure why that is. It seems there is a divide between how fans view their respective sports. In boxing, fans identify with artistry. When you order a big boxing show, you expect to settle in for a night of action. The story inside the ring builds as the night goes on, with commentators like HBO's Jim Lampley doing their best to make even the most boring fight seem like a Homerian epic.
Why don't UFC fans buy shows headlined by smaller fighters?
In mixed martial arts, fans have been trained to expect the opposite. The violence is quick, arriving like a bolt of lightning and evaporating just as quickly. As a kid, I remember how furious my dad's friends were when Mike Tyson's fight with Michael Spinks ended so quickly. They wanted more than a brutal knockout. In MMA, the quick KO will suffice for most fans, thank you very much.
That attitude, more than anything, explains why Edgar and his ilk haven't caught on. Some MMA hardcores adore his style, but it is distinctly boxing in nature. He is, unrepentantly, fighting for the scorecards, utilizing elusiveness and science more than any other high-profile fighter in UFC history.
It can mesmerizing to watch. But it clearly isn't what fans want to see. The hardcores called Edgar's first title fight with Gray Maynard 2011's fight of the year. Yet the masses weren't swayed. The rematch, months later, actually lost 35,000 buyers, becoming 2011's low point on pay per view.
The fans have spoken. Frankie Edgar isn't what they want to see. The UFC, and the media cheerleaders for lighter weight fighters, would be smart to listen.