"I put together the fights that fans want to see."
—UFC President Dana White
If you book it, they will come. Make the bouts that matter, high-profile contests between the world's best, and the fans will reward you for your good-faith efforts. Put together the fights that fans want to see.
It was a mantra that helped turn the Ultimate Fighting Championship, purchased for a couple of million and change, into a billion-dollar enterprise in just a decade.
From the brink of extinction to a sport with worldwide potential, the UFC's rise has been meteoric. While the mythology surrounding this amazing growth credits embracing regulation as the sport's turning point, this simple philosophy is the true key to the promotion's incredible success. Put together the fights fans want to see. Period.
White and fellow UFC owners Lorenzo Fertitta and Frank Fertitta had seen their beloved boxing decline right in front of their eyes, victim of political maneuvering that would put Machiavelli to shame. Four sanctioning bodies were major players. There were a half-dozen promoters controlling a handful of important fighters each. Promoters who, by the way, hated each other Hatfield and McCoy style.
The predictable result was chaos.
No one was there to do what was right for the sport of boxing, each tone-deaf promoter too concerned about his own piece of the business to see the entire puzzle. While they bickered and squabbled amongst themselves, a sport that had once dominated the American athletic landscape shrunk into niche-dom.
The UFC has remained steadfast in its attempts to prevent this from happening in MMA. The brand came first, never any individual fighter. The last thing the company wanted was for fans and the media to put the fighters first. It was never "Georges St-Pierre versus Matt Hughes." It was UFC 49. The company, and thus the sport, always came first.
True to their word, they put on the fights fans wanted to see. Every conceivable dream match, save a UFC title fight for the great Fedor Emelianenko, happened, not just eventually, but when it mattered most. The UFC put on fights that the fans wanted to see.
Slowly, painfully, inevitably, that's changing. The fighters are becoming celebrities in their own right. The money is growing astronomically. The power is shifting towards the fighters and away from the UFC.
You could see the changes coming, not at once, but gradually. First the company failed to sign Emelianenko to a deal. The Russian star didn't like their contract terms, and since he could make millions elsewhere, he didn't feel compelled to sign with the world's biggest promotion.
Cracks were showing for the first time, White's iron grip on the sport loosening just a bit. Then St-Pierre versus Anderson Silva, a fight publicly advocated by Lorenzo Fertitta, failed to materialize. The UFC wanted it. It didn't happen.
Since, the dam has all but burst. Middleweight champion Anderson Silva is refusing challengers, making his own executive decision that Chris Weidman isn't ready for a title shot. Light heavyweight champion Jon Jones is also not happy with potential challengers, telling MMA Junkie he has "nothing to gain" from a Lyoto Machida rematch.
Jones takes it a step further, saying Chael Sonnen won't be challenging for the title anytime soon: "I'm not going to allow him to get a title fight from talking."
I'm not going to allow.
Imagine that just a couple of years ago. It reeks of boxing, of arrogance, of inevitable failure. Jones goes on to say that he has his own personal top 15 in the light heavyweight class, and Sonnen will have to earn his place among the top stars.
For the athletes this is a great development—at least for those at the top of the sport. They've never had more leverage, and it certainly behooves them to make fights that are both winnable and wallet-fattening.
For the fans, however, this is nothing short of disaster. We don't want fighters hand-selecting fights. We don't want Jon Jones matchmaking. That's UFC VP Joe Silva's job, and he and White have consistently shown a knack for creating fights that manage to be both dramatic and competitive at the same time.
The truth is that what is good for Jon Jones or Anderson Silva may not be what is good for the UFC and the sport. In the past, the sport came first. No more.
It's a new day. The era of the fighter has begun. Lord help us all.