UFC welterweight Jon Fitch has discovered a truth that all fighters need to learn if they haven't already: The UFC is in the business of entertainment.
Fitch learned this lesson the hard way.
The former Purdue wrestling standout won fights in the UFC, but he did so in unpopular fashion. Fans disliked Fitch for his use of wrestling and smothering control in his fights as well as for his lack of finishes. They branded him with the dreaded "lay and pray" and "boring" labels.
Thus, the ever-disfavored Fitch had to earn eight wins in a row before being given a title shot against Georges St-Pierre. And what happened when he came up short in that title shot? He was sent straight to the prelims in his next fight.
I'll say that again so it sticks: He went from contending for a title in the main event of a pay-per-view to being on the preliminary portion of a card in his next fight. That's what neglecting the entertainment aspect of MMA does to your career.
Fitch knows better now. He told MMAjunkie the following (emphasis added):
One of the things I've come to learn over the years is that the fight itself is a sport, but everything around it is a big circus. If you can make a case for being center ring in the circus, then they'll give you a chance to take a place in that sport.
I wanted it to operate like a sport, but it's not. It's about entertainment. I didn't spend enough time convincing fans that they wanted to see me in those fights. It was one of those things that I had to accept. If you want to get the big fights, if you want to make money, you've got to make sure the fans want to see you fight.
Fitch has finally listened to reason (and dollar signs). After resisting that aspect of MMA for so long he's accepted the truth: Fans will only part with their money/time if they feel that the event (be it a PPV or a free event on television) will be worth that money/time in terms of entertainment value.
There's a reason why major networks don't make collegiate wrestling a big part of their programming. Yes, the athletes are superbly conditioned and are some of the most mentally tough people on the planet, but the average spectator doesn't care about that.
Viewers want to see action.
They want to see phantasmagorical displays of violence and symphonies of submissions and strikes. If you, as a fighter, can't deliver this, or feel you shouldn't have to, have fun fighting for the small crowds on the preliminary bouts.
This rings even truer during the age of the UFC on Fox, where millions of new, relatively uninformed people will be watching—not for Joe Rogan discussing the finer points of the whizzer and how wonderful it is to see two guys clinching for half a round—but for what they perceive to be fighting.
Many MMA fans have this bizarre, orotund belief that appreciating skill above all else gives them some sort of moral high ground and lets them denigrate all those who watch the sport for an afternoon/night of excitement.
Skill is obviously important. I've long maintained that there's no such thing as a boring fight, only fans who can't appreciate certain aspects of fighting. But skill that doesn't produce a memorable fight or skill that is used only to coast to a decision hurts the long-term growth of the sport.
Nobody wins when the sport permanently loses a potential fan due to a bad fight.
We all need to remember that the casual viewership watches the UFC on Fox for the same reasons they'd (presumably) be watching anything else that night: to be entertained. The casual fan will gladly switch back to a rerun of The Office or some other show if they don't find MMA particularly enthralling.
The majority of viewers (casual fans) don't care about how good a guy's transitions are.
They don't care about footwork. They don't care about high-level guard passes.
They might in time as they become more educated, but right now, what they care about the most is that a fight delivers one of three things: a knockout, a submission or a captivating and exciting 15-to-25 minutes of entertainment.
Jon Fitch knows this now.
The parts of the MMA world that haven't figured it out yet need to soon.