The UFC’s transformation from a sports meritocracy into a league with a prohibitive focus on the bottom line has been remarkably swift.
In years previous, The UFC almost had an aversion to the notion of putting on novelty fights, or fights that otherwise didn’t make sense in the context of the MMA landscape at the time.
Sure, they booked Randy Couture vs. James Toney, in a matchup that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a Japanese New Year show. But they did so almost reluctantly, making sure to surround the mismatch with a number of intriguing bouts.
I’m not suggesting that Zuffa have since even come close to the circus-like freakishness of that particular “contest,” but there is no doubt that standards have slipped over the past year or so.
I have no objection to the occasional non-canonical bout that exists in isolation from the surrounding context—I even penned an article in support of Anderson Silva vs. Stephan Bonnar.
There is a place in the sport for superfights and, for lack of a better term, “fun” fights. Not every bout has to be booked with rankings in mind. However, these fights cease to be novel once the UFC decides to book them every three months.
People will undoubtedly tune in to see Jon Jones take on Chael Sonnen at UFC 159, even though it appears to be a mismatch both in terms of size and skill. Similarly, Georges St-Pierre vs. Nick Diaz at UFC 158 will probably exceed 800,000 pay-per-view buys.
There is clearly an audience for these fights. But in a just world, Dan Henderson and Johnny Hendricks would be competing for the light heavyweight and welterweight titles, respectively.
It is as yet unclear whether this is the start of a trend, whereby the UFC values marketability over, well, plain old ability.
One could argue that the Zuffa brass have always weighted marketability over fighting talent to some extent, depending on the fighter and his ratio of ability to charisma.
One need only look at the career of Jon Fitch to realise that the UFC has never been entirely meritocratic. However, it seems clear that they have begun to place even greater emphasis on drawing power.
Such unconventional booking will perhaps be more bankable than the more conventional alternative, which will allow Dana White to claim that he is putting together the fights that the fans want to see.
While this may be true in a sense, does the UFC really want to sacrifice its integrity for the sake of a few extra pay-per-view buys? I would hope not, but it still remains to be seen.
Based on the reaction to some of the recent matchmaking, it appears as though most fans are hoping that the UFC is simply going through a phase.
Let’s hope so for the sake of the sport’s integrity.