You can't tell from Saturday's UFC 177, but there was a time every pay-per-view was an event. Even as cable television took the Octagon into America's living rooms, the sport was built around these monthly UFC extravaganzas, rightfully and proudly proclaimed "the Super Bowl of mixed martial arts."
This weekend's show would barely be recognizable to a fan from 2010, let alone 2005. Once populated by known commodities up and down the card, a bragging point when comparing the sport to prehistoric one-fight boxing shows, the modern UFC pay-per-view is turning into a wasteland.
The landscape of the combat sports world has changed—but it's a change the UFC has resisted with all its considerable might. The WWE has abandoned the pay-per-view market entirely, focusing instead on distributing their super shows on a streaming service of their very own. Boxing has limited their pay-per-view output to a handful of fights a year, those featuring only the biggest of megastars.
Only the UFC has held on to the pay-per-view model with what I fear could be a death grip. Every month they trot out a show and ask an increasingly smaller base of hard-core fans to shell out $54.99 for increasingly smaller star wattage. It's a system that has reached a breaking point.
In the years following the debut of The Ultimate Fighter in 2005, there was an abundance of talent, fighters who fans respected and cared about who also delivered in the Octagon. With fewer fight cards to stock, the promotion could make sure every show counted.
More than that, the UFC itself became the most powerful star of all, selling the brand ahead of any individual, a strategy UFC owner Lorenzo Fertitta told The Atlantic was good for everyone involved:
I believe that what we built here is an incredible machine and an incredible brand. You hear a lot of criticism, ‘these guys all they care about is the brand, it’s not about the fighters.’ Well let me tell you what. This brand has made a lot of money for a lot of fighters who in and of themselves didn’t have a brand of their own before they fought in the UFC. So the brand creates a lot of value for these guys.
For years it was an approach that worked. That's not just idle talk or the mad ramblings of a longtime journalist keen to remember the good old days. The proof is in the box-office receipts. In 2010, the UFC's 16 pay-per-view shows averaged 561,250 buys. This year the average sits at 295,000. The decline started gradually, but in the last two years the spiral toward rock bottom seems to be increasing in speed.
Today, there are fewer stars than ever.
The culprit is unclear. Is it an increasingly taxing schedule, creating a glut of fighters who blend together to the point that no one can stand out from the group? Is it the UFC's style of matchmaking, a sport-first style that matches fighters tough from the jump, allowing few to gain any kind of momentum before being forced back to the pack? Or maybe, as fans became more sophisticated, the importance of the UFC brand declined as discerning buyers were more willing to pick and choose which shows to buy?
I don't purport to have all the answers. But, while causation is unclear, the effect is not. True standouts are a dying breed. Chuck Liddell, Brock Lesnar, Anderson Silva and Georges St-Pierre are either gone entirely or fading, with no replacements emerging to fill their void at the box office. Those few stars that remain, those capable of moving the needle, are spread thin over an ever-increasing number of shows. Once so proud of its top-to-bottom excellence, the UFC now too often delivers one-fight shows—and sometimes even that one fight leaves much to be desired.
Take, for example, this weekend's UFC 177. The UFC expects fans who just saw two dreadful free shows the previous week to pay full price for the pleasure of watching T.J. Dillashaw and Renan Barao step into the cage just months removed from Dillashaw's one-sided title win at UFC 173.
The first fight between the two men, like most pay-per-view shows headlined by a champion under 170 pounds, failed to make a splash at the box office. Worse still, it wasn't even especially close. Dillashaw was firmly in control on all three judges' scorecards before scoring a knockout in the fifth round.
While titularly the UFC bantamweight champion, Dillashaw is, in fact, a relative unknown. Before taking the title from Barao he had never even appeared on the main card of a UFC pay-per-view, let alone played an important role in selling one to the audience. As late as last October, he was a curtain jerker on Fox Sports 1, behind such luminaries as Joey Beltran and Matt Hamill.
Barao was sold to fans based on his 32-fight undefeated streak. That was certainly impressive—but would have been more so if all seven of his major league wins hadn't come against opponents with a combined UFC record of 23-21. Removing the great Urijah Faber from the mix drops Barao's combined opponent record below .500 to just 16-18.
Though far from tomato cans, his level of competition wasn't quite what you'd expect for a fighter in the pound-for-pound discussion, mostly a collection of aging fighters and undersized bantamweights soon to seek refuge at 125 pounds. Something less than a murderer's row, it did little to build Barao as a marketable name or someone worth caring enough about to follow him on his journey back to the top.
All told, it's a nondescript fight with no box-office appeal and no particularly compelling reason for existing. And, remarkably, it's by far the best bout on the card.
The card wasn't always quite so bleak.
At one point there was another second string title fight between flyweight champ Demetrious Johnson and unknown challenger Chris Cariaso. Even that tepid fight, moved to UFC 178, was a treasure compared to what's there now.
The co-main event features Tony Ferguson, a largely forgotten The Ultimate Fighter winner, against Danny Castillo, the fifth-most popular fighter from Team Alpha Male. Neither are ranked among the top 15 lightweights. Neither has appeared on the main card of a UFC pay-per-view before.
Two other fighters on the main card, Carlos Diego Ferreira and Damon Jackson, don't have Wikipedia entries, a baseline level of notoriety. Jackson is such a nonentity that the UFC didn't even have a picture to display in their promotional materials until just days before the fight.
In fact, beyond the main event, only Bethe Correia is ranked by the UFC's media panel. And that ranking almost deserves an asterisk. There are just 29 fighters listed in the women's bantamweight division, making an official ranking almost a default for anyone who shows up and wins.
Simply put, this show isn't worth your money. It's, frankly, a bit of an embarrassment. The UFC is teetering on the edge of something very dangerous here. Economically, the sport needs big pay-per-view events to survive. Although television revenue is an increasingly big part of the business model, the major shows are expected to be cash cows.
For years the UFC made sure fans got their money's worth. Fans rarely left the arena or turned off the television feeling cheated. Shows in the Lesnar era built on the base of the successful events that preceded them. Bad shows can have the opposite effect. They create ill will and the feeling that a UFC show is hit or miss. It's a feeling the UFC can't afford to cultivate.
As hard-core fans, we've trained ourselves to purchase the monthly pay-per-view like clockwork. Good, bad or indifferent—it's just something we do because we've always done it.
I say no more.
There was a time you could trust the UFC to deliver. No, not every fight was spectacular. But the promotion made a good-faith effort to give fans their money's worth. That doesn't feel like it's the case anymore. This isn't a question of taste or one writer being overly harsh. This is a bad card. We need to treat it like one.
The current UFC can't deliver a monthly pay-per-view worth buying.
Unfortunately that isn't stopping them from trying. Even as the floor for pay-per-view buys plummets, and despite UFC 174 delivering the lowest number in more than a decade, the promotion shows no signs of pulling back from the current paradigm. They will give us these dreadful shows until, as a fanbase, we refuse to accept them.
Make a stand here. Tell the UFC that this show just doesn't cut it.
Let's send an unambiguous message—let's make UFC 177 such an unmitigated failure that they have no choice but to hear us. The UFC won't change the system. That's going to be up to us.
Who's with me?