There was a big, crazy triple-header of MMA last weekend.
Bellator redefined how fans enjoy MMA on Friday with Bellator 149, which was headlined by the so-bad-it-was-great heavyweight fight between Kimbo Slice and Dada 5000 and the super-controversial "legends fight" between Ken Shamrock and Royce Gracie.
The UFC did its usual thing on Sunday with an unfortunately long, but generally decent, Fight Night event topped with a "Cowboy vs. Cowboy" matchup pitting Donald Cerrone opposite Alex Oliveira.
World Series of Fighting? Well...it was also there.
As per usual, WSOF put on a generally decent card few people noticed or cared about. It's a situation it's been dealing with for three straight years, but it's one the promotion doesn't seem all that interested in remedying, despite a golden opportunity staring it right in the face.
WSOF has proven itself to be one of the most resilient MMA promotions in the game—chugging on despite ugly feuds with fighters, its CEO (or something) getting sentenced to federal prison and its parent company getting slapped with a major lawsuit from WSOF Asia—however, it has never found a way to attract fans, either to its television broadcasts or to its shows. It's an odd, mysterious durability.
While it doesn't seem like the promotion is in its death throes, things certainly seem to be trending downward. That's how it feels, at least, considering WSOF's latest show saw it share a rec center with a girl's volleyball team and youth basketball, per Dave Doyle of MMAFighting.com:
WSOF from the other side of the recplex. pic.twitter.com/z1qRcc9RY6— Dave Doyle (@davedoylemma) February 21, 2016
When it comes to viewership, the biggest problem is how WSOF started off small and has never really gained ground on its competitors. The company started off as a "high-level MMA organization" but, with time, it has become a talent-rich regional-level promotion.
In 2012, WSOF was a premiere landing spot for high-upside UFC washouts. Former champions like Andrei Arlovski, name-brand veterans like Miguel Torres and talented fighters cut due to weight-cutting troubles like Anthony Johnson made their way to the organization, looking to get back into the UFC.
At the time, that was a viable strategy. The UFC was confidently cutting high-level talent due to the lack of competition, and WSOF offered fighters the option to leave at any point, attracting plenty of recognizable names in the process.
|WSOF 2 Fight Card||WSOF 26 Fight Card|
|Andrei Arlovski vs. Anthony Johnson||Lance Palmer vs. Alexandre de Almeida|
|Marlon Moraes vs. Tyson Nam||Nic Herron-Webb vs. Ozzy Dugulubgov|
|David Branch vs. Paulo Filho||Sheymon Moraes vs. Robbie Peralta|
|Josh Burkman vs. Aaron Simpson||Josh Hill vs. Bekbulat Magomedov|
|Justin Gaethje vs. JZ Cavalcante||Jake Heun vs. Clinton Williams|
Unfortunately, that didn't shake out especially well. Guys like Arlovski and Torres still carried a fairly large price tag, and offering fighters the opportunity to walk at any time is only sustainable with a steadily deep free-agency pool. The bills inevitably piled up, and the promotion's biggest stars found their way to the UFC, leaving them hamstrung by the non-drawing veterans they signed to market-value contracts.
Time went on, and WSOF changed its approach.
In some ways, it's still the organization it was first envisioned as, hosting notable UFC castoffs like Jake Shields, Yushin Okami and Jon Fitch. In other ways, it's like early Bjorn Rebney-era Bellator, housing legitimately excellent champions who are pitted against "enhancement talent" time and again. And in most ways at this point, it's like an RFA or LFC, working with untested but highly promising prospects.
That mixed-bag approach, unsurprisingly, hasn't worked out one bit.
From event to event, WSOF has little to no consistency. Sometimes cards will feature legitimate top-10 talent alongside premiere prospects. Other times, it will feature a hodgepodge of complete unknowns. The only constant to this point? Low ratings, per Sports TV Ratings (via Jason Cruz of MMAPayout.com).
It's an ugly situation, but it's something that can be remedied with just a hint of creativity.
Promoting combat sports has long been about finding a niche. Whether that's pure sport, pure spectacle or some wacky departure from the norm, offering fans a unique take on an established product is the key to success.
So what sets WSOF apart from the pack as it stands? What has drawn the most eyeballs to their promotion? Well, that's easy to peg...but it's not exactly flattering.
The biggest story involving WSOF didn't happen in the cage. Heck, it didn't even involve WSOF fighters. The biggest moment for WSOF in 2015 was when the Diaz brothers, Nick and Nate, and a Khabib Nurmagomedov-led posse engaged in a wild brawl that started right outside the cage and spilled out into the venue's food court.
The next-biggest story? When Rousimar Palhares gouged Jake Shields' eyes before once again illegally cranking an opponent's limb after their fight (which eventually led to a two-year suspension from the NSAC).
Should WSOF embrace its dark side?
Sure, WSOF is home to a great deal of legitimate talent...but WSOF's greatest offering to fans has been pure insanity.
It's not just guest fighters and their champions contributing to that, either. Remember, this is a promotion where fights have ended via headbutt, guys have cheap-shotted opponents they've already beaten and a card was headlined by an ex-con who tried to cut off a dude's fingers. That's not even mentioning the likes of Mike Kyle and Thiago Silva or how they recently did a one-night tournament that wouldn't be legal in most states.
WSOF, without trying, has managed to assert itself as the seediest, sketchiest promotion in the business. Now they just need to use that distinction to their advantage.
A grittier MMA promotion that taps into the brutal, "is this even legal?" appeal of the UFC's early days is far, far more likely to survive than...whatever it is they are doing now. Becoming the ECW or Lucha Underground to the UFC's WWE would instantly set it apart from a crowded, competitive field.
The beautiful thing is that they're only a few tweaks away from this.
Their roster is already perfect for this. On top of their incredible collection of seedy characters, their legitimate talent is no less suited for a new-look WSOF.
Lightweight champ Justin Gaethje is a genuine madman in the cage, consistently delivering wild, savage brawls. Bantamweight champ Marlon Moraes is one of the scariest fighters at 135 pounds, finishing opponents with an almost inhuman efficiency. Heavyweight champ Blagoy Ivanov is one of the toughest people you'll ever encounter in MMA, returning to a career in cage fighting after nearly being stabbed to death in a bar fight.
WSOF has the pieces in place. It just needs to make the moves.
Instead of following its current trend and renting out a high school gymnasium for its next show, go and find a lumber mill or warehouse to convert into a venue. Instead of bringing back Bas Rutten, make Chael Sonnen the permanent color commentator and let him work the desk pro wrestling-style, as he did with Battlegrounds MMA.
Make fighters' entrances intense, like in old-school WEC where fighters like Carlos Condit and Jamie Varner would walk to the cage through the front door of whatever bar they were fighting in.
These are small changes that would finally, at long last, make WSOF something other than the "Diet UFC" it has long stagnated as. While a hardcore MMA alternative isn't necessarily going to be everyone's cup of tea, it certainly has a higher ceiling than...whatever it is the promotion is doing now.