The UFC Should Embrace the Weirdness and Make Compelling Fights

Patrick WymanMMA Senior AnalystMarch 27, 2017

FILE - In this July 7, 2016, file photo, Dana White, center, stands between Nate Diaz, left, and Conor McGregor during a news conference in Las Vegas for UFC 202. McGregor is being fined $150,000 by the Nevada Athletic Commission for a profanity-laced bottle-throwing fracas that erupted during a pre-fight news conference with rival Nate Diaz in August in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher, File)
Associated Press

Last week, former UFC middleweight champion Luke Rockhold made headlines when he called out former heavyweight champion Fabricio Werdum. The two men have had issues for years, going back to when they both fought under the Strikeforce banner.

In the absence of a meaningful hierarchy of challengers in the middleweight division, Rockhold said he might as well fight Werdum in the meantime.

"Given what's going on in the middleweight division right now—screw that. I'm coming to heavyweight. Let's do this," he said on Fox Sports 1's UFC Tonight (h/t MMAjunkie). "They're [the UFC] into making money fights, right? They want to make a money fight, sell some tickets? Let's do this thing."

Lesnar drew eyeballs to UFC 200.
Lesnar drew eyeballs to UFC 200.Ed Mulholland/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

One can argue whether the era of WME-IMG ownership has brought the trend of big-name fighters meeting in sometimes odd matchups. Or whether the current state of affairs is best understood as the continuation the Zuffa's last year, which saw the return of Brock Lesnar and two bouts between Nate Diaz and Conor McGregor.

But you can't argue the fighters don't seem more aware of these kinds of bouts or more willing to seek them out.

Rumors of wild pairings are constantly in the news, whether Rockhold is pitching a fight with Werdum or Tyron Woodley is seeking out matchups with Nick Diaz or Michael Bisping. They're a facet of the sport now, not an occasional deviation—Randy Couture vs. James Toney, for example—from the norms of the UFC's matchmaking.

Luke Rockhold is a promotable piece for the UFC.
Luke Rockhold is a promotable piece for the UFC.Mike Stobe/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

The organization should fully embrace bouts like Rockhold vs. Werdum in this new and exciting era. There's no point in pining for a lost age of meritocracy in the UFC that never fully existed anyway, and if the UFC's goal is to make as much money as possible in the short term, then it needs to find creative ways of using the various pieces at its disposal.

Let's break this down.

In terms of pay-per-view sales, this is an increasingly star-driven age. Fans buy the biggest names in enormous quantities, meaning McGregor and Ronda Rousey (and before them, Georges St-Pierre and Anderson Silva). The middle class of pay-per-view draws formerly occupied by fighters like BJ Penn, Rampage Jackson and a whole host of other big-name former champions has essentially disappeared.

In the absence of a star like McGregor or Rousey, the UFC will occasionally make cards that draw low numbers, such as the paltry 150,000—the lowest total for 2016—that Anthony Pettis vs. Max Holloway drew at UFC 206 last December in Toronto.

Alternatively, the promotion can attempt to stack the card with a variety of meaningful bouts in the hope that quantity will entice fans to pay full price. That worked well for UFC 200, which drew approximately 1.1 million buys on the strength of Brock Lesnar, Miesha Tate and Jose Aldo.

Throwing a couple of champions on a card and hoping the aggregate effect will draw fans isn't a bad option, and it's probably the best use of the belts for talented and accomplished but not big-name fighters.

Heavyweight champion Miocic headlines UFC 211 in Dallas in May.
Heavyweight champion Miocic headlines UFC 211 in Dallas in May.Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

This is what the UFC is trying in Dallas on May 13 with UFC 211, which features Stipe Miocic vs. Junior Dos Santos for the heavyweight belt and a strawweight title fight between Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Jessica Andrade.

It was the formula for UFC 201 in July, though Demetrious Johnson withdrew from his flyweight championship bout against Wilson Reis. And it worked at UFC 199, which featured Rockhold vs. Bisping for the middleweight strap and the trilogy fight between Dominick Cruz and Urijah Faber.

Champions are a commodity the UFC can use in a variety of ways. It can stack cards with generic title fights or match them up with each other—McGregor vs. Alvarez and St-Pierre vs. Bisping both qualify in this regard—though it's a bit dicier and harder to pull off.

Beyond the champions, however, the UFC has a wide array of fighters under contract who have some measure of name value—even though in the star-driven landscape, it's not enough to drive huge TV ratings or enormous pay-per-view buys. These are often former champions, fighters such as the aforementioned Rockhold and Werdum. 

If there's a market inefficiency, someplace where the UFC can make more creative money fights in the WME-IMG era with the resources at its disposal, it's through the clever use of these kinds of fighters.

Nick Diaz and Anderson Silva were a compelling combination.
Nick Diaz and Anderson Silva were a compelling combination.Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

There's precedent for this. The organization put together Nick Diaz and Anderson Silva, both somewhat faded but still with substantial followings, at UFC 183 in January 2015. The event was a surprise success, drawing 650,000 buys. Neither Diaz nor Silva would have drawn that much as a pay-per-view headliner on his own at that point. Both fighters had lost two straight, Silva had suffered a devastating injury in 2013, and neither had fought recently.

Pitting the two against each other made the matchup more than the sum of its parts and did so without disrupting a title picture or taking away pieces the organization may have used in another fashion. Other examples of this dynamic include Daniel Cormier vs. Silva, a fight that came up on short notice after the UFC withdrew Jon Jones from UFC 200. The Fight Night 66 headlining bout of Frankie Edgar vs. Urijah Faber in May 2015 is another example.

So, let's put our money where our mouth is and consider a few of these options. Cruz is capable of winning back his bantamweight title, but if the timing works out after Edgar's bout with Yair Rodriguez at UFC 211, why not match up the two? That might not be a PPV killer, but it could be a strong co-main event to a big-time card or a headliner on Fox. 

Johnson is a compelling knockout artist.
Johnson is a compelling knockout artist.Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

The next two months have both light heavyweight (UFC 210 on April 8) and heavyweight title fights booked. Why not match up the losers of those two bouts? The size disparity isn't huge.

 

If Anthony Johnson loses to Cormier at UFC 210, he'll have two losses to the reigning champion. Ditto for Miocic to Dos Santos. Miocic would be a long way from another title shot, and Cormier could find himself playing second fiddle to a returning Jon Jones.

If Aldo loses his featherweight belt to Max Holloway at UFC 212 on June 3, this might be the right time to make that long-lost fight with Pettis—the one that was scheduled and then canceled back in 2013 because of injury. A violence special between former welterweight champion Robbie Lawler and Donald Cerrone would be a nice touch.

Rockhold vs. Werdum might prove to be a bit too wild for the UFC's tastes, but surely, there are more productive uses for these former champions than slotting them back into matchups within their respective divisional hierarchies.

Things are changing in the UFC. The question is to what degree, not whether it's happening. It doesn't have to be bad, though, and putting together big-name fighters serves the needs of the organization, which is doing everything it can to generate money fights, and the fans who would like to see fun, creative matchups.

This is a way of doing both.

                            

All pay-per-view figures drawn from MMA Payout, which collects numbers from Dave Meltzer's Wrestling Observer Newsletter.

Patrick Wyman is the Senior MMA Analyst for Bleacher Report and the co-host of the Heavy Hands Podcast, your source for the finer points of face-punching. For the history enthusiasts out there, he also hosts The Fall of Rome Podcast on the end of the Roman Empire. He can be found on Twitter and on Facebook.