In this edition of Around The Cage, we look at the declining public interest in “The Ultimate Fighter” franchise, the abrupt retirement of Satoshi Ishii, the utterly unpredictable ratings pattern of Bellator on MTV2, and we take a look at the return of DREAM. We also have tons of “Coming & Going” notes to catch up on, so…
Let’s go Around The Cage, 4/23/11
Nobody Cares About TUF
Maybe the theme song should go something like this:
Boom! Another point nine is landing!
The fourth episode of Season 13 of the reality show that catapulted the UFC out of the dark ages and into mainstream relevance pulled an embarrassing 0.9 rating for the second consecutive week (good for 1.3 million viewers), and also saw a significant drop from the previous week in both of the key demos. Males 18-34 dropped by roughly 500,000 total viewers, and Males 18-49 dropped by roughly 200,000.
This is clearly a far cry from the days of Kimbo Slice drawing 6.1 million viewers for his fight against Roy Nelson at the high point of the series during season 10.
While Slice may have briefly revived the franchise, the truth is that TUF has been declining in interest for many years. And while it may not be fair to compare the current ratings to the high mark of the Slice fight, consider that the debut of Season 10 drew 2.9 million viewers. Season 13 pulled 1.5 million viewers for its debut, good for a rating of 1.0, which represented the lowest debut rating in series history. And the number is falling.
Many are claiming these lousy numbers represent a drop in the drawing power of Brock Lesnar, the biggest PPV draw in MMA, and whose participation was considered a major coup when UFC head Dana White convinced him to do the show. It is impossible to make that connection without first seeing what the Lesnar vs. Junior Dos Santos fight eventually draws on PPV. Other top draws like BJ Penn (Season 5, the season which saw the series take its first slide in the ratings), Rampage Jackson (Season 7), Chuck Liddell (Season 11), and Georges St Pierre (Season 12) were unable to revive the franchise, indicating that just because people are willing to pay to see big name fighters fight, that does not necessarily mean that those same people want to watch them do fake coaching on a reality show, even for free.
And if we are going to place blame on Lesnar, why leave out his rival coach? Dos Santos, who possesses the personality of a corpse and the charisma of the guy who did your taxes two weeks ago, isn’t exactly helping matters in the excitement department.
Besides, it’s become clear, with the failure of Lesnar, GSP, Liddell and others to spark the ratings, that the coaches are largely irrelevant in terms of the numbers. The biggest ratings draw in the history of the show was a freak show fighter, not a big name coach. Removing the fluke that was Slice from the equation, since that was a unique scenario that likely cannot be duplicated, why are the numbers sliding? Why does each season since Season 5 (aside from Kimbo TUF) hover in the 1.2, 1.3 range, regardless of coach?
The obvious answer is we are dealing with a dead concept. Despite minor tweaks to freshen up the show, it’s largely the same show we’ve been watching since 2005. But other reality shows, such as Survivor, Big Brother, Amazing Race, and the one that started it all, MTV’s Real World, have aired far longer than that, and are pulling far bigger numbers. And these shows suffer from the same tired concepts that people use as an excuse for TUF.
If it’s not the coaches, and it’s not the concept, is it the fighters?
Consider this. Twelve fighters from the first five seasons of the show have participated in fifteen UFC or WEC title fights, with Gray Maynard’s upcoming title fight at UFC 130 upping the number to sixteen. Three of those fighters have won UFC championships.
Conversely, there has not been a single TUF fighter since Season 5 who has participated in a UFC title fight.
Season 1 produced Griffin, Josh Koscheck, Diego Sanchez, Stephan Bonnar, Kenny Florian, Chris Leben, Mike Swick, & Nate Quarry, all of which have had long UFC careers of varying degrees of success. Alex Schoenauer, Bobby Southworth, and Alex Karalexis have all had noteworthy major league MMA careers as well.
Season 2 was similarly loaded, producing Rashad Evans, Joe Stevenson, Keith Jardine, Marcus Davis, Jorge Gurgel, Brad Imes, Melvin Guillard, and just for kicks, infamous Kimbo killer Seth Petruzelli.
Season 3 had Michael Bisping, Matt Hamill, Kendall Grove, Ed Herman, and Jesse Forbes.
Season 4 was “The Comeback”, featuring UFC veterans, and Season 5 produced a few notable lightweights, including Gray Maynard and Nate Diaz.
You can see the slow decline in the quality of fighter, and when you get to Season 6 and beyond, the decline becomes sharp and dramatic. The early seasons I’ve highlighted featured many very good fighters, who were well known amongst hardcore fans before they ever stepped foot into the TUF house. But recent seasons have produced one or two decent fighters each, and beyond that, largely a collection of cans. Fans eventually can see through this. For every recent Ryan Bader, you get two James Wilks.
So the obvious question, is why is the quality of fighters slipping? MMA is far more popular now than it was in 2005, and we’ve had six years of growth of the sport since TUF Season 1.
In the early days, TUF had the pick of the litter in terms of available fighters, and there were plenty of really good fighters to choose from who were fighting on low level shows. But eventually, there were more places to fight, and earn a decent living doing so, due to the TUF boom of 2005 opening the door for a laundry list of new MMA promotions attempting to coat tail the new found success of the UFC.
The level of fighter that TUF was able to attract in the early days was now being signed up by the IFLs, EliteXCs, and Strikeforces of the world. Fighters at the level of a Forrest Griffin or Diego Sanchez or Rashad Evans now had viable options to make money, instead of moving into a house with a bunch of immature rowdies and being driven to insanity via cabin fever and alcohol. Thus, UFC and Spike have had to dig much deeper into the talent pool in recent years, which has resulted in the sharp decline in talent over the last seven or eight seasons.
It took a few years to catch on, but I believe fans now realize that TUF is no longer producing the next crop of stars. And if that's the case, why watch? To see Brock Lesnar and JDS fake coach? Pass.
Satoshi Ishii Takes His Stability Ball and Goes Home
Remember when Satoshi Ishii was being touted as the man who would save Japanese MMA?
Ishii announced his retirement this past week, turning his attention to gaining U.S. citizenship and qualifying for the 2016 Olympic games in Brazil, where he hopes to win his second Olympic gold medal in judo.
Ishii’s career was mired by both a lack of charisma (which is paramount in Japan) and a lack of enjoying being punched in the face, something he won’t have to worry about while competing in judo.
He never looked comfortable in the ring, starting with a 2009 New Years Eve loss to aging judoka Hidehiko Yoshida, in a fight that was designed to be a passing of the torch, but ended up being an embarrassment for Ishii. He followed up the loss by winning his next four fights.
But two of those wins were lackluster decisions, first over gimmick fighter Minowaman, and later over aging kickboxing legend Jerome LeBanner, two “name” opponents who any competent top level fighter would have likely finished. His other two wins were over two fighters with a combined record of 4-12-1.
Ishii had been booked to compete on the April 1st Strikeforce Challengers show (against Scott Lighty), but pulled out, initially over what was thought to be concerns regarding the recent string of tragedies in Japan. Later it was blames on visa issues, although that sounds a bit fishy considering Ishii had been living in Los Angeles for some time. He had also recently gone through what was said to be a nasty divorce.
The first two reasons may have been related, but who knows. What is clear, is his heart was never into the MMA game, and he simply wasn’t the great fighter he was expected to be.
If a Fight Happens on MTV2, and Nobody is There to See it, Did it Really Happen?
Bellator 41 bottomed out at 132,000 viewers, doing its lowest total number of viewers all season. Let’s take a look at the numbers from the start of the season and try to make some sense of what is happening:
Bellator 35 viewers: 200,000
Bellator 36 viewers: 230,000
Bellator 37 viewers: 173,000
Bellator 38 viewers: 150,000
Bellator 39 viewers: 174,000
Bellator 40 viewers: 218,000
Bellator 41 viewers: 132,000
The number dropped to its previous lowest level for Bellator 38 (150k viewers) when the start time was changed to avoid going head to head with a UFC PPV.
What is interesting about that, is Bellator head man Bjorn Rebney had been outspoken about the fluctuating time slots on the promotions previous home, Fox Sports Net, and was touting one of the advantages of MTV2 would be consistent air times. Then, the decision was made to move up the start times on UFC nights, in hopes of creating an “MMA night”.
That decision has appears to have backfired. With the significant drop that resulted in moving, they might as well stay put regardless of the competition, if nothing else to keep the consistency of the timeslot. The good news, is Bellator will not be facing the UFC scenario for the remainder of the season (they are taking a one week hiatus next week during UFC PPV, which may prove to be a worse move than moving the timeslot up. A season recap will air instead).
Ironically, Rebney’s vision of an “MMA night” has worked out much better when he isn’t running from the competition. Two of the biggest numbers of the season (and also the largest replay numbers) occurred when they went “head to head” with Strikeforce (with the second hour of Bellator going head to head with the first hour of a Strikeforce show on Showtime), indicating that many of the same fans who watch Strikeforce are also watching Bellator. This makes perfect sense, as Strikeforce draws from a more hardcore crowd, and Bellator is a niche product that generally appeals only to that group of fans.
Following the big dip of Bellator 38, the show picked up momentum with two consecutive weeks back in the regular time slot. Dropping to 132k on the third consecutive week either indicates a massive fluke, or shows that any attempt to analyze the numbers for a low-rated show on a nothing network like MTV2 may be pointless.
The ratings have also shown that Bellator has yet to successfully create a star. 155-pound champion Eddie Alvarez, one of the top ranked lightweights in the world and easily the most credentialed fighter on the roster, drew the second lowest number of the season.
Joe Warren, arguably the most charismatic fighter on the roster, fought in the main event of Bellator 41, the least viewed week of the season. Nothing in the data suggests that it even matters who is fighting in terms of drawing viewers. Whoever is watching, is simply watching to see MMA, which is fine, but you cannot build a brand without first creating stars. And you cannot create stars if nobody is watching.
It is that chicken/egg scenario that will doom Bellator for as long as they remain on the low powered MTV2. With a minuscule built in viewership, insiders knew the network was a dead end destination. The best Bellator can realistically hope for, is to tread water and survive until they can find a stronger broadcast partner.
The Demise of DREAM Has Been Greatly Exaggerated. Again.
The Jason Vorhees of MMA will not die.
DREAM will return May 29th, with a show titled “DREAM Japan GP- 2011 Bantamweight Tournament”.
The matchups were drawn live on YouTube last week, and will shape up as follows:
Yoshiro Maeda vs. Hideo Tokoro, Darren Uyenoyama vs. Atsushi Yamamoto. Kenji Osawa vs. Takafumi Otsuka, and Masakazu Imanari vs. Keisuke Fujiwara.
These four first round fights, plus the two semi finals will take place on this show, with both the finals and third place fight taking place on a proposed show in July. The winner, along with the second and third place finishers, will move on to the DREAM Bantamweight World Tournament which would presumably take place in late 2011. Names thrown around for participation in the world tournament include Bibiano Fernendez and Bellator champion Joe Warren.
No Japanese television coverage has been announced as of yet (which is a bad sign, but let’s face it, nothing has killed off DREAM yet so I refuse to pronounce them dead until I see the body), but organizers claim the scaled down show will go on regardless. HDNet is expected to cover the event in the United States.
In addition to the Bantamweight GP fights, four “superfights” will be announced shortly, with the usual suspects of Joachim Hansen, Caol Uno, Wicki Nishiura, Shinya Aoki, etc being speculated.
With Tokoro being the biggest name in the GP field, and the expected scaled down production costs, it appears DREAM is doing everything possible to stay afloat. This, combined with the roster cutbacks in Sengoku over the last few months, paints an ugly picture for the future of major league JMMA. But haven’t we heard this story before?
Coming and Going
The big news is former Strikeforce middleweight Jason “Mayhem” Miller inking a multi-fight deal with the UFC. Miller is the first big name fighter to switch sides under the new expanded Zuffa umbrella. He will face Aaron Simpson at UFC 132 in July.
Akira “Mr. Pride” Shoji has retired after 15 years in the ring. Shoji was defeated by Kazuo Misaki on a Deep show this past Friday. Shoji says he will stay active in MMA as both a judge and a referee.
UFC has re-signed Matt Grice.
UFC has cut former TUF finalist Kris McCray.
UFC has also cut Mario Miranda.
Veteran Chris Haseman has retired. Haseman spent most of his career fighting for RINGS, but also had one UFC fight in 2002 (a loss to Evan Tanner).
You can check out the last edition of Around The Cage, featuring a detailed look at whether Frank Shamrock offered to throw a fight to Kimbo Slice, here.
Our next edition of Around The Cage will feature our first ever mailbag. Send all questions, comments, and hate mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, or find me on Twitter @JoeMLanza.
Do you like the Around The Cage logo? Contact me for information on the artist.