What the UFC Did Right
It's easy to knock the UFC nowadays.
They're the big bully on the playground, taking lunch money and kicking sand in the face of every other promotion. Say something good about the UFC and you're certain to be rebuffed by this or that purist/old-schooler.
And, with good reason.
The UFC has become the WWF (E) of MMA.
I don't use that metaphor lightly, I realize all the backlash I'm likely to get for even putting up such an offensive acronym. But, if you are familiar with the McMahon family and their Standard Oil-type model of gobbling up or ruining rival organizations, then you may be able to appreciate my point.
Current owner Vince McMahon's own father once warned him that his ambition may land him at the bottom of a river somewhere. "Things in this business just aren't DONE that way," he said.
He and his company had survived for years by allowing other companies to have their own regional pieces of the pie. Little Vince, however, didn't care if he already had the biggest and sweetest piece, he wanted everyone's piece, no matter how small.
Dana White and his partners in crime operate much the same way. Reach for some of their pie and you're likely to draw back a nub.
The question is, can we really fault them for it?
Full disclosure: I do not have a belt in any martial art. I have never had any formal training in a martial art. I've gotten into a few fist fights with various drummers, but that's neither here nor there.
I have a degree in business. What I'm saying is filtered through that prism first and foremost.
I can't help it. I'm just explaining where I'm coming from.
And let me tell you, from that perspective, the UFC is doing a bang-up job.
They were able to do something very difficult in business/marketing: create a need.
There was an existing need, but that isn't what I'm talking about. That need stemmed from those folks who have belts in various martial arts. That need was rooted in people already going to karate tournaments, those intimate with the fight game already. Those people were already interested. But there simply weren't enough of them.
Enter Dana White in 2001.
He and his backers bought a brand that had been tarnished by accusations of brutality, human cockfighting, excessive violence, etc. He stated in an interview with Entrepreneur.com that he bought the UFC (rather than starting his own promotion) just because, good or bad, people had heard of it.
The image of the UFC was tarnished because it had been marketed that way. It was advertised as the "Faces of Death" of the sports world. That was fine for making a quick buck, but eventually the sensationalism wears off and the spectacle ceases to intrigue those viewers who aren't really familiar with martial arts.
Dana White and the new UFC decided to try something different.
They made MMA into a sport instead of a bloodbath. And let's face it, some of those early UFC fights were pretty gory. When teeth are kicked out of someones mouth and fly into the crowd—that's a little bit much.
The stoppages were slow. I remember a fight (I don't know which one, but the attacker was wearing a gi) where the victim was held in the crucifix position and elbowed way too many times after he was already unconscious. I don't know how many, but I do remember thinking, "Is the ref going to let him murder this man on television?"
Now the public is told that it's going to be a sport with great athletes rather than a fight between killers. This is where much of the martial arts crowd got off the bus. No knees to a downed opponents head? No downward striking elbows? No shots to the back of the head? No headbutts? Is this a fight or a tea party?
But, for every martial arts enthusiast who left his seat, there were five casual viewers who were now ready to fill it. The UFC gave them something they could watch without feeling guilty or too nervous.
Oh, there's still blood. There are injuries, too. But there is a much greater chance that the fighter will be able to make a quick return and fight again.
It wasn't just the changes in the rules that brought the UFC into the mainstream, however. The UFC spent themselves into financial oblivion.
They were in a $44 million hole at one point and on the verge of cutting and running.
The highest bid for the company was $6 million, so White and company decided to keep going. By branching out and putting shows on Spike, the UFC was soon beating NBA games in the ratings (and those games were on network television.)
The Ultimate Fighter allowed fans to get on board with a fighter "back in the day" and follow his career as it blossomed. Then, Forrest Griffin fought Stephan Bonnar and the rest, they say, is history.
Sure, we miss the PRIDE days. But if we want to blame someone, blame their parent company, Dream Stage Entertainment, for losing their television deal.
Sure, the UFC was Johnny-on-the-spot to pick the bones, but they didn't make the kill. DSE has risen from the ashes, but if they were willing to make a partnership with EliteXC, one has to question their foresight. Speaking of which...
EliteXC hung themselves, I don't think there is a lot of sympathy for the organization, only the fighters. I'm talking about Gina Carano, not Kimbo Slice.
Affliction is dying on the vine right now, unable to get any sunlight because of the UFC's enormous shadow. They may pull through, but most casual fans don't have the desire to go beyond the UFC when it comes to pay-per-views—they just don't.
So, hey, you know what? If it's the UFC or nothing, then sign me up.
I'll get my fix where I can get it and right now, the UFC is where my bread gets buttered. Georges St. Pierre, Anderson Silva, Randy Couture, Brock Lesnar, and BJ Penn have become big enough superstars that I can easily talk my buddies into going in on pay-per-views. When the price is split eight or nine ways, it becomes pretty reasonable.
Are there flaws? Yup.
Is Dana White a stingy bastard? No doubt.
Do the fighters deserve a better boss and more money? Most assuredly.
Is the UFC the only game in town? Time will tell, but if they are, you'll have a heck of a time getting me to boycott.
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