The Gilded Age: UFC 200 an Ultimate Bust in the Era of the Celebrity Fighter

Jonathan Snowden@JESnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterJuly 10, 2016

LAS VEGAS, NV - JULY 09: An overhead view of the Octagon as Amanda Nunes of Brazil reacts to her victory over Miesha Tate during the UFC 200 event on July 9, 2016 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

For years, the UFC's calling card was its top-to-bottom action. Even if they had never heard of the fighters in the cage, fans knew on any given night someone was bound to do the spectacular. Unlike boxing, where famous athletes occasionally clashed in a battle not to lose, UFC fighters came to win.

The result of that ethos was unprecedented success. A promotion that was worth just $2 million 15 years ago is now valued at a staggering $4 billion. The mainstream came calling, and the UFC was happy to answer. UFC 200 was the cherry on that sundae, the promotion's opportunity to announce to the wider world that it had arrived. 

The old UFC is well and truly dead.

With the salaries, pressure and celebrity that go hand in hand with professional sport comes a certain amount of caution. Everything that made the UFC what it was is slowly fading into the background. The raw energy, reckless battles of will and underground feel have been replaced by a corporate competency that makes accusations of "human cockfighting" seem like they belong in the distant past.

Today, UFC is boxing. It's mainstream and celebrity-driven and has priced out all of its actual fans. That's why Daniel Cormier, the bigger, better and sharper fighter, approached the aged, infirm and out-of-shape Anderson Silva with such an abundance of caution.

By his own admission, he was fighting not to lose.

"Sometimes you can do something very detrimental to you having success," Cormier told Fox Sports 1 after the fight. "The benefit of me winning tonight was so minimal compared to the cost of losing. It would have been disastrous."

As he mauled Silva on the ground, the wealthy thousands in attendance chanted "stand them up." The fans who had built this sport from the ground up were long gone, sitting at home as ticket prices soared past $1,000 on the resale market.  

Maybe that's why, despite having so many competent and excellent athletes on display, UFC 200 felt more like a party that fizzled out than a triumph. In what was supposed to be the biggest night in the sport's 23-year history, the unknown Amanda Nunes stood alone in the spotlight as the show went off the air.

In the era of the celebrity fighter, where Ronda Rousey can appear on Good Morning America and Conor McGregor can make worldwide headlines, that's bound to feel like a disappointment to anyone who dropped four figures to be a part of the spectacle. 

UFC 200 was a party—but one that none of the cool kids bothered to show up for. There was no McGregor, who was the victim of a dispute with UFC brass. There was no Rousey, who was the victim of her own success. There wasn't even Jon Jones, who was the victim of the UFC's self-imposed draconian regulation.

In the old days, the UFC could have gotten away with having Nunes and Miesha Tate, best known as Rousey's punching bag, close the show, falling back on the altar of action to justify giving fans a club sandwich rather than the filet mignon it had promised. The UFC brand was the star, by design, and the fighters were just cogs in that system. 

That age is gone, a vestige of a simpler past. Just delivering an event is no longer enough. The UFC has opened Pandora's box of celebrity culture—and now it has to deliver stars. A UFC mega-event isn't sport anymore. It's a particularly bloody red carpet, with fans responding to Q ratings rather than divisional rankings.

That's why Brock Lesnar, a WWE wrestler who hasn't appeared in the cage in five years, got the biggest response of the night. The man who demolished him in competition years ago, Cain Velasquez, was treated almost as an afterthought. 

Nunes vs. Tate was a fine athletic contest, but it was also a fight the UFC could have dropped on any of its numerous free television shows without anyone batting an eye. It would have been one thing if, as expected, Tate had triumphed and Rousey entered the cage to set up the next big "must-see" fight. But that fizzled in the face of Nunes' blistering right hand.

Nunes and Tate closed the show.
Nunes and Tate closed the show.Ed Mulholland/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Instead of the spectacle we'd all been promised, a fighter who has never headlined a UFC event, who was the opener in her two previous appearances on pay-per-view, became the face of what was supposed to be a mega-event.

On your average show, this could have worked. But this was no average show. For months UFC brass and the media machine had been touting this as an event for the ages. With expectations set so high, disappointment was bound to follow.

In this new environment, you can't close the show with a fight like Tate vs. Nunes and expect anyone to feel good about what they just watched. Simply being the UFC isn't enough anymore. The company has created a demand for stars—now it's time to let them shine.

    

Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.

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