The Question: Are UFC's Recent Struggles the Sign of an Inevitable Decline?

Jonathan Snowden@JESnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterFebruary 14, 2017

BROOKLYN, NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 11:  Holly Holm reacts to her loss to Germaine de Randamie of The Netherlands in their women's featherweight championship bout during the UFC 208 event inside Barclays Center on February 11, 2017 in Brooklyn, New York. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

The UFC 208 card was likely beyond redemption when middleweight Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza submitted journeyman Tim Boetsch in the first round Saturday in Brooklyn, New York. Before the perennial contender did his thing, and thank goodness he did, 14 fighters had spent 105 minutes inside the UFC Octagon doing nothing of note.

When he was done darn near wrenching Boetsch's shoulder out of its socket, four more fighters, ostensibly the best on the card, spent 45 more excruciating minutes teasing high-octane action that never materialized.

It was UFC at its absolute worst, arguably the least-impressive showing on pay-per-view since the dark ages before The Ultimate Fighter gave the sport a national platform and started a journey that turned a $2 million investment into billions of dollars for former owners Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta.

Worse than being bad, it was boring, hours of sports entertainment that didn't seem to feature much in the way of entertainment or sport.

The dreadful event also served notice to the promotion's new owners at WME-IMG that presenting mixed martial arts is, perhaps, not as foolproof as it seems. Sure, when you send Conor McGregor out to the cage, it's an invitation to print money and no one in the audience sits on their hands. But, unfortunately, there are more Germaine de Randamies, the unknown fighter thrust into the spotlight in Brooklyn, than there are McGregors.

That's sort of a problem.

Is this the sign of things to come? Has the UFC peaked and entered the beginning stages of a downward spiral? Or is this a blip that will be forgotten the moment a new star grabs the fans' attention and refuses to let go? Veteran MMA reporters Jonathan Snowden and Chad Dundas pull out their crystal balls and take a guess at what the future holds for the promotion that has become synonymous with a sport.

   

Jonathan Snowden: I can already hear the knives sharpening on Twitter as readers prepare to engage their carefully cultivated sense of righteous indignation. MMA fans are very protective of our underdog sport and even the hint of doubt or negativity can lead to a furious response as men with egg-shaped avatars delve out internet justice.

And, truth be told, I understand. I'm even hesitant to share these fears. There's a good chance that, in a year's time, this will be embarrassingly wrong. After all, UFC had its biggest year ever last year financially and in Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey, found living embodiments of its quest to go mainstream. Outside investors were all put throwing money at the Fertitta brothers just to be a part of this sport.

But I can't help but feel the echoes of the past reverberate as I watch the new UFC brass turn a successful, carefully cultivated product into something that seems a little bit worse month after month. This doesn't feel like a thriving enterprise. It feels like World Championship Wrestling, a promotion that went from being the hottest in the world in 1998 to losing tens of millions by 2000.

In 1998, Bill Goldberg was one of wrestling's top stars.
In 1998, Bill Goldberg was one of wrestling's top stars.ERIK S. LESSER/Associated Press

The UFC rose from obscurity on the back of a single cable-television reality show. The fall, as WCW showed, can happen just as fast. One day, WCW was selling out domes with the NWO and Bill Goldberg. The next, as documented by R.D. Reynolds and Bryan Alvarez in their book The Death of WCW, they were selling out to Vince McMahon for pennies on the dollar.

Despite obvious differences, I feel the same arrogance that sunk WCW in the UFC. The numbers don't yet support a sense of doom and gloom. People are still watching and buying UFC. But, anecdotally, it reminds me of many other mainstream fads that lose steam with the fickle masses.

The promotion, once so successful because it had an intuitive sense for what would sell, seems completely disconnected from its fighters, fans and the casual audience that helped turn a niche spectacle into something your grandmother asks you about over Thanksgiving dinner.

Am I crazy Chad? Or is it starting to seem like UFC has lost its way?

   

Chad Dundas: You're not crazy, but I'm also not quite ready to reinforce my Chuck Mindenhall-style newsboy cap with titanium in preparation for the sky to begin falling.

I agree that the first quarter of 2017 so far feels disconcerting, especially for people who've been around the sport long enough to witness its meteoric rise. The year's first four events have served up a starvation diet of underwhelming headliners featuring the likes of Valentina Shevchenko, Dennis Bermudez and Germaine de Randamie.

Not exactly a who's who of public affection and marketability.

Last Saturday's flatly underwhelming UFC 208 was a backbreaker, considering its $60 price tag and nearly four-hour run time after all but one main card fight went to decision. As de Randamie and Holly Holm finished up their ugly main event scrap for the inaugural women's featherweight title, I admit I began to wonder if the company might be in big trouble here, whether even hardcore fans will start tuning out during this extended down stretch.

But as of this writing, I have no reason to believe it'll blossom into anything more than that: a down stretch, a rough first half, at worst a lackluster 2017.

We should avoid hitting the panic button just yet. These current doldrums may be fleeting. In fact, they aren't even unexpected.

The UFC fired a lot of promotional bullets to make 2016 its most profitable year ever. During the first half of last year, the company was for sale after all, and during the second, executives may have been scrambling to justify the $4.2 billion WME-IMG paid to acquire it in July.

It didn't take a financial analyst to forecast a rebuilding period to begin the new year, especially with Rousey, McGregor and Jon Jones all MIA.

Meanwhile WME-IMG is just getting started reshaping the company to its own image—with mass layoffs and high-profile departures adding to the unease. It's still locked into the UFC's existing broadcast deal with Fox, though, so there's only so much the Hollywood mega-talent agency can do in the short term.

Honestly, I remain optimistic that the product will come out the other side of this regime change for the better. It might just take a year or two.

Is that too Pollyannaish, Jonathan? Should I be selling my copious stock holdings in the dietary supplement and black chain-link industries? Is a crash coming?

   

Jonathan: The stars aligned perfectly for UFC and helped the owners walk away with billions of dollars when the getting was good. New owners came in expecting growth to continue at an astronomical rate. Instead, they happily entered a bubble just as it was about to pop.

I don't think a crash is imminent, but I do think 2016 was aberrational. A market correction is coming—and we're seeing the beginning stages right now.

McGregor and Rousey are once-in-a-generation icons, and both peaked at the box office in the same magical year. Rousey has already faded into memory, and McGregor's is the kind of swagger that can't easily be duplicated, no matter how many fighters attempt to pull off his act. Worse, they risk diluting the original with dozens of copycats doing bad "Who da f--k is that guy?" impressions.

In some ways you can't blame UFC for its ill-fated attempts at creating a new Rousey and a new McGregor. When something works in the entertainment industry, you knock it off.

A pretty blonde is drawing unprecedented attention? Bring on Paige VanZant.

A cocky Irishman is all the rage? Let's all start sending pithy tweets and hope for the best!

The truth is, there is no formula for stardom in combat sports. It's undefinable. You know it when you see it, and it takes on a different appearance each time.

The key isn't recreating what's currently working. After all, the next Mike Tyson wasn't a fighter who resembled the dangerous knockout artist from the hood. It was pretty-boy Olympian Oscar De La Hoya. UFC's problem is an inability to spot the potential stars in its midst and an insistence on pursuing handpicked favorites like Sage Northcutt or VanZant even as it becomes clear they won't be able to climb the ladder all the way to the top.

At one point UFC matchmaker Joe Silva and President Dana White were keyed in on what fans wanted to see. They weren't perfect, but their thumbs were often near the pulse if not on it.

But Silva is gone and White lives among the jet set, importing snow to Las Vegas and tipping card dealers more than he pays many of his fighters, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Which begs the question, Chad—if UFC's experts don't understand the fans or how to build a star, what hope does WME-IMG, with no track record in the unique fight business, have?

   

Chad: If my time covering combat sports has taught me anything, it's that you can't really "make" mainstream crossover stars. Not even WWE can consistently pull that trick off, and McMahon and Co. have the luxury of literally scripting their own reality. In MMA, the degree of difficulty is that much higher because of—you know—legitimate athletics and stuff.

The rise of juggernauts like Rousey and McGregor takes more alchemy than science, and it's a fool's errand to think anyone can predict (or manipulate) when the next shiny new version will come along. Historically, though, someone—whether it be Chuck Liddell, Georges St-Pierre or Brock Lesnar— has always kept the ship afloat.

Lesnar was one of the top stars in the pre-WME-IMG era.
Lesnar was one of the top stars in the pre-WME-IMG era.Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

There will continue to be some boom and bust inherent in that system, but dating back to 2005 or so, the Fertittas always managed to keep profits trending upward. Did they cash out at just the right time? Maybe, but it's not as though the honchos from WME-IMG were country rubes getting swindled in some back-alley shell game. They knew what they were buying.

If anything, the new owners are probably betting there's a lot they can do more effectively than the old ones.

When the UFC's current broadcast deal with Fox expires in 2018, for example, I fully expect WME-IMG to land a more lucrative one. That's sort of what it does, after all.

I wager it'll reduce the fight company's overstuffed live schedule, thereby increasing the quality of individual events. Perhaps it'll go a step further and put less emphasis on filler cable TV cards while better using network television to expand the UFC's mainstream footprint.

I think WME-IMG can be both more surgical and more capable in continuing to expand the UFC brand into international markets. I think it can improve production values across the board. I think it can make better inroads with heavy-hitting corporate sponsors.

Perhaps more than anything else, it can likely use its vast entertainment-industry connections to get better exposure for new and existing UFC stars. Even if there isn't another Rousey or McGregor in the immediate offing, WME-IMG can almost certainly do a better job getting the athletes it does have in front of the widest possible audiences.

As a fight promoter, isn't that really all you can ask for?

Now, I admit I'm mostly just tossing coins in the wishing well here. It's possible this whole thing could blow up in everyone's face at any moment. It's possible new stars don't emerge just when the industry needs them. It's possible hardcore fans might miss the Fertittas' passion and turn away from what could be an increasingly corporate product.

The point is, I don't know what's going to happen—but I think there are as many reasons for optimism as for pessimism. As bad as the start of 2017 has been, I think it's more likely to turn around than fizzle and die.

   

Jonathan Snowden and Chad Dundas cover combat sports for Bleacher Report.

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