When WME-IMG spent more than $4 billion to purchase the UFC last July, the optimism was palpable.
The giant entertainment conglomerate had negotiated the UFC's last TV deal and had loads of experience in media more generally, and it had the tools and the platforms to create new stars in an increasingly personality-driven sport. Despite the UFC's recent success under the leadership of the Fertitta brothers, success mostly due to Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor, it was unclear how much further they could take it.
The sheer amount of money WME-IMG had spent on the UFC must have meant that there was a plan in place to take the UFC, and by extension MMA as a whole, to the next level. At least, that was the logical conclusion.
One quarter into 2017, the outlines of WME-IMG's approach to the UFC are beginning to take shape. The changes have arrived, from extreme cost-cutting measures to a new matchmaking philosophy to a new approach to the roster, and the real question now is what the implications of those shifts will be.
The immediate drive to reduce costs is a commonplace in any corporate merger—that's what makes them financially worthwhile for the parent company—and it's something WME-IMG has embraced with a vengeance.
The entertainment conglomerate laid off 15 percent of the UFC's staff last October with an overall goal of slashing a $55 million payroll to just $27 million, per investor documents cited by MMAjunkie's Ben Fowlkes and Steven Marrocco.
Various executives have left the company, including head of public relations Dave Sholler, big-name hire Garry Cook and innovative and widely respected Fight Pass guru Eric Winter.
These measures have begun to hit fighters and coaches as well. Per striking coach Brandon Gibson, the UFC has stopped sending video of upcoming opponents to fighters, instead suggesting that they buy the UFC's Fight Pass service for access to footage. Lightweight contender Tony Ferguson received less than half his show money for a scheduled fight at UFC 209 that fell through, a departure from previous practice.
There will be long-term impacts from these changes, though what those consequences will be is hard to say. Fighters might be less prepared for their bouts, there might be fewer shows in particular regions of the world, Fight Pass might be worse off and perhaps down the road less money for fighters will mean fewer talented athletes choosing to take up MMA.
In the short term, however, shifts to the matchmaking philosophy and roster cuts are far more immediate and obvious changes.
Matchmaker Joe Silva, who had been with the UFC for more than 20 years, retired at the end of 2016. More than anyone, he was responsible for the overall philosophy and direction of the promotion, the idea that the best should consistently fight the best. Whatever else the UFC has been in its long life, and no matter how much it has straddled the line between sport and entertainment, that idea of elite competition has held strong.
Whether that will still be the case moving forward is now in legitimate question.
Sean Shelby, the former WEC matchmaker and longtime Silva understudy and partner, has now taken over and operates in partnership with Mick Maynard, the former owner and matchmaker of the Texas-based Legacy Fighting Championship. For the first time, the matchmakers have a staff working underneath them.
Not all the changes are bad, and there's a real argument to be made that the undercard fights in the first quarter of 2017 have made far better use of the sub-elite talents in the UFC than was the case under the previous regime. With the exception of UFC 208, practically every undercard of the Shelby-Maynard era has delivered well-matched fights that provide both action and a meaningful reason for the bout's existence.
From Darren Elkins vs. Mirsad Bektic to Jack Marshman vs. Thiago Santos to Kevin Lee vs. Francisco Trinaldo, Shelby and Maynard have made outstanding use of the resources at their disposal. With Shelby and Silva overworked and trying to handle a roster of more than 500 fighters, undercard fights on a Fight Night in Halifax or Fortaleza couldn't be a priority. Now, perhaps, there's enough attention to go around.
At least for the undercard fighters, there seems to be a coherent plan in place that continues Silva's vision of a meritocratic UFC. It's less clear, however, whether that's the case for the UFC's elite fighters, where the balance between sport and entertainment seems to be tilting once and for all in favor of the latter.
For some reason, Artem Lobov will face Cub Swanson in a five-round main event on Fox Sports 1 on April 22. This is a minor offense compared to the nonsensical idea of having Georges St-Pierre face Michael Bisping for the middleweight title when a whole raft of other contenders have a better claim on the title shot.
This is a short-term cash grab, nothing more and nothing less.
What it promises about the future is even worse: the full devaluation of the UFC belt. If you can give a title shot to someone who hasn't fought in more than three years and who has never competed at that weight, who can't you give a title shot to?
Practically nobody is disbarred at that point. It opens the door to a wide variety of fights that may generate profits but which undercut any semblance of a meritocracy at the highest levels of the UFC. Nobody should be naive enough to ignore the many times the UFC has gone this direction in the past, and the rise of McGregor has pushed this trend as well, but St-Pierre vs. Bisping feels like a final tipping point.
That wouldn't be so worrisome if the UFC's other moves still pointed in the direction of a roster where all of the best fighters can be found in constant competition with one another. That's not the case.
The month since WME-IMG's purchase of the UFC has seen an enormous exodus of talent from the promotion. Former title challengers Rory MacDonald, Michael McDonald, Kyoji Horiguchi and Ali Bagautinov are all gone. Longtime contender Ryan Bader has departed for Bellator as well.
More worrisome is the departure of young talent. Horiguchi is just 26, with a great deal of career left in front of him, and he's not the only one. Welterweight contender Lorenz Larkin has come into his own in recent fights and just signed with Bellator in free agency, while Russia's Albert Tumenov, a serious talent despite a two-fight losing streak, has departed as well. Ukraine's Nikita Krylov is gone, and so is France's Taylor Lapilus.
The only conclusion to be drawn from these moves, and others like them, is that the UFC doesn't want to pay for fighters who don't meet their definition of stardom, no matter how good they are.
This is meaningful in two ways. First, it's yet another cost-cutting measure and a clear indication that WME-IMG's new moves are in fact hurting the product. Second, and more important, it represents a clear shift away from the governing philosophy that valued having all the best fighters under one roof even if they weren't all superstars in the making.
If the UFC's appeal to you as a fan was that it was where you could find all the best fighters across every weight class in constant competition with one another, well, you might be out of luck moving forward. It's not going to be a one-stop shop for the elite anymore.
The logical conclusion of all this is a squeezing out of the UFC's established middle and upper-middle class of fighters—the long-service veterans and talented but unknown youngsters who have been the backbone of the promotion for the last decade or more.
In the new UFC, WME-IMG seems to be saying, there will be an elite of superstars who make huge money and a vast underclass of unknowns who will be let go the moment they demand too much money in free agency or suffer a loss or two.
What the future will hold is hard to say, especially since we have yet to see WME-IMG put its substantial resources to use in boosting any up-and-coming fighters. Perhaps the publicity machine and its infinite array of promotional platforms will create a new generation of stars will propel the UFC to new heights. If that's the case, we've seen no evidence of it just yet.
For now, a strategy based around penny-pinching and ditching established fighters who don't draw huge numbers seems to be the norm.
That may serve a WME-IMG bottom line that has set absurd revenue goals in order to earn a huge payout, per MMAjunkie's Fowlkes and Marrocco. Whether those incentives also serve the interests of fans, much less the fighters, is up in the air.
As it stands now, that seems unlikely.
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.