While the UFC has struggled to build stars in recent times, the WWE and other pro wrestling stages have not slowed down. What could the UFC learn from the squared-circle?
Professional wrestling has always had an influence on modern day combat sports. From the trash talk to bombastic intros, to even some of the bigger personalities. One of the first documented MMA contests was between Antonio Inoki and Muhammad Ali in 1976. In Japan, for a long time, it was quite common for professional wrestlers to do some time in MMA promotions like Pancrase, Pride, and Dream. Meanhile in America, it was quite the opposite due to the money not being what it is today.
It’s no secret that the UFC has picked up a few things from the WWE. Even so far as following in its footsteps by debuting its own online network; granted not with the same perks as the WWE Network, but UFC Fight Pass still has some value. Yet the UFC has continually failed to promote individual talent to grow the business, something professional wrestling excels at.
Yes, there are a few exceptions but when given a choice the UFC has promoted the company or Dana White above all else. And that’s okay to an extent. It works in professional wrestling in the instance of the Mr. McMahon character because it gives a protagonist something to overcome. Heroes need something to fight, and the establishment is the easiest villain to sell. But in the realm of prize fighting, the promoter shouldn’t be an antagonist in a professional fighter’s journey, no matter the length. Yet Dana White has been the star of the UFC for most of the TUF-era, which is part of the reason the company is hurting now.
White has never had an issue with publicly airing a grievance with an employee, which is never good for a fight promotion. His negative and manic behavior often leads to him contradicting himself. He’d rather focus on publicly crushing fighters instead of fostering an environment to help cultivate their individuality and other intangibles, which he can then use to help promote the overall product.
Dana has had public beef with the likes of Tyron Woodley, Cris Cyborg, and Nate Diaz. And as usual, he will contradict himself or walk back all previous statements when he’s left with no choice. The latest victim of the UFC’s terrible publicity is Demetrious Johnson. A fighter many consider to be an all-time great and arguably the pound for pound king is dealing with an employer who is actively working against him. It has gone so far as not airing promos for upcoming cards featuring the champion, and then complaining when they perform poorly.
Promotion is a two-way street. The fighter needs to have something that they can be promoted for, or at least be willing to put him or herself out there. It’s the promoter’s job to help get it out there either through social media, casually dropping it during live broadcast, or various other approaches. The stars that were mentioned previously all have something that’s marketable about them that has nothing do with fighting. Tyron Woodley and Nate Diaz are both active in their respective communities. Cyborg is constantly doing something if you check her social media; she even became a US citizen recently.
Demetrious happens to have a growing following in an area that WME has a lot of interest in. Prior to the Reebok deal, DJ was sponsored by Microsoft’s Xbox division. So DJ looked for other options and got into streaming games on Twitch. He has grown his Twitch fan base significantly, turning some into MMA fans. Capcom even recognized what he was doing and recently sent him a care package.
Now, the UFC/WME-IMG was smart enough to use him in the Ubisoft’s ad campaign for the launch of For Honor. However, they’ve failed to utilize him to cross promote in the esports league they own, called E League. When WME chose to promote the UFC at a CS:GO event last year, they sent Kelvin Gastelum and Dana White. Not the guy that is a gamer himself with a huge Twitch following. Dana. White.
Another more recent failure at common sense promotion is the fact that during UFC’s lackluster International Fight Week this year, The Nerd held a gaming event pitting UFC champs Demetrious Johnson and Max Holloway against each other.
— Demetrious Johnson (@MightyMouseUFC) July 2, 2017
The UFC didn’t even retweet it. It shows the company lacks the opportunistic mindset to properly maximize earnings in a time where they need to create new stars. And that’s one of the key areas where the WWE has always done better than the UFC. Anytime a wrestler does something remotely positive outside of the ring, they’re thinking about how they can use that to grow the company. Sometimes it’s through a retweet, sponsorship, or in the case of Xavier Woods; helping them grow their online gaming show. That’s not the only time WWE has taken something that a roster member was doing as a goof and turned it into a marketing tool.
In the case of the UFC, you have fighters like Alistair Overeem and Rose Namajunas producing their own docuseries. Overeem has one of the longest running docuseries in MMA called The Reem, and has excellent production value. Namajunas’s Thug Diaries can be found on Youtube. But the UFC won’t even tell you either one exists.
Not to mention the fact that most people don’t know what many fighters are doing in their communities because the UFC doesn’t properly use their access to tell anyone.
The Zuffa-era was terrible when it came to promotion and star development as well. The difference is, MMA still had the novelty aspect going for it, and Zuffa actually understood the fight game. Mostly. One thing Zuffa was guilty of was completely ignoring the African American market.
The UFC has never been short on talented black fighters. Most of their champions in recent memory have been black, Brazilian, or both. Yet they ignored this potential growth area. They instead opted to try and win Latinos from boxing during a time when boxing’s monopoly on combat sports was waning. They rapidly expanded into Latin America, even more so after the Fox deal went through.
The thing they couldn’t do is build a superstar to bring in the community the way the wanted. Cain Velasquez isn’t a bust in terms of what he has done in his career, but he certainly is in terms of being the UFC’s Mexican superstar. And WME is trying to do the same thing with Yair Rodriguez (who was matched with Frankie Edgar earlier this year for some silly reason).
Arguably the only time the UFC put any marketing effort into the black community were the two grudge matches featuring Rashad Evans. His bouts with Rampage Jackson and Jon Jones were heavily advertised on rap stations nationwide. Night clubs hosted parties for those events. Both cards did great numbers. Yet despite the great numbers and obvious potential of the untapped market, Zuffa-era UFC would never go back to that well. And I sincerely doubt that WME will either.
Prior to the UFC’s deal with Reebok, they began to individually sponsor fighters. This practice carried over after Reebok, except Reebok was the one making individual deals. That practice still occurs with WME. WME and Reebok are personally invested in a small handful of fighters. Most notably Conor McGregor, Paige VanZant, Ronda Rousey, and Sage Northcutt. The problem with relying on those four was that one retired, one might retire after a big payday next month, and the other two have been exposed.
WME still spends its time trying to make post-UFC Rousey a success despite numerous offers drying up after back-to-back losses. They most likely leveraged their relationship with Jaimie Alexander to get Rousey that guest spot on Blindspot. While this going on, they continue to ignore Michael Bisping who will probably be the only notable MMA fighter to transition into a successful acting career that doesn’t involve stunt work. WME also began representing Michelle Waterson, who recently appeared in ESPN’s annual Body Issue. In case you forgot, Rose Namajunas finished both Waterson and VanZant.
But the public push doesn’t make you a better fighter. Which is very evident in the case of Sage Northcutt. Sage Northcutt is a product of Dana White’s show, Lookin’ for a Fight. He entered the promotion making more than vets ranked far ahead of him, and was gifted immediate representation by the UFC brass. Both Zuffa and WME are guilty of giving this kid the Roman Reigns treatment here. Pushing him regardless of how he actually performed and with no consideration of reception by fans.
Fans and fighters alike reacted with disdain to the fact that the UFC would pay him better than many longer tenured fighters, despite having proven so little. Northcutt currently has a 3-2 record in the UFC, arguably could be 2-3, and has struggled with grappling in just about all of his bouts. Besides overpaying him, the UFC is giving a relatively green fighter a series of terrible matchups. That’s no way to create a superstar (Bellator did the same thing with Aaron Pico, except even worse as he went in with zero fights).
So like Roman Reigns, both Pico and Northcutt have been packaged, promoted, and booked poorly. In contrast, a promotion wants to do what Bellator is doing with MVP or the Tetsuya Naito treatment in the case of Northcutt.
NJPW tried to push Naito the same way WWE is pushing Reigns and UFC with Northcutt. NJPW realized it wasn’t working, repackaged him as one of the greatest heels working today. And he’s currently number-one in merch sales. Bellator has sold MVP as this dynamic striker, so they’ve only booked him against favorable opponents. This allows the more marketable fighter to show his face, gets some wins, and then work on his flaws during downtime. Bellator also isn’t being overt in how much he’s getting paid compared to everyone else.
The WME acquisition has done nothing for the UFC besides highlight flaws that were always there but mitigated by the executive staff. Their ineptitude during the build up of Rousey vs. Nunes is a great example of this. There was no real promo for Nunes who had just come off headlining UFC 200. Joe Rogan even talked about how clueless WME executives were about the situation, thinking Nunes was some lamb being sent to slaughter.
Leading up to the bout, Rousey made another appearance on Ellen. You’d think the first openly gay champion of a major MMA organization would have been on there by now. And not even a single Pride Month related tweet leading up to UFC 213. Missing these easy promotion opportunities, on top of releasing high-caliber talent, is going to leave the company in a terrible position by the end of the year. They’re even squandering the talent of Eddie Alvarez and Justin Gaethje by shelving them for several months for a show that people stopped caring about years ago. Honestly, the best thing for the UFC at this point would be if WME defaulted on their loan and Zuffa or someone willing to actually handle the company correctly bought it for a fraction of the price.