The UFC has a serious problem on its hands: dwindling fan interest. Here’s what it can do to satisfy the masses in the short term.
Let’s be honest, MMA fans. The UFC is in a slump. This isn’t just about PPV buyrates and television ratings either, though those haven’t been particularly great. No, it’s about excitement, or the lack thereof. Be it via over-saturation through too many events, or stacking New York cards only to strip the cupboards bare for the next several months, the excitement seems to be gone from the world of the UFC.
Over in Bellator, things are a little different — while still less competitive than its larger rival, the World Heavyweight Grand Prix is at least a reason to get excited. Even a heavyweight tournament where half the field are past their prime or not true heavyweights gives fans a reason to get excited. It’s a tournament, with a title, and heavyweights! That and a few free agent signings, and Bellator gets a pass, albeit the promotion is held to lower standards.
But the UFC? We expect better — and of late, we haven’t been getting it. With the company sold not too long ago for a record $4.2 billion bucks to WME-IMG, you’d think something would have changed. Production values, perhaps. Yet fans are being served up the same tired product, which, given that the company’s biggest stars are nowhere to be found, is almost criminal.
No wonder there’s very little buzz around the UFC right now. No wonder Conor McGregor peddling chicken sandwiches is one of the biggest stories of the week.
So what can the UFC do to fix this?
That’s their problem. No, seriously, long term, it is their problem. The health of their brand, the feasibility of the UFC remaining as MMA’s premiere promotion on a global scale, is for the first time in recent memory in question at the moment. With Bellator, ONE Championship and others nipping at their heels, the UFC remains number one, but unlikely as it may seem, there’s a growing possibility that they may not be a decade from now.
The long term fix is something they’ll have to contend with, and it can’t be a band aid solution. However, in the short term, here are a few suggestions that could help reignite fan interest at a time where most UFC cards arrive to yawns.
All-Female Main Card
It’s actually rather surprising that this hasn’t been attempted already. Being that it hasn’t, however, lets just say that the time is right. Female empowerment was one of the biggest stories of 2017, and that’s not just a reference to the #metoo movement.
Since women were introduced to the UFC, female fighters have more often than not delivered. In fact, they frequently steal the show, and stars like Ronda Rousey, Cris Cyborg, Joanna Jedrzejczyk, Paige VanZant, and others proved to be solid draws for the company.
So, why not book a card that puts the spotlight on the women? Rousey is gone, but imagine the mainstream media coverage the UFC would get from putting on an all-female main card? Five fights. Maybe not all four titles, because the promotion really needs to stop putting all its eggs in one basket — but two title fights, and three fights with some of the bigger names on the women’s side of the sport.
Maybe even stick it on FOX, depending on which titles are involved.
Another Heavyweight Card
This was actually done once before, back in 2012 at UFC 146. That night, Junior dos Santos defended his UFC heavyweight title against Frank Mir. Cain Velasquez took on Antonio Silva, Roy Nelson faced Dave Herman. Future champ Stipe Miocic fought Shane del Rosario, and Stefan Struve rounded out the card opposite Lavar Johnson.
An ongoing theme of the event was how difficult it was to put together. And it was, with several fights falling through. Alistair Overeem was yanked off the card due to failing a drug test. Mark Hunt was forced to withdraw due to injury. Nelson was originally booked against Silva, a fight that would eventually happen years later.
Yet it was a card that had people talking, because fans love to watch the big men throw down. They hit the hardest. And for the most part, they delivered. Dos Santos vs. Mir was a solid main event. Who can forget ‘Big Country’ landing a right hand that sent Dave Herman crumpling to the canvas? Who can forget Velasquez bludgeoning ‘Bigfoot’ Silva?
Six years later, it feels like the time is right to try this again. Especially when the competition is stealing the show at heavyweight, despite a thinner roster.
MMA was founded on the tournament format. Now, the UFC isn’t about to go back to doing three fights in a night — the reality is, the sport has moved on, and too many commissions would have a problem with it. Yet Bellator managed to pull off a single-night, four man light heavyweight tournament under the CSAC in 2015 when it put on Bellator: Dynamite! (a.k.a. Bellator 142). There’s no reason the UFC couldn’t do the same, though probably not in their thinning 205lb weight class.
Tournaments get fans talking. They’re inherently exciting, simply because of how unpredictable they are. A four man field (with a pair of alternates on the prelims) is more than possible.
As a humble suggestion: welterweight. There’s no standout contender right now. The closest is probably Rafael dos Anjos. Now picture a four-man, single night tournament featuring RDA, Stephen Thompson, Colby Covington, and Robbie Lawler. Alternates: Darren Till and Jorge Masvidal.
Who wouldn’t get excited for that? And at the end, you’ve got a number one contender that truly has earned his title shot.
Not everyone is a fan of showboating and theatrics. The pro-wrestling style antics of certain UFC stars past and present (from Chael Sonnen to Colby Covington) rub many the wrong way. Others love to root for, or against, the “bad guy” and are happy to get more than just an athletic contest when they drop down an increasingly large sum of money for a UFC PPV.
However, if there’s one place fans from both sides could meet in the middle, it’s probably walkouts.
Bellator gets it. ONE Championship gets it. Walkouts really do add something to the mix. Remember James Te Huna? He was a talented light heavyweight, though he faltered against the top of the weight class. Yet his most memorable moment was a Men in Black-themed walkout, and while the UFC may feel otherwise, it was a fantastic moment for fans.
I don’t remember who won that fight, but I sure remember that entrance. Yet the UFC put the kibosh on entrances like this because… well, apparently they hate people talking about their product.
Check out Aung La N Sang’s entrance from just a few weeks ago for ONE Championship:
UFC: "Stipe is the crowd's favorite"
RIZIN: "Tenshin is adored by our fans"
ONE: Hold my beer pic.twitter.com/ePyHvktoqT
— Cerebral Hunter (@Delisketo) March 2, 2018
The long-term health of the UFC will depend on them building new stars, and frankly remembering that they’re in the fighter promotion business. Not just promoting a brand, or initials. In the short term, however, putting the fun back in the sport, and even going the gimmick route, should at least tide them over. If they bother to think outside the box.