With a full slate of top-level fights set for the coming weeks and months, the UFC is poised for a thunderous start to 2015 following a downtrodden 2014 where profits dropped significantly.
That would suggest that another booming year is in store for the UFC; however, not even two weeks into the year, there have been some major developments that could indicate that the promotion is headed further down a destructive path for the sport similar to the rapid decline of the once-prominent popularity of boxing.
And two of them came today. The first was the finding that light heavyweight champion Jon Jones had spent a whopping one day in a rehabilitation facility after he failed an out-of-competition (OOC) drug test for cocaine prior to his UFC 182 win over Daniel Cormier. The whole thing has been nothing but a mess of convoluted timelines and mishandled drug policies by the Nevada State Athletic Commission (NSAC), but this article isn’t about them.
It’s about the UFC and their motivations as of late, which appear to firmly fixated on one thing and one thing only: greed.
Jones is obviously one of their top draws because people want to tune in to see him lose akin to boxing’s bad boy champ Floyd Mayweather.
He’s a big earner, and concessions are going to be made for the top producers in all walks of life; you’d find it very difficult to find an occupation where that isn’t true in at least some form. So that’s no surprise. The shocking thing, to me, is how the UFC has responded to the whole Jones scenario with a straight face.
They applauded Jones’ decision to enter rehab with not even a minor punishment while several fighters have been suspended, fined, and even cut for smoking marijuana. UFC President Dana White appeared on FOX Sports 1 and UFC Tonight to state that it was a “great thing” Jones got the help he needed, but what kind of help can you get for anything resembling a cocaine addiction in one day?
Not much, so Jones’ rehab visit was a public relations stunt. Although it’s hardly the first we’ve seen from a star athlete or celebrity who got caught using drugs, it may be one of the most blatant and insulting to fans. I’ll once again admit that Jones can and will be dealt with differently as one of the UFC’s best fighters; that’s just to be expected.
Yet to go on television like White and UFC fighter-turned-mouthpiece Brian Stann did with a feigned claim of concern for Jones’ well-being is just laughable. To think that fans would even remotely buy what they’ve been handed is ridiculous. Heck, I don’t know; maybe many of them did.
But the whole thing stinks, it will continue to stink, and it was handled like the involved parties didn’t even know what to do with a drug test that was a mistake in the first place (because it was).
Now the UFC has their Mike Tyson character in Jones, a seemingly unstoppable, arrogant party animal whom people can’t wait to see lose. That will translate into tons of dollar signs, and that appears to be all they’re looking for at this point.
The second disconcerting sign of the day is UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta’s absolutely ridiculous comparison of Irish featherweight Conor McGregor to boxing great Muhammad Ali. True, McGregor can captivate an audience like few can with his quick wit and electric personality, and he’s also acquired a massive following in a record-setting amount of time.
On the other hand, however, “Notorious” has had only four fights in the UFC. Four fights. Comparing him to Ali, who sent some of the best legends in boxing history packing and inspired a social movement, is not only premature, but it’s setting McGregor on a pedestal he simply can’t attain.
Sure, he can talk trash better than anyone in MMA and he’s finishing his opponents with ruthless efficiency, but he will never be Muhammad Ali. There will never be another Ali.
That’s not to hate on McGregor, because he is one of the more entertaining fighters we’ve seen arise in many years. You still have to wonder if we’re getting way too much of a good thing, however. Taking a look ahead at FOX Sports 1’s late night programming last night, I noticed that there were not one, not two, but THREE programs about McGregor and his UFC Fight Night 59 main event against Dennis Siver this Sunday (January 18, 2014) set to air consecutively.
There was UFC Rising, UFC Fighter’s Cut, and UFC Presents The Notorious: Conor McGregor. It’s hard to differentiate between all of the influential programming we’re being force-fed about their new golden boy.
By comparison, I’ve seen exactly one interview with Siver, and I had to translate it from German from a site based in Denmark.
I’m not saying we should be surprised by this marketing strategy, because it’s been used to promote big stars throughout combat sports history.
What I am saying is that the UFC could go about a bit more tactfully, a bit more thought-out, but then again, they’ve already shown us they don’t really care what we think. If spamming endless McGregor videos brings in the dollars, that’s what they’re going to do, even if their greed ruins the sport like it did boxing.
The third reason I’ll cite for the UFC’s pending (or further) potential decline in 2015 is their signing of former WWE wrestler Phillip “CM Punk” Brooks. The move, which will showcase Brooks versus an unknown, inexperienced fighter, has been wholly blasted by veteran fighters like Nate Diaz and Matt Brown, and even Jones said he “really hopes we get to watch Punk get knocked out.”
It’s a move that will bring an entirely new, paying base of fans over to the UFC (at least for one fight), so from a business point of view; it makes perfect sense for the UFC. Yet bringing in an athlete with no real prior MMA experience to make a big paycheck for what could be only one fight based solely on his name recognition is simply a slap in the face to the hard working fighters already in their employ.
I was for the move when it was first announced, but after watching countless interviews with Punk, the true colors of what it is have kind of shone through for me. At first he appeared ready to accept everyone’s doubts about him as an MMA fighter, but as the criticism was heaped on, he definitely took a more sour tone with his detractors.
At a fan Q&A session at UFC 182, Punk and Octagon announcer Jon Anik took turns poking fun at his fans and their boorish, alcohol-induced, and incoherent questions, as if they were shocked and surprised by what they had seen from a bunch of WWE fans. They certainly weren’t trying very hard to avoid alienating the precise fanbase they are trying to acquire, but maybe they think that they’ll tune in anyway. They certainly will.
It’s another publicity stunt in every sense of the term, and it’s going to work as far as the UFC’s judging criteria, which are sales and money, are concerned.
But overall it just continues to extend the disconnected sense of impersonality that the UFC is purveying to their fans right now. They basically insult their intelligence, shove endless lackluster cards and canned propaganda down their throats, and expect fans to thank them for giving them their hard-earned money.
That’s not even taking into account the UFC’s well-documented issues with fighter pay and alleged attempts to monopolize fighting, for which they’re currently involved in a massive class action lawsuit. While that’s a huge, overarching discussion in its own right, the past year’s (or more) events may have shown that having one ruling MMA promotion just doesn’t work.
If this article sounds too negative, well, that’s because it is. I’m concerned about where the UFC, and as a result, MMA as a whole is headed. It seems to be centered on nothing other than money and greed, which is exactly what ruined boxing.
Promoters like Bob Arum and Don King earned huge paydays while relegating the sport to a rarely-revered spectacle with one or two truly blockbuster fights per year. White has always blasted those promoters and what they did to boxing, but if he isn’t careful, his promotion (and sport) is going to go down the exact same road, and in a much shorter period of time.
What are your thoughts on the UFC’s recent handling of MMA? Are they damaging the sport beyond repair, or will it continue to grow in the future?
Jones & McGregor photos via USA TODAY Sports