Everything will depend on the specifics of the deal, but I will say- I don’t think a lot of people quite get what UFC on ESPN with a good deal at this moment can mean. I’ve been a boxing fan for a long time and I’ve gone some small way towards trying to educate myself on the history of that sport; I’ve also gone some way into trying to understand the history of pro wrestling as an industry for a variety of reasons. Both of those businesses bear on UFC’s long-term potential, since MMA is essentially a collision between many of the elements of both: the one-company business model and sustained focus on building larger-than-life stars of wrestling; the legitimacy and uniquely compelling competition of boxing (and in this, MMA is really superior), the ethnic rivalries and fire of fighting sports which they both share, and many more besides. One of their other shared elements is that there was a time in American life when they were both much, much bigger deals than they are now- before boxing destroyed its fanbase in a thousand ways, and before wrestling became congealed and identified with WWE’s style alone. Wrestling at one point in this country sold tens of millions of tickets a year in a country with a much smaller population; boxing once ran club shows which sold out every night and drew 100,000 to the old Soldier Field for Dempsey vs. Tunney.
I never thought I would live to see days like those in my time as a fan. Boxing had just gotten kicked off of the networks when I began to follow it and while wrestling had its late 90’s boom period, that was always an obviously ephemeral thing which didn’t have the emotional attachments to its audience which that business used to have. But human nature doesn’t change all that much; and the people who once flocked to boxing and wrestling but now wouldn’t be caught dead at either one, those people are still out there and MMA under the UFC banner right now is the best hope I’ve seen for calling them back. MMA doesn’t have deep cultural roots yet, obviously, but it’s working on developing them with every show and every intelligent business deal that UFC makes. If they can take their current product- which is, let’s be honest, far and away the best it’s ever been- to ESPN and maintain the things which have made them popular, all of a sudden they have the chance to reach a far vaster audience than ever before. There’s nothing like network TV in the 1950’s available today, but ESPN maintains in a fractured entertainment universe an essentially unique hold and influence over the sports-following public.
Being on ESPN conveys legitimacy; it’s hard to see how Ontario and New York can hold out much longer with bans for something shown regularly on basic cable on maybe the most famous cable channel alongside the NBA and other major sports leagues. Being on ESPN also gives UFC a chance to embed itself as a sport, to reach out to the sort of younger viewers who they don’t draw from now but who can watch on basic cable what they can’t buy on PPV. Yes, that was possible with Spike before, but ESPN is of a wholly different order from Spike TV in drawing fans and dictating what matters in the sports world. Being on ESPN gives UFC and MMA a chance to grab older fans, channel-flippers and curiosity viewers who’ll come across MMA in a way they never would have when it was banished to PPV or vaguely embarrassingly-themed 3rd tier cable channels. In general ESPN gives UFC the platform they need to expand beyond what is for the moment still an intensely energetic and committed but limited fanbase of 25-40 year old white males, the chance to compete with boxing for Latino fans in a country becoming more Latino every day, the chance to expose vast amounts of people to a sport which is even now still a slightly underground, word-of-mouth industry. And it bears mention that ESPN and ABC are jointly owned.
This is a sport which has had two or three major breakouts before, which continues to find new ceilings to its popularity. My sense is that with the sport starting to break into Mexico and the potential for a major ESPN deal coming on the back of the most successful UFC PPV in history, that we’re right on the brink of another one. I don’t think MMA will ever be able to be quite what boxing was in the 50’s due to entertainment fragmentation primarily; but I think far more of the types of people who were fans in that era are recoverable than is commonly believed to be the case. The day may come when 1.5 million buys on PPV is considered average for UFC, and when 30 or 40 million people in North America watching a show is achievable. Everything has to go right for that to happen- but so far, nearly everything is.
Side note: MMA Fanhouse is reporting that Fedor wants to go to Strikeforce. Three quick thoughts:
1. If this is for negotiating leverage, than it’s a good ploy and fair play to Fedor’s handlers.
2. If he does go to Strikeforce that may be a serious aid to them in building their brand, and they’re desperately in need of new stars.
3. However, with that said, if Fedor goes to Strikeforce for less money than UFC offers then he’s officially become a punchline no matter how skilled and talented he remains. Strikeforce’s heavyweight division is terrible- it’s basically Notastar Overeem when he shows up once every two years or so, Brett “One Good Win” Rogers, Fabricio Werdum, and the vague hope that Bigfoot Silva gets off suspension this decade. That’s it. Fedor hanging out in San Jose fighting that assortment becomes MMA’s Floyd Mayweather: a brilliantly talented individual living off a reputation derived from things done years in the past, who appears so terrified of testing that talent that after a while it becomes impossible to take them seriously when they spend more effort avoiding fights than fighting them. There’s 5 guys in UFC (Brock, Randy, Mir, Carwin, Velasquez) who I and probably most MMA fans would rather see Fedor fight before the first guy in Strikeforce, and arguably another 4 (Cro Cop, Kongo, Dos Santos, Noguiera) who could put up a better fight than anyone in Strikeforce.
Simply put, if Fedor is offered a generous deal and still opts to turn it down to fight 2nd and 3rd tier opposition, than fuck ’em; he’s no longer a going concern in the sport of MMA in any meaningful sense.
The NY Times screams in fear of MMA. Let’s examine the stupidity contained within.
– Tendentious language: “blood-soaked”, “vicious” etc. This goes along with its friend, lack of actual description. Together they’re pretty much the hallmarks of an evidence-free screed.
– A positive reference to pro wrestling in the article. Pro wrestling, I would bet $1000, has the highest serious injury and mortality rate for ex-participants below the age of 60 of any sport or pseudo-sport in the world. Referencing that hideous mess of an industry as though it were a positive and MMA a worse danger is pretty clear evidence of the authors’ lack of interest in facts as opposed to preconceptions.
– The title itself. “Disturbing” to who, exactly? Using passive language of this kind in an unsigned editorial is about as dodgy as it gets.
– “What they don’t tell you is what is allowed,” Mr. Reilly points out. “Kicking in the head, kneeing in the head, hitting in the head.” Ultimate fighters do not wear helmets or shoes or full, padded boxing gloves.”
Also, let’s unpack this. Kicking in the head is allowed in kickboxing, which is legal in New York. Knees to the head are legal in Muay Thai, which I believe is also legal. “Hitting in the head” is the definition of boxing, which has been legal since forever. Helmets aren’t worn in any of the professional classes of the currently legal fighting disciplines; I have no idea what his point is about shoes- wearing them would seem less barbaric? It’s the sort of random thing seized on by someone with little understanding or willingness to learn about grappling or the practicalities of mixed fighting- ignorant and superficial.
The gloves bit is more interesting. MMA gloves are small and jointed, as they have to be for grappling purposes. I don’t know of relevant studies as to whether this leads to a higher KO rate per punch, but I would bet money that it does. The question is, is this bad (or even all that meaningful)? I would argue no: almost every major boxing tragedy over the years, from Benny Paret to Duk Koo Kim to Levander Johnson, occurred as a result of an extended many-rounds-long beating in the ring, coming after several similar beatings in the recent history of their career. Small gloves will probably result in a higher KO rate per punch, but the shorter length of MMA fights (max 25 mins. vs. max 48 mins. for boxing) plus the smaller gloves and less sustained striking style enforced by the addition of takedowns and grappling, plus the greater chance for an MMA bout to end early without the cause being a strike to the head, result in fighters taking fewer blows per minute and per fight. In MMA some of those strikes are focused elsewhere in the form of the (dreaded shoeless) leg kicks and such as well, which further reduces the amount of brain trauma. MMA isn’t easy for the participants of course, but it seems to be clearly safer overall especially as regards blows to the head in comparison to the currently-legal boxing. But don’t let that from stopping you.
– “Ultimate fighting’s supporters also argue that at a time when funds are hard to come by, the state would earn a percentage of the big money from these spectacles, which can cost $200 to almost $400 a ticket.”
None of whom are named of course. Personally, I’d argue that it’s something that consenting adults desire to participate in and which millions of their peers are interested in paying for the privilege of seeing, and to overrule that at the legislative level you had better have something much better to argue with than “this is new and looks scary”. I’m not interested in my already insanely paternalistic state and local government protecting me from my own interests, thank you. Incidentally, I don’t see anyone from the Times trying to ban football after what happened to Willis McGahee last week- should I just assume the same reason, new things are scary? It’s the Times, so the answer is probably yes. I’m almost shocked they even have an online edition, sometimes. The paper of William Kristol and David Brooks, ladies and germs.
– They conclude with the obligitory bit about brain injuries, which fails utterly to distinguish between boxing and MMA in relative risk and reveals the real aim of so many of these articles: smuggling in a ban on all fighting sports through the back door without taking time to evaluate whether the fears they have about those sports are A) justified, B) not better exemplified by other sports, and C) of such crucial importance that they should override the personal choices of participants.
Let’s be honest: this is one of those most insanely stupid articles you’ll read all year, utterly uninformed about the most basic of facts which it took me 10 minutes to dig up with Google, and droolingly ignorant about the history of the topics on which it aspires to opine. If MMA were legal in this state it would be beneath contempt and I’d ignore it, but for now it’s fools like the authors of this who are dictating policy in this state. Personally, I intend to answer this by finally getting off my ass and writing to my representatives, and if you’re in my state, please help out and do so as well. For all the hand-wringing of this piece what it actually exemplifies isn’t concern for its subject, but a particularly ugly form of arrogance and contempt for it in taking the position that participants and fans of MMA somehow need to be saved from their own interest in a sport which the authors can’t even be bothered to understand the most basic rules of, let alone the history and context in which it has developed. I find nothing to respect in that; despite the dangers, I find everything to respect in the dedication and work ethic of competitors in MMA and the respect which their fan base offers them. If the Times editorial staff only sees bloodlust in that, it says a lot more about them than it does about MMA.