Ben Miller on why UFC 155 won't draw

The Cost of Abandoning Fair Play: Why UFC 155 Won’t Draw

By Ben Miller
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The temptation is to blame the mismatch.  A year ago, the striker knocked out the wrestler in a minute.  What has changed?  The wrestler still wants everyone on the ground.  The striker still seems to always be able to stay off the ground.  The striker isn’t getting any shorter and the wrestler isn’t getting any younger.

And so maybe the mismatch is the reason that Junior Dos Santos vs. Cain Velasquez for the heavyweight championship at UFC 155 has tepid interest.  No front page headline on a day out.  The sports section of the Los Angeles Times (the newspaper from the nearest major media market to Las Vegas, the site of the fight) has nary a mention. has a feature, but even that is a feature about the bumbled promotion of the challenger.

The problem with blaming the mismatch is that the sporting public seems fine with a mismatch.  Check out the NFL ratings next Monday for proof.  At 3:25 p.m. Central Standard Time, Fox will broadcast the Green Bay Packers vs. Minnesota Vikings game to every market it is contractually able to, and more than twenty million people will watch.  American football fans will watch despite Green Bay being a two-to-one favorite (on par with Dos Santos’ odds in his fight with Velasquez) and the Packers having won five straight games over the Vikings.  People will watch because superstars (Aaron Rodgers and Adrian Peterson, in this case) are plying their craft and the stakes (Vikings make the playoffs with a win and likely miss the playoffs with a loss) are high.

So if stakes and stars can overcome a mismatch, then what is the problem with UFC 155?

Conventional wisdom heading into UFC 155 is that the stakes are fine but the superstars are missing.  The Deadspin article makes a fine case that UFC has mismanaged Velasquez’ image, and thus his star status.  Fans and journalists alike deem Dos Santos too nice and humble of a guy to be a star on the level of Georges St. Pierre or Anderson Silva.  So UFC 155 is high stakes without the big stars, right?  

But what if that’s all wrong?  What if Cain and Junior are big stars, but the stakes aren’t high enough?

The UFC Heavyweight Championship is the championship of MMA.  No reasonable argument can be made that a heavyweight fighter not promoted by UFC has proven himself superior to Junior Dos Santos.  UFC champions make a lot of money during their fighting careers and often have a lot of post-fighting opportunities to keep making money.  Plus there’s the fame, the women, the power and the status that come from being a UFC heavyweight champion.  Throw in the fact that Velasquez will be effectively disqualified from heavyweight championship contention for Zuffa business reasons if he loses this fight, and the stakes seem pretty darned high.

The problem is that the sporting public seems to disagree.  The stakes are not high enough to pique interest in two heavyweight stars.   Why would that be the case?  Why does the UFC Heavyweight Championship seem to hold less value than it did just a year ago?

The past several decades of American football and boxing have taught a lesson about the value of championships.  A berth in the NFL playoffs is valuable because fans like the sport and the league is promoted well.  A playoff berth also means a lot because the NFL does a good enough job of convincing the public that teams are treated fairly.  The Packers and Vikings, who compete for a playoff berth each season, play only two out of sixteen games each season against unique opponents.  Is that as fair as English soccer, where all teams play identical league schedules?  No.  But it is considered fair enough by most of the NFL’s fanbase.  A championship in boxing is far less valuable in part because fans are aware of the disorder and inherent unfairness of boxing schedules.  There is no requirement to fight on a regular schedule.  There is no guaranteed championship opportunity if a boxer’s record is superior to that of his peers over the course of the year.  There is no single entity that awards championships using any sort of system that a rational person would consider just.

Zuffa’s promotion of the UFC championships lands far closer to that of boxing than football.  The fact that Chael Sonnen is getting the next UFC Light Heavyweight Championship fight against Jon Jones may be the worst example of Zuffa killing their own stakes, but there have been others.  Nick Diaz, Alistair Overeem.  Urijah Faber's championship opportunities have become so ludicrous that a minor Internet meme has developed around the possibility of Faber receiving a shot at Ronda Rousey's 135 pound title.

Surely Dana White, Joe Silva and the rest of the UFC brass use the same excuse that boxing promoters use: if a promoter ignores the short term business ramifications when scheduling fights, then that promoter will soon be out of business.  The justification is either that the public’s interest will wane because attractive fights are not being booked, or that some other promoter will end up booking those attractive fights if the top promoter tries to implement a fairer schedule (or greed, I suppose).  And then there’s the talk of superfights.  The one night payout for an inter-division showdown may be tantalizing, but the message to the public is that a division championship is not the ultimate prize.

The end result of the superfight talk and the repeated championship opportunities for the Fabers and Sonnens of the world is that the magic promotional equation of stars plus stakes becomes exclusively about the stars.  When Junior and Cain square off on Saturday, the stars will be there but the stakes won’t.  Fight fans know that a man whose application for reinstatement after a performance enhancing drug suspension has not even been heard is in line for the next UFC Heavyweight Championship opportunity (or at the very least, the one after).  Close followers of UFC’s booking patterns are aware that the main event for UFC 155 is in some ways just the first eliminator fight on the road to Jon Jones’ heavyweight championship superfight.  Junior and Cain are stars, but if the claim of UFC Heavyweight Champion had the high stakes of their first fight, them UFC 155 would draw almost twice as many buys as it will this weekend.

There is a place in sports for the type of pro wrestling-style booking that sacrifices long term stakes at the altar of a quick buck (or ten million bucks).  There are times that an MMA promotion should eschew fair play and just book a 43 year-old light heavyweight superstar against the heavyweight champion in order to draw more one-time buys, as Zuffa did in 2007 when Randy Couture fought Time Sylvia.  When a promotion has yet to be accepted as legitimate, it can do those things.  But UFC was so close to being legitimate.  The media and fans of American sports (and several other countries) want to allow UFC into the world of the PGA Tour (golf) and NASCAR (stock car racing), where one promotion has earned the status as the owner of the sport.

If UFC wants true legitimacy and all of the benefits that come with it, then the promotion will have to be more fair.  Fair play doesn't have to mean teams or tournaments, but it does have to mean that the scoreboard is what matters most and that divisions are adhered to.  Not embracing those principles will leave UFC subject to an over-reliance on stars and a lessening of the stakes.

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