Prize fighting, at its best, is a sport of wide appeal; technique, brutality, heart, and will, all woven deftly into an uncompromisingly visceral package. High-level MMA is a spectacle unlike any other found in sports, and no company is more readily capable of producing it than the UFC.
At UFC Fight Night 131, Marlon Moraes showed the capabilities of the sport’s upper echelon, ending bantamweight elite Jimmie Rivera’s 20-fight winning streak with a monstrous headkick. It took little more than 30 seconds for Rivera’s undefeated run – dating back to 2008 – to come to a dazzling conclusion. A decade of work was lost in moments as Rivera crumbled to the mat. These are the kinds of extreme highs and lows that only MMA can provide.
However, by the time the card was over, it somehow felt like Moraes’ moment had been robbed of some of its luster.
The card itself consisted of twelve fights, with adverts and desk analysis hammered in between. The exact running time I do not know, but it must have ran at least eighteen hours – if feeling is a valid measurement of time (which it is not).
By the time Moraes cemented himself as a title threat, fans who chose to watch the entire card had sat through several completely uneventful fights, with little offered in the way of world-class talent. For my part, exhaustion was setting in. The sort of mental fatigue that accrues over time, during long stretches of uninteresting MMA. There were some highlights scattered throughout, but I just felt tired, and not in a physical sense. This fatigue is a feeling that has become more and more familiar to me lately.
It does not stem from disinterest in the sport. The more I learn of MMA, the more I understand the in- & out-of-cage struggles of the combatants, the more exhilarated I am by the sport’s highlights. Dustin Poirier vs. Justin Gaethje was a phenomenal fight by any metric, but I would not have enjoyed it on quite as many levels had I been a more casual viewer all of these years.
Before this card, there was the Thompson vs. Till card, and that same familiar slog. Before that, Maia vs. Usman. Same again. Before that, Nunes vs. Pennington. I honestly can’t even remember if I enjoyed that card, these events all seem to blur together.
Is there an upper limit to how many near-weekly UFC cards a fan is willing to sit through for half a dozen hours? Declining viewership would suggest so. But if we lived in a world where it was possible to produce cards of significant quality so frequently, perhaps six hours of UFC content would be welcomed – or at least be digestible.
As it is, it feels like a chore. Anecdotally, the mood on social media is no more positive. This may be especially apparent in the welterweight division, which seems primarily occupied, at the top level, by fighters who cannot exact much offense on each other.
Woodley vs. Thompson, Woodley vs. Maia, Usman vs. Maia, Covington vs. Maia, Till vs. Thompson. The participants of these fights, along with Rafael dos Anjos, are the men who embody the current title picture. Each is a fantastic fighter in his own right, and perhaps viewers enjoyed one or more of those fights, but the lack of action and meaningful offense are statistically undeniable. These fights were slow. Sometimes painfully so.
A common counter-criticism from fans more enthused than myself at recent UFC cards is to simply ‘not watch,’ or only watch the top ends of cards. That’s a great piece of advice, and unfortunately for those most in love with the product, it’s advice that is being taken more and more to heart. Viewership is not in a good place, and the UFC’s pay-per-view business feels like it is in serious trouble. If rumor is to be believed, UFC 224 was the lowest-selling UFC pay-per-view in a decade, and several recent events full of elite fighters have financially under-performed.
Saturday’s UFC 225 card is, on paper, stacked top to bottom. Robert Whittaker’s rematch with Yoel Romero is one of the best fights the UFC can put together. An event so full of talent that fighters like Alistair Overeem and Claudia Gadelha are relegated to the prelims. Joseph Benavidez vs. Sergio Pettis – an important divisional bout between two top-5 flyweights – finds itself featured on Fight Pass. The card serves as a sharp reminder of what the UFC is really capable of producing.
Following that, there’s little to be excited about until July’s incredible UFC 226 card, preceded by two cards of quality that could generously be described as dubious.
With the UFC-ESPN deal approaching, fans who wish to consume all of the UFC’s product will find their content distributed across ESPN, ESPN+, FightPass, pay-per-view… it’s frankly dizzying to consider.
All that said, if you find yourself consistently enjoying the UFC’s product, don’t let anyone stop you. That’s your right as a consumer, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Conversely, if you found some of these points resonating with you, it makes you no less valid of a consumer, even in a space where the word ‘casual’ is used as a pejorative.
It has always been the case that those casual fans form the bulk of the pay-per-view audience, drawn more by starpower than by any brand loyalty to the UFC. The core fanbase has been good for some nebulous number of buys. But, recent figures suggest that even this core’s willingness to purchase unconvincing pay-per-views is dwindling – and so too their desire to spend a half-dozen hours on a Fight Night event with little in the way of star power.
The UFC has increasingly come to rely on volume of events, rather than quality, but viewers have more options for content now than ever before. Expecting consumers to tune into cards that are mediocre on paper, and likely to be mediocre in practise, is unfair. It’s unfair to the consumer, it’s unfair to the fighters. It’s unfair to Marlon Moraes, whose performance will be all but forgotten in a matter of weeks, if it hasn’t already been.
In an era where content, both free and paid, is bombarded onto consumers from their PCs, their TVs, and the phones in their pockets, it’s beginning to look less and less like volume-booking is a sustainable business model for an organization that has yet to establish a solid foothold in mainstream culture.
The UFC’s leveraging of a profitable deal with ESPN speaks well of both their business acumen and the success of their volume approach in creating relatively short-term revenue. But, with dwindling ratings, this success can only last for so long. If their future demands quality, as it eventually will, then their future may be bleak.