UFC 229 fallout: MMA is more like WWE lately. Is this a good thing, or the start of the sport’s downfall?
Is the industry-leading MMA body guilty of sabotaging its own image?
Dana White needed Saturday’s UFC 229 to be a hit. What he got instead was a circus of testosterone boiling over, overshadowing an enthralling title match, and a sport doing everything it can to sabotage its image.
It’s no secret the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s biggest pay per view draw was in 2016 (1.6 million buys according to Tapology) when Conor McGregor won a decision over Nate Diaz. Since then it’s looked like the UFC has started a slow, ugly downfall back into obscurity, clawing aimlessly to stay relevant, fighting for legitimacy and looking more like a poorly written, badly acted WWE Monday Night Raw script.
While McGregor has turned out to be a bankable star financially (his title fights are four of the top five pay per view draws of all-time) he is most definitely a polarising image and typifies the UFC’s current conundrum.
Ask anyone their opinion about McGregor, and you’ll get one of two answers, a vehement defence of his character, or a slew of negative remarks about his over-the-top boisterous antics. This is the new UFC, and it’s not like the old UFC.
A few years ago, White had two pitch-perfect poster boys to help catapult the sport into the mainstream culture. Georges St Pierre, a soft-spoken French-Canadian, led the men’s cards with his ‘aw shucks’ clean-cut image. On the women’s side it was Ronda Rousey, a reliable, bankable brand and an excellent role model.
Now Rousey is off to the actual WWE, and St Pierre has fought only once since November 2013. Who has replaced these unblemished, immaculately crafted stars? Well, aside from the immature, antics-fuelled McGregor, you have playboy Jon Jones, who cannot pass a drug test to save his life and is just about to finish a 15-month suspension.
What happened in Las Vegas on Saturday was another sign of the UFC’s internal battle. Is this a legitimate sport, or one that breeds and needs controversy to remain relevant in the sporting world?
It’s no wonder Khabib Nurmagomedov finally snapped after defeating McGregor. This Irishman had been winding up the Russian for months, the UFC dousing kerosene on the dumpster fire while pleading ignorance, egging on McGregor, even using footage from the New York melee which landed him in court on actual criminal charges (a fiasco that did not earn McGregor more than a hand slap from White).
Nurmagomedov is one half of a sport that seeks validity, but remains in the shadows as out-of-ring antics continue to drown out a highly technical offering that beautifully showcases the complexities of mixed martial arts.
And the UFC has plenty of fighters like him: Daniel Cormier is a great example, he is Jones’ antithesis, and sadly, the only thing he cannot do is beat him inside the octagon.
This has always been the catch 22 facing the UFC; McGregor grabs headlines and clicks, but he ultimately whittles away the casual viewer who tires of his verbal diarrhoea, grinding the fan base back to the diehards.
Overarching all of this is the massive cultural movement away from sports that generate negative press concerning concussions and head injuries. The National Football League and boxing are facing the same unwinnable war: people still watch because of the sports’ violent nature, but are increasingly less inclined given they know how damaging it is to the actual athletes.
The real question is could the UFC cement its place among the mainstream sporting world without people like McGregor? One has to concede mixed martial arts would not be where it is today without its potty-mouthed showman, but now as the sport slips in rankings and followers, will it clean up its image or continue to try to clickbait it way back into conversations?
Chances do not look good right now, as figures like McGregor tend to have a finite shelf life, and replacing him with conservative and tight-lipped fighters will not generate a fraction of the press he does.
There’s no denying a little controversy and war of words helps promote a fight’s storyline. The problem is Nurmagomedov does not have a master’s degree in verbal showmanship and McGregor is constantly pushing the boundaries of what’s acceptable pre-fight banter.
His religious and political attacks on Nurmagomedov obviously sell tickets and pay per view buys, but he is tarnishing the sport’s image in the same breath, a short-term fix to a long-term problem, that without controversy, the UFC looks like a slightly prolonged flash in the pan.