In the previous instalment on this topic, it was suggested at great length that a dedicated fanbase like the one attached to Mixed Martial Arts seems surprisingly uninvolved and uninterested in things like fighter pay. Surprisingly is actually a compliment to the average MMA fan here - because MMA fans as a rule really love their sport and its fighters. So, it is indeed a surprise the topic is not more prevalent in the consciousness and conversation of fans. Of course, if sport is an escape, it makes all the sense in the world to avoid how the proverbial sausage gets made and not talk about real life things. But, still. Nothing?
Along with the treatment of fighters and their paychecks – however measly – comes the question as to why the Ultimate Fighting Championship has literally monopolized dominated the market in Mixed Martial Arts. If fans are indeed fanatics of MMA, how can they give so much of their attention exclusively to one promotion?
In the beginning of the last bit on this, it was stated that it seems the MMA fanbase that exclusively follows the UFC as the sole producer of the combat sport, also appears to be tacitly going along with things just being the way they are. Would it be too much to say that it is simply accepted that when Dana White, who is the president of the UFC, says something, it is taken as what it is? When he says terrible things of fighters, that is alright? When he maligns the media (who essentially pay to promote his company), that is alright? Or the hinge pin of this discussion; when he maligns fans, that is alright? Think this is overstatement? Go search the phrase online “Dana blasts.”
Part of the allure when MMA was burgeoning was that it was a fight sport with fighter-types associated – including its very vocal president. There was a feeling that we were all in on some Fight Club stuff. The voice for the company was saying we will be who we want to be. Then came legalisation in all states, stars (the writer groans when that word comes up), television deals, USADA, and apparel deals. And this last one is where we pause for a moment and remind ourselves. Many times from the man himself, it was stated the goal was to be super-duper professional like the other sports. A drinking game (figuratively of course) could be made of the times White says “this thing” referring to what they have built and how it is mainstream and huge and global and extra professional – super-duper, extra professional. Did we say, professional?
And here we are with the sport having gone literally global. The promotion itself being in partnership with ESPN; possibly the most ubiquitous sports commodity on earth. And as recent as months ago, the president of the company is saying of boxers: “All those f****** guys are overpaid.” It is quite possible that this is an attractive quality to some. But this is a Martial Arts context we are in. The loudest voice in the sport said that people getting punched in the head for a living are being overpaid. Not ice-skaters. Not curlers. Boxers. Take a minute if you would, and go watch interviews from retired boxers. This is not really about pay if we have any empathy.
Enter the other promotions. In a recent interview with Ariel Helwani, Chatri Sityodtong – President of One Championship - answered some tough questions very candidly about the journey he has been on as a promoter. How the first three years were so very difficult. He spoke about how even now they are still working - having had some devastating setbacks due to the pandemic and other things – to become profitable. He also spoke of particular numbers gauging success for combat sports and how One is leading the pack – even over UFC – in many parts of the world. But what about the ethos? What about when told he is not as big or as good as UFC? What about the constant drone of always being a bridesmaid? Maybe taking a swing at a star like Nate Diaz is the shot in the arm he needs, right? Wrong.
Chatri spoke of the ethos of his company being about the Martial Arts. He emphatically said UFC is an MMA company. He doesn’t want a star for stars’ sake. He wants the best strikers, the best grapplers, the best kickboxers, etc. He is not taking castoffs from other organizations. He is building his own fighters. And it would seem for all intents and purposes, succeeding at doing so. And not once has he ever told us we are idiots or as White did to a fan who said a card wasn’t good, “Stay home then, f***face!” – in public no less.
We have not even talked about Bellator and Scott Coker’s reputation and integrity, or the backing that PFL has gotten from pretty significant investors, or even the smaller promotions producing some excellent talent.
If in a discussion, this is the part where people ask weird impossible hypotheticals about champions in one place fighting champions in another. Aside from the actual evidence such as Eddie Alvarez spanning promotions and reaching the absolute heights in each, or the title fight between UFC Champion Israel Adesanya and Alex Pereira essentially being a showcase of fighters not homegrown in the UFC, or seeing UFC fighters even in their prime struggling elsewhere – aside from all of that, people will likely still simply accept that the UFC has all of the good fighters and fights. If you go further past the top five in the UFC, you will see without doubt that things are way more equal and open in the talent pool. Still, UFC is best, right? Maybe.
This is all to say that the UFC did it. They told us all ‘it is what it is’ and what it is is that we consume what we are fed. There seems no number high enough of fighters complaining about their lot in the UFC or fighters extolling the virtues of another organization that will make the casual fan take notice. Will this end up in the end being a ‘what might have been’? Could there have been a scenario in a parallel universe where fighters got to excel, be paid handsomely like other pro sports, be appreciated by fan and promoter alike, and have opportunities in a free market to appreciate in value? All while representing the honor of Martial Arts? The strange thing is that this seems to be a model that is not all that costly. It could be that everyone could win if done right. Wishful thinking perhaps – if the cost of doing business is less ego.