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How to Fix the UFC

A few modest proposals for its new owners

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

By Chuck Mindenhall and David Shoemaker

The UFC is in new hands. In early July, the WME-IMG talent agency (along with some other rich pals) purchased the promotion from the Fertitta brothers for a whopping $4 billion. Turns out UFC 200 was the great last shindig for the Fertittas, who snapped up a taboo fight league in 2001 for 2 million bucks, gave it a conscience, convinced the key 18–49 male demographic that fighting was in our DNA, made it global, got it onto broadcast television, got it sanctioned in all 50 states and in most countries (where you at, France?), got it accepted into the stodgiest corners of the media world (ESPN), and boom, here we are — watching Team Zuffa realize a 2,000 percent return on the original investment.

Not bad.

It helps that Dana White was installed as the public face of the franchise for the past 15 years. As far as carnival barkers go, he’s really proven to be the best there is. White’s not going anywhere as the UFC enters its bold new era. He’ll remain the president of the UFC, only now he’s a filthy rich one. His cut in the sale comes out to more than $300 million. Dude won’t need to fly around in the Fertitta jet anymore — he can just buy his own.

Yet even with White aboard, that’s a pretty lit baton the Fertittas just passed over to the William Morris group. Some might call it a stick of dynamite when you consider the current state of mixed martial arts. We’ve got the UFC-appointed United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) red-flagging some of the UFC’s most recognizable stars. And its biggest names — Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey — are coming off of losses. There’s dissention in the ranks, and the Reebok apparel sponsorship deal is almost universally despised for doing away with the brand’s originality and entrepreneurial spirit. Fighters can’t sport Dude Wipes as a sponsor anymore.

Yet, as we enter this new era in the UFC, our own David Shoemaker and Chuck Mindenhall got to thinking of some things the new owners might consider doing to give it a fresh coat of paint. Let’s break it down.

Change the Terrible Music

Mindenhall: There was a time when nu metal spoke to the fringe audience that followed the UFC. Guttural noise was just the thing for a cage fight, and STEMM, the band that came up with this anthem, was just such a burbling sea of angry phlegm. It was fun during an opening montage of, say, Matt Hughes slamming Frank Trigg, but now it feels a little embarrassing and outdated.

It’s time to retire “Face the Pain,” just like the UFC did to its old “Gladiator” opening. Even that was too “blood sport” for the move into the television masses with the Fox deal. That’s about the same time the UFC started spray-painting over blood spots on the fight canvas in the octagon between fights, too. William Morris has plenty of artists it could commission to come up with something better. Maybe get your boy Skrillex to come up with something?

Shoemaker: For $4 billion, WME has to plan on growing the UFC fan base, and there’s no way to build it without moving away from the Affliction-T-shirt-and-flap-pocket-jeans affectations of the company’s youth. Sure, the UFC has Reebok branding all over the ring now, and you’re more likely to see Shaq in the crowd for a big show than a bloodthirsty bro. But if the UFC is going for a full facelift, “Face the Pain” has to go. It’s the soundtrack to a grainy YouTube fan video, not a $4 billion company.

End ‘The Ultimate Fighter’

Mindenhall: Kill it. Kill it. Put it out of its misery. That tired old franchise, which started out on Spike TV and now runs on Fox Sports 1, has coughed up its every charm. After more than 10 years of dark fights and theatrics, exactly how much talent is it really unearthing? Very little. Even when TUF 20 rolled out the women’s strawweight division and crowned its champion, it was a little disingenuous. Of the 16 contestants that were relentlessly dubbed the best 115-pounders in the world, none of them was named Claudia Gadelha or Joanna Jedrzejczyk, the two best 115-pound fighters in the world.

Forrest Griffin punches Stephan Bonnar (Getty Images)
Forrest Griffin punches Stephan Bonnar (Getty Images)

The series’ first season was the boom moment for the UFC with Stephan Bonnar and Forrest Griffin (if that fight didn’t happen, WME-IMG certainly isn’t splurging $4 billion this July), and there have been compelling seasons since (TUF 4, with Matt Serra; TUF 5, with Nate Diaz; TUF 10 with Kimbo Slice). But can you name a single fighter from TUF 21? How ’bout TUF 17? Dana White’s Lookin’ for a Fight feels more heartfelt in pursuit of new talent than the UFC’s long-winded version of The Real World.

Shoemaker: Wait … The Ultimate Fighter is still on TV? Given, I’m the casual fan here, but I honestly haven’t deliberately seen an episode of TUF in years. Griffin-Bonnar is the biggest reason we’re even here talking about this — Joe Rogan said it was the biggest fight in UFC history when he was on Any Given Wednesday — but if we’re making all our decisions based on nostalgia, UFC should hold every PPV at the McNichols Sports Arena. As good as the Fox deal has been for UFC, rule no. 1 of reality TV is that you can’t switch channels and expect to remain relevant. Remember Project Runway? Yeah, nobody else does either.

Everybody knows the way to the UFC now. You spend six months at a half-decent BJJ gym and you have an idea of the path to stardom, impossible as it may actually be. If you’re actually good enough to make it, you don’t need a reality show to get there. In fact, you’re probably better off skipping it. Just go fight — MMA is the world’s most violent meritocracy.

So what does the UFC replace it with? Take the money and crew and send them to Jackson Wink MMA or AKA and follow around some young guys there. Show the daily hell they go through and the dingy apartments they live in. Show the crazy eating habits and obscene weight cutting. That’s drama — not drunken boasting or short-sheeting your teammate’s bed in a mansion. They can bring back The Ultimate Fighter down the road, or repurpose the name into something really worth the viewers’ time.

Mindenhall: I love that you mentioned “Big Mac,” site of UFC 1. They demolished that place in 2000. The TUF franchise needs to be detonated, too.

Get Rid of Weight Cutting

Shoemaker: Speaking of the rough lives these fighters lead, is it time to figure out a way to minimize weight cutting yet? When you see fights where there’s no cutting, they’re indisputably better. Even the greats like McGregor, Anderson Silva, and Jon Jones look better when they go up a weight class. And that’s to say nothing of the sheer brutality of it. When Yang Jian Bing died last year in an extreme weight cut, even Rogan chimed in to denounce the current system. I get why fighters do it — it’s a calculation that being dehydrated and weakened is still a few degrees better than being undersize. (And let’s not dismiss the advantage that wrestlers have, since they’ve been cutting since high school.) But it’s brutal, and it’s unnecessary. Why not put a 15-pound cap on weight cutting and weigh fighters when they do surprise drug tests to make sure they’re not walking around in excess of that. The UFC should reward the best fighters — not the ones most adept at crash dieting.

Conor McGregor (Getty Images)
Conor McGregor (Getty Images)

Mindenhall: There’s work being done on this front. In June, at UFC 199 in Los Angeles, the California commission experimented with a new weigh-in procedure on the Friday morning before the fight, rather than the Friday afternoon. It was done to give fighters more time to rehydrate, which in turn makes for a healthier fighter come fight night. This became the new norm immediately, as it was repeated for all the fight cards in July in Las Vegas, Chicago, and Atlanta, and it has been met with many hallelujahs by the fighters.

One fun aspect of the new weigh-ins is that the UFC still holds a ceremonial weigh-in later that afternoon for the public, where the fighters still strip down to their drawers and the commission plays along. It’s a big silly charade, but at least nobody hits the scale sunken down to their skeletons anymore.

Get Rid of Interim Titles

Mindenhall: There was a time when Dominick Cruz, the UFC’s original bantamweight champion, was suffering through injuries and setbacks that left him — and his title — on the shelf for two years. In a case like that, it’s logical to put a placeholder symbol back in play, which the UFC did in the form of Renan Barão. The idea was to one day bring Barão’s near-belt and Cruz’s actual belt together for a unification, while keeping everything fluid in the meantime. But more fighters have gotten their hands on these belts in the meantime, making the unifications trickier than desired.

“Interim” is essentially a promise ring, but it’s also meaningless. Carlos Condit became the “interim” welterweight champion by beating Nick Diaz when Georges St-Pierre got hurt before a card. The interim belt was meant to keep some gold on the promo posters. The same thing happened when Cain Velasquez fell out of his UFC 180 main event with Fabrício Werdum. It’s a sham, though, when featherweight champion Conor McGregor moonlights as a welterweight and UFC invents a second belt for the weight class he fled. Jose Aldo, who beat Frankie Edgar for the interim title at UFC 200, knows it’s a counterfeit. So do we.

With 10 belts in the men’s and women’s weight classes already in play, and a couple of asterisk belts that materialized through circumstance, the title picture has become completely convoluted.

Ditch the interim titles. Or, at very least, use them only when a champion is out with an injury for a defined amount of time.

Shoemaker: We’re halfway through this piece and finally getting to the reason I wanted to do it in the first place: Interim titles are the Fake Razor and Diesel of MMA. Nobody buys their legitimacy, least of all the fighters themselves, but everybody’s convinced that they’re good for business. Every time I’ve been at a bar watching a UFC show and they announce an interim title fight, you can see half the people in the bar lean over to their buddy and ask what it means. The solution is simple — either you keep the belt until you lose it in the cage, or if you can’t defend the belt, you lose the belt.

I lean toward the second option — if you don’t defend the belt once in a six-month span, you lose it. Sure, it’s not fair for a fighter who suffers a freak injury, but the audience and the participants need to reset their expectations. The belt is for the top fighter in the weight class who is actually fighting at the time. The way it stands now, they might as well retire the featherweight title because Conor McGregor doesn’t need to defend it — and he doesn’t risk getting on UFC’s bad side as long he shows up for media day every once in a while.

The UFC borrowed the championship belt concept from boxing to gain social acceptance, but it’s morphed into the pro wrestling system — it’s hype without substance. I’d love for UFC to look at new ways to crown champions — whether it’s a point system with a year-end tourney like in soccer, or an annual, UFC 1–style fight tournament for each weight class. But first things first: Let’s get rid of the interim belts.

Make Fighters Employees Rather Than Independent Contractors

Mindenhall: I mean, this one is a wormhole into potential fighter associations, the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act, and a bunch of ugly stuff that the new ownership group inherits. It’s prize fighting. That $4 billion figure is a specter that’s hovering over a gang of mercenaries and bounty hunters. It gets your typical 36/36 guy looking at the holes in his jeans, wondering where his cut is.

Of course, the UFC treats fighters like employees, and expects rigid conformity. The Reebok deal, which pays fighters on a tiered system based on experience, wasn’t voted on. It just was. The out-of-competition USADA testing is a needed fixture, but also an inconvenient one for independent contractors. The UFC holds likeness and identity rights. Fighters are subjected to house-run rankings, which can be manipulated to affect their standing. They are employees without the benefits of employees. It’s all geared to the UFC’s best interest. The TV deal with Fox ends after 2018, and it is (optimistically) believed the next television deal will fetch four times the revenue. If the fighters start Googling Timofey Mozgov, and get a load of his $64 million deal as part of 2016’s free-agency bonanza that ties into the player share of television revenue, well … things could get fun.

The UFC presents itself as a land of opportunity, and it is. Conor McGregor went from borrowing money from his coach, John Kavanagh, at the start of 2013 to survive to a spot on Forbes’s best-paid athletes list by 2016. Fighting is made up of individuals, wayward individuals in a lot of cases, each one with a different idea of what success should look like. Each one with a different value system. That’s a lot of disparate parts that need to come together. The vast majority of the names on the roster don’t see themselves as independent contractors; they see themselves as UFC fighters. That’s what they care about.

And if you’re the UFC, it’s a no-brainer to let the prestige of the brand overshadow all that pesky logic.

Shoemaker: I’ll see your employee status and raise you a union. Even if they’re not employees, they should have a fighter association. It’s crazy that professional fighters are so meagerly compensated. They need to be able to bargain for better conditions — whether it’s to stave off crazy revenue shifts like the Reebok deal, or to contest the conditions of their employment. We’re only five years removed from UFC offering its fighters health insurance! There’s already enough at stake in a prize fight without the added subplot of “Will this guy be invited back if he loses again?” And as much as the UFC likes to pretend to be the only MMA company in the world, it’s flat-out inhumane to be leaving its fighters with such insecurity.

Mindenhall: You’d get a kick out of listening to Mark Hunt’s gripes about it.

Ditch Dana

Dana White (Getty Images)
Dana White (Getty Images)

Shoemaker: I get it, he’s necessary for the transition to new management. And he’s the face of the company — Rouseys and GSPs come and go, but Dana White’s mug remains constant. But as much fun as he can be to watch in press conferences and on his YouTube monologues, he’s just not suited to take the company to another level. Whether it’s challenging his own talent or banning journalists for doing their jobs well, he’s too temperamental to be in the same sentence as Adam Silver or Rob Manfred — and eventually, that has to be what WME wants its new property to be. Listen, Dana has his positives — he could be a better Vince McMahon than Vince McMahon — but it’s not always fun to see a pro wrestling promoter having power over people’s lives.

Mindenhall: I see where you’re coming from, and I hear things like this a lot. I still have a soft spot for Dana, even though he is a megalomaniac who is known to travel the low road. He’s drastically scaled back his media appearances over time, no longer doing the chummy media scrums at big events, and rarely sitting in on post-fight pressers. Still, I wish he understood the function of media, rather than viewing it as just another arm of PR.

It’s funny, but in the way the UFC became a professional playground for wayward souls in the mixed techniques, it also became a rescue center for journalists/writers who didn’t have the chops — or access — to write about other sports. MMA acted as a refuge for misfits across the board. As the sport grew into an industry, so did the media covering it. A lot of the media received an education through Dana White, who ran a seminar essentially every time he sat in on a scrum. Many journalists still take his word as gospel. When you don’t, there can be trouble.

After I wrote a negative review of UFC 177 — in which I stated simply that T.J. Dillashaw could have levitated and shot red beams from his eyes to disintegrate Joe Soto and it wouldn’t have mattered because it was Joe Freaking Soto — I was given occasion to visit Dana in a back room of Foxwoods Casino, just so I could get a squeeze of his biceps. It turns out he didn’t like that particular column.

Fast-forward to 2016, with the UFC changing hands for record-breaking money, and there’s still a misunderstanding within the UFC of how media should treat its product. Just recently, we were shown this again with another lifetime ban of a media member. After some massive media outcry that ban lasted just 44 hours.

Will any of that have an effect on White’s future with UFC though? I guess we’ll find out.

Fewer Events

Mindenhall: I realize that with so much going on in the major sports there’s no real offseason. But in the UFC, there’s literally no offseason. One big event happens, like UFC 200, and four days later John Lineker is punching up Michael McDonald in South Dakota. Imagine if Denver beat Carolina in the Super Bowl, and the following week the NFL had Cleveland visiting Atlanta. What the hell were we building toward? There is no conclusion. It’s a trial without end. It’s madness!

Back in the day, when Chuck Liddell was fighting Tito Ortiz at UFC 47, it was simple. You got a date, you circled it, and that was the event. And it was just that, an event. These days whole cards come and go living in the shadow of other cards, which are cut into by yet other events. To follow it all, you can’t just be a UFC fan — you have to be UFC obsessed. In July alone there was nearly 12 hours of actual fight time spread across six fight cards. At the end of it all I felt like Alex from A Clockwork Orange, staring at harrowing images with my eyes clamped open.

So yeah, I’d like to see fewer events.

Shoemaker: Listen, I cover pro wrestling — you don’t have to tell me about the need for some downtime. I think the UFC would do well to have an annual Super Bowl (or WrestleMania) and take a couple of months off. UFC 201 was this past weekend, and most fans I know hadn’t fully digested UFC 200 yet. (Mark Hunt doesn’t seem to be quite over it, anyway.) I’m all for fighters making their name via a stray KO, but some of the folks they trot out on Fight Nights look like they shouldn’t be anywhere near an octagon. When Liddell and Ortiz were going at it, it was a mystical experience — the UFC told us these were the two best fighters in the world, and we believed it because, well, who else would it be? Now there’s so many fights (and so much hype) that you can hardly tell who’s who.

But I guess that’s what WME was paying for. Nothing is as valuable as content these days, so I find it hard to imagine the UFC will pare it back. But just because WME paid $4 billion for UFC doesn’t mean it has to keep things the way they are. As great as UFC is, the new owners would be crazy to.