To close out 2016, as if to do away with the notion that the inmates are now running the asylum, UFC president Dana White did something he hadn’t done in two years — he held a media scrum a couple of days before UFC 207. He said he did this because his PR staff asked him to, and his PR staff asked him to because UFC 207’s star attraction, Ronda Rousey, had preemptively deep-sixed all media requests.
For half an hour, he answered questions in his intimate off-the-record voice (as opposed to the podium-bully persona we’ve come to know), and reasserted himself as an authority figure. It was just like old times. He assured everyone that, though the UFC had new owners in place, he was still in charge. The power players at WME-IMG have been conspicuously quiet since spending $4 billion and change to purchase the premier league in the "fastest growing sport in the world" back in July. To hear White tell it, WME had nothing to do with anything.
"WME has nothing to do with what I’m doing over here," he said. "WME is obviously the new owners of this thing and whatever, but I’m still doing everything. Ari Emanuel and Patrick Whitesell are not involved in anything to do with the fights that are being made. They are not involved in the production of the UFC or anything. Everything is exactly the way it was."
What’s weird about that is of course that nothing is exactly the way it was.
For starters, the UFC under previous owner Lorenzo Fertitta would never have allowed any fighter — Rousey, Conor McGregor, Jon Jones, whoever — to go silent during fight week, especially ahead of a big pay-per-view card. The fight game is the hype game, and oftentimes the most exciting part of a major bout occurs in prospect, in the imagination of what could happen, in the conversations, temperaments, and demeanors. The principals essentially become salespeople as the fight draws near, and everybody knows this. Rousey — who is not coincidentally repped by WME — was granted an unprecedented, completely counterintuitive exception.
Then she went out and lost spectacularly against Amanda Nunes. Rousey was a husk of her original self, a whipping post for Nunes to tee off on for 48 seconds before referee Herb Dean gently stepped in as if to say, "OK, OK, Amanda, you’ve made your point." If Holly Holm shattered Rousey’s psyche 14 months ago by introducing her to losing, Nunes took a rolling pin to the broken pieces.
Now one of the UFC’s biggest, most profitable stars’ future is uncertain. Kind of like everything else.
As we head into 2017, nobody is exactly sure where the UFC is headed. Longtime matchmaker Joe Silva, an intimidating presence who could persuade guys to fight with a tension-filled pause during a phone call, took his cut from the sale and retired. Fertitta’s passion is long gone, and the $4 billion figure — of which White himself took a cut in the range of $360 million — is causing a bit of mutiny in the ranks. Conor McGregor is (allegedly) out for an extended period, as his girlfriend is expecting in May. The stars aren’t exactly aligning.
So what’s the state of the UFC as 2017 gets rolling? Let’s begin with an alarming development.
The UFC’s Accessibility Is at an All-Time Low
Imagine if the only thing you know about the UFC is that Conor McGregor holds two titles. You follow his Twitter feed, and you frequently see him holding two belts as he poses with his sports cars. Simple enough. He has two titles, and he’s vainglorious enough to remind you about it all the time. Nothing extraordinary about that.
Only, you know, that’s not technically true (anymore). The truth is, McGregor is officially nothing more than a rich man in denial. Yes, he won the UFC’s featherweight (145 pounds) and lightweight (155 pounds) titles, the latter coming against Eddie Alvarez at UFC 205 at Madison Square Garden. But then 205-pound champion Daniel Cormier got himself hurt. That’s all it took to send the lighter of McGregor’s two belts on a ridiculous adventure.
(Follow along now, because the UFC is nothing more than a butterfly effect playing out in real time. And not just a butterfly effect, but a series of butterfly effects within butterfly effects, to the point that all originations may as well just be some comedy club back in Tulsa.)
Cormier got hurt, and so his UFC 206–headlining title bout with Anthony Johnson was scrapped. That meant, in a pinch, the featherweight bout between Max Holloway and Anthony Pettis — originally a no. 1 contender’s bout — had to be bumped up into the main event in Toronto, and in that spotlight it needed a symbol in play. So the UFC took McGregor’s featherweight title, handed it over to interim champion Jose Aldo — whom McGregor beat for the belt in 13 seconds back in 2015 — and made Holloway-Pettis into a contest for the interim title. Then Pettis missed weight, and the equation was halved — now it was Holloway who was fighting for the interim title, while Pettis was fighting just to fight.
It keeps going. Holloway won, which was good, because the division needed clarity and Holloway had been angling for a fight with Aldo anyway. But when the UFC offered Holloway the fight he coveted with Aldo at UFC 208 in Brooklyn (February 11), Holloway said no thanks. That led to a discussion of having Aldo move up in weight to fight Khabib Nurmagomedov for the interim lightweight title — interim this time because McGregor will presumably be out of action for an extended period of time. Nurmagomedov shot that down (more on that in a minute).
With no headliner for UFC 208, the UFC invented the women’s featherweight division and — presto, out of thin air — put the inaugural title up for grabs. This would have been OK, except there was one conspicuous name missing — that of Cristiane "Cyborg" Justino, the most dominant women’s champion in the history of the sport. Without her fighting for that featherweight title, a weight class she has ruled in Strikeforce and Invicta FC, what was the point of the division? Needing to book something, the UFC couldn’t wait on Cyborg, who said she wouldn’t be ready until March due to the extreme nature of her last weight cut. So the UFC booked Holly Holm (who has lost two in a row) versus Germaine de Randamie instead. Just as the outcry over this booking was reaching pitchfork levels, Cyborg popped hot for a banned substance in an out-of-competition test by USADA, meaning she wouldn’t have been able to fight anyway.
Try explaining that to your buddy the next time he says, "So wait, Conor has only one title? I thought he had two?"
Welcome to today’s UFC, where there are titles, interim belts, makeshift bookings, and growing numbers of division hoppers. If you don’t follow the sport as an obsessive die-hard, good luck sorting it all out. Heading into 2017, it’s like diving headfirst into an algebraic equation where the variables are mood, money, and necessity.
As crazy as that all sounds, it might be the new normal.
What Influence Will WME-IMG Have?
Because the new owners aren’t talking, the last half of 2016 became all about reading between the lines. What can we infer from how things played out, and how can we use that info as a weather vane to see how things will go in 2017?
First of all, the obvious: The Fox cards that run four times a year are going to be more about (a) quasi-relevant Pretty People fighting, (b) actually relevant Pretty People fighting, (c) the women’s divisions (preferably the Pretty contingent thereof), and (d) fun fights, rather than title fights.
UFC on Fox 22, which was held on December 17 in Sacramento, had a four-fight main card that was loaded with TV-friendly aesthetics. The headliners were 22-year-old Dancing With the Stars veteran Paige VanZant versus "The Karate Hottie" Michelle Waterson. The co-main event featured CM Punk–killer Mickey Gall against the selfie king Sage Northcutt. Urijah Faber, who has never struggled with the ladies, had his retirement fight against Brad Pickett. And upstart Mike Perry, who has a fun tattoo on his face that says "Platinum," fought none other than Alan Jouban, who in his spare time is a Versace model.
The ratings for this card peaked at 4.8 million viewers, which was the most-watched Fox broadcast since April 2013. The new owners favor the eye candy/intrigue combination over fighter rankings/title relevance. This is a shift in the paradigm. The UFC on Fox 23 card that happens on January 28 in Denver is headlined by Julianna Peña and Valentina Shevchenko, a fight that may achieve both form and substance (though the title implications are, as usual, somewhat abstract).
The UFC introduced its fighter rankings a few years back as a way of establishing a meritocracy in the matchmaking process, but those old concepts began to look dated the moment CM Punk fought Gall at UFC 203 in September. The meritocracy has been crippled further by the presence of McGregor, who fought Nate Diaz twice outside any divisional picture, and broke the pay-per-view record in the process. In the old UFC, CM Punk — who was completely outmatched and lost in a little over two minutes in his debut — would not get a second fight. Under the new regime, it feels more like a certainty that they won’t let him go.
It should come as no surprise to say that celebrity is going to appeal to William Morris Endeavor. But the telegraphy thus far has been startling. Going forward, the surface will count more than whatever is beating underneath.
In 2017 UFC, even the most absurd ideas start to seem possible. Like this talk that Jim Rome could be stepping in to replace the departed Mike Goldberg to do the play-by-play during telecasts. It’s silly on the whole. Rome isn’t going to end up a regular with Joe Rogan on the call, but you get the sense he may show up in a three-man booth (or in some cameo capacity). Dana White loves the outspoken Rome for calling it like he sees it, in the same way that MMA people love to hate Skip Bayless and Shannon Sharpe for fumbling inexpertly through the contents of Rousey’s mind. Blowhardism is the cheapest way to generate chatter.
Then of course there’s the elephant in the room: the old conflict of interest. The Mixed Martial Arts Athletes Association formed in late November, featuring an emboldened collective of current fighters hoping to level the playing field between the fighters (active or retired) and ownership. The core of the group comprised bantamweight champ T.J. Dillashaw, former heavyweight champ Cain Velasquez, longtime welterweight champ Georges St-Pierre, Donald Cerrone, and Tim Kennedy.
All but Cerrone is represented by the Creative Artists Agency, the rival agency of WME. On cue, Cerrone downplayed his involvement with the association a week later, when he showed up to fight Matt Brown at UFC 206 in Toronto. By the time he took off his shoes to enter the cage, his feet were already cold.
Who Are the Stars?
For the past couple of years, the UFC has had two megastars in Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor — each of whom did their part to help jack up the asking price for the sale. Rousey wasn’t the original woman in MMA (Gina Carano and Cyborg were doing great numbers long before her arrival), but she was the one who broke down the partition with the UFC and took the game by storm. McGregor is a bombastic Irishman with an incredible self-belief that runs fathoms deep. It’s hard to duplicate those things.
And it’s fair to say that McGregor and Rousey have done more for the sport than anybody that stood before them.
Yet with Rousey having lost again (and the hermetic way in which she handles losing) and McGregor possibly out of action until sometime in mid-2017, who are the stars? That’s a real concern, particularly since the new ownership group isn’t exactly endearing itself to the fighters.
Georges St-Pierre, the longtime welterweight champ who walked away from fighting in 2013, has some mighty leverage heading into the new year. Before Rousey and McGregor blew up, St-Pierre was one of the UFC’s biggest draws. He has been on record saying he’d like to fight again, just as White has gone on record saying the opposite. The divide didn’t stop there. The CAA-repped St-Pierre proclaimed himself a free agent in October, and the UFC begged to differ. The two have met on occasion to see if it could be worked out, but things are still at a stalemate.
Right now, the UFC could desperately use a GSP. Look at the calendar. As of early January, there are only two title fights booked — the imaginative featherweight title between Holm and De Randamie in Brooklyn, and a rematch between Stephen Thompson and Tyron Woodley for UFC 209. That’s about as barren as things have looked since Zuffa purchased the UFC back in 2001.
In July, the suspensions of both Jon Jones and Brock Lesnar will be up. If Jones can stay out of his own way, he’ll be back around then. Lesnar, who was a surprise addition to UFC 200 this past summer, will be 40 when he’s eligible to return. It’s doubtful he’ll come back with his WWE career still rolling … but then again, nobody thought that after four and a half years he’d come back like he did at UFC 200. Cyborg is facing a possible suspension for her latest doping violation (she served a one-year suspension back in 2011–12 after getting dinged for an anabolic steroid while fighting in Strikeforce). She probably won’t be back anytime soon.
In McGregor’s case, he says he’s waiting for the new ownership group to finally speak to him, and that he wants an actual piece of the UFC’s ownership before he proceeds. If Tom Brady owns a piece of the UFC, why shouldn’t he?
So there are your prospects. With McGregor expecting a child and waiting for Ari Emanuel to visit him in Ireland to talk partnership, Rousey having lost two in a row and probably done for good, St-Pierre at an impasse with the UFC, Justino in limbo with USADA, Jones and Lesnar gone until at least July, who is left? Cody Garbrandt? Stipe Miocic? Tyron Woodley?
There’s always the Diaz brothers — Nick and Nate — but that’s not easy, either. In fact, that’s the other issue.
Can the UFC Get People to Actually Fight?
This is potentially the biggest problem facing the UFC under the new ownership group. It’s getting increasingly difficult to book a fight. Neither Diaz is all that anxious to compete again. In fact, Nate went on record recently saying he won’t even answer the phone for less than $20 million — even though he made $20,000 to show and $20,000 to win in his fight against Michael Johnson before the McGregor series. Is he high? Not nearly as high as Nick, who is out there telling it like it is with his buddy Snoop Dogg.
These days it’s nearly impossible to predict what is going to happen. Contenders are promised plenty, but guaranteed nothing. Champions are being selective. Division jumping has been a thing ever since McGregor did it at UFC 196 in March. People are fighting out contracts to test their worth on the open market — "open market" meaning Bellator, the UFC’s only real rival promotion.
To make matters worse, all of this is happening just as matchmaker Joe Silva is walking away. It’s up to Sean Shelby and newcomer Mick Maynard to deal with all of these complications and get people to agree on terms.
Which brings us back to Nurmagomedov, who in the minds of many should be next to challenge McGregor for the lightweight belt. With McGregor temporarily out of the picture and Holloway not ready to unify the featherweight belts, the UFC tried to keep both Nurmagomedov and Aldo happy by offering an interim 155-pound title fight. Nurmagomedov declined because if he can’t fight McGregor, he wants to fight fellow contender Tony Ferguson. Easy, right? No. Ferguson didn’t want to fight Nurmagomedov unless he got a raise to do so. He asked for the same purse as Nurmagomedov, which Dana White initially scoffed at. Nurmagomedov even offered to pay Ferguson $200,000 himself to take the fight — a gesture that doubled as a poke at the skinflints running the UFC.
It looks like a middle ground has been reached and that fight will happen, but these sticking points are only growing more rampant in this new era of fighter awareness. When Woodley won the welterweight title, he called out big names GSP and Nick Diaz (who’s fought just once in the past four years), rather than contenders Thompson or Demian Maia. When Michael Bisping won the middleweight title, he angled for (and received) a fight against 46-year-old living legend Dan Henderson, ahead of about a dozen more qualified challengers. After that he flirted with the idea of fighting GSP.
Even Garbrandt, who put on one of the most mesmerizing fights in the history of the UFC in taking the bantamweight title from Dominick Cruz at UFC 207, isn’t about to do the simple thing. The simple thing would be to fight his former teammate Dillashaw, who has more than earned his no. 1 contender status. There’s bad blood there, a great stylistic matchup, all of that. Yet two days after winning the belt, Garbrandt began lobbying for a fight against Aldo or McGregor to jump up in weight and leave the pecking order to peck away at itself.
When White found himself once again doing the media scrum at UFC 207, it was a throwback to a simpler time in the UFC. Maybe from his vantage point at that moment, seeing all the familiar faces gathered around, everything looked exactly the way it used to. But from the outside looking in, it really couldn’t feel more different.
Chuck Mindenhall is a senior writer at MMA Fighting.