Rankings: Does UFC + ESPN = Actual Sport?

Its been an eventful decade for the king of the modern MMA landscape; the Ultimate Fighting Championship. In 2011 the UFC decided to split from their longtime home, Spike TV; now known as the paramount network, and they choose to sign a lucrative seven year contract with Fox. 

The Fox deal was big news as the premier MMA organization was about to be put on a primetime stage with a major network. Then in 2013 the sport was taken by storm when a wise cracking irishman broke into the UFC with a TKO win on the undercard of Mousasi vs Latifi. 

In the coming years what was once a simple concept; go out and win a few fights to earn a title shot, soon became murky. Fighters were beginning to be overlooked so that the matchmakers could book the fight that would draw more dollars, interim titles were handed out at every turn. Long lay offs for champions led to a few log jammed divisions filled with fighters battling it out on social media in hopes to get the buzz that would lead them to the heavily sought after title shot.

While this monumental transition was taking place, there were rumours flirting about a potential sale… Dane White refuted such claims, but on the eve of UFC 200 the news broke that the UFC was to be sold for a tidy sum just north of 4 billion dollars. Business went on as usual, or the new usual. Up until the Middleweight title was relinquished by, the now retired, Georges St Pierre, two belts were floating around the division. One for the top contenders to battle over, while the undisputed was contested between fighters looking to settle a score, Henderson vs Bisping, or a money generating fight GSP vs Bisping.

Who was the real champion?

The bottom line is that the UFC is a business, and they were operating in a manner to draw money, contendership could be dammed for eternity. If a fighter didn’t generate buzz, they were stuck just outside the door of a title shot. With a 4 billion purchase the new owners had no motivation to divert the course. This was the continued course that, in their eyes led to a 4 billion evaluation after all.

Which brings us to the most recent happenings in the UFC, A deal with ESPN. Shortly after this deal was announced, the UFC gave exclusive PPV rights to ESPN’s streaming service, ESPN+. In recent years the UFC have had struggles with their biggest star, Conor McGregor. Due to Conor’s ability to pull in huge PPV numbers, he had essentially hold of Thor’s hammer, and he was quick to bring it down on the UFC. Consistently holding out to earn his rightful share of the pie. 

Now with this new deal the UFC will be paid a guaranteed sum of money per show. According to Luke Thomas, that fee is liken to a show that has pulled 500k buys. This is a home run for the UFC, no longer do they need to stack a show with high end talent, and there is no longer any need for stars, while most do believe this was simply a tactic to ensure the brand would have the upper hand in all negotiations going forward, one would hope that this will lead to a return to past years of clear paths to title contention. 

In the years gone by, the UFC needed the fighters find a way to connect with the paying audience in order to sell the fight. Now with the money in hand for every fight, no matter who is on the card, rankings can, finally, mean something. This will help clear a lot of the fog that currently sits on the road to a title, it allows a fighter to just focus on fighting and not on having a twitter beef so a bunch of droning fans can seal clap while throwing bud light at their face. The belt has become a prop, a marketing tool to throw on a poster to give the fight some value, or an easy loophole to make a co-main event five rounds long. 

With that said, this move wasn’t a grand scheme to help the sport move the needle back towards sport, but it does open the door to allow titles to gain some steam. It will give the casual fan, who is the target audience, a less confusing sport to follow. Look at light weight alone, there’s two guys with belts and another one who carries a now stripped title around with him. 

I, for one, fell in love with the idea of the best fighting the best, two pit bulls that have been tearing through the division finally meeting in the middle to decide who’s the best. One can hope the UFC use this new lease to bring back some meaning to a title fight, and not have it be a prop placed upon a table.