Superfights like GSP-Bisping might make good business sense, but MMA is suffering for it

Combat columnist
Yahoo Sports

A new phrase – money fight – has entered the mixed martial arts lexicon in the last few months. Most of those who use the phrase do so with disdain.

What, you may ask, is a money fight? Well, it’s a bout in which the rankings are largely ignored and deserving contenders are bypassed in favor of ones which feature popular fighters. Think Conor McGregor-Floyd Mayweather or Michael Bisping-Georges St-Pierre.

The UFC is considering allowing McGregor, its lightweight champion, to compete in a boxing match against Mayweather, the greatest boxer of his era, because of how much money the event would generate. If the bout is made, and there is no guarantee that it will be, it’s expected to sell more than three million on pay-per-view.

Only one fight, the May 2, 2015, boxing match between Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao, sold more. That match sold a staggering 4.6 million on pay-per-view.

The UFC matched Bisping and St-Pierre for the middleweight title, instead of giving No. 1 contender Yoel Romero his clearly deserved shot at the belt, precisely because of the business it will do.

St-Pierre was one of the biggest stars in the sport before walking away in 2013. He regularly put on some of the most lucrative matches in the UFC during his heyday. When he chose to return, the UFC bypassed Romero and gave St-Pierre the match against Bisping.

In his last three fights, Romero has beaten Lyoto Machida, Jacare Souza and Chris Weidman, and he would be favored to defeat Bisping. St-Pierre has never competed as a middleweight. But, he’s fighting for the title and Romero is not.

UFC middleweight champion Michael Bisping (L) will fight Georges St-Pierre (R) instead of No. 1 contender Yoel Romero. (Getty)
UFC middleweight champion Michael Bisping (L) will fight Georges St-Pierre (R) instead of No. 1 contender Yoel Romero. (Getty)

Romero speaks little English, hasn’t shown he’s able to sell tickets or pay-per-views and few outside of MMA’s hardcore fan base could identify him in a lineup. St-Pierre, by contrast, is a massive draw who, like McGregor and former women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey, has crossed over into the mainstream.

This isn’t really a new phenomenon.

Dana White’s answer to the question, “What is your primary job?” hasn’t changed from that January day in 2001 when he and partners Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta purchased the UFC from Semaphore Entertainment Group.

The UFC president’s primary job, he’d have told you in 2001, 2010, 2015 or today, is to make the fights the fans want to see.

It’s why he flew around the world, once traveling to an island off the coast of South America, to discuss making a fight between Fedor Emelianenko and Brock Lesnar in the UFC.

The fights the fans want to see are the ones that sell the most tickets and the most pay-per-views. Not only doesn’t there seem to be anything wrong with that thought, it makes a lot of business sense.

But the issue that is troubling many of the fighters who aren’t of the favored nation status, as well as the sport’s most passionate fans, is that it decreases the importance of in-the-cage results and shifts it more to marquee value and name recognition.

It’s why Demian Maia can win six in a row, defeat highly regarded opponents like Carlos Condit, Matt Brown, Gunnar Nelson and Neil Magny and still be nowhere near a title shot.

Maia will face Jorge Masvidal at UFC 211 and hasn’t been guaranteed a title shot even if he wins that match.

And it’s also why former middleweight champion Luke Rockhold discussed fighting heavyweight Fabricio Werdum on “The MMA Hour” on Monday.

Rockhold fights at 185 pounds; Werdum fights at around 240. The middleweight division is loaded with elite contenders and interesting fights for Rockhold.

But he couldn’t secure a rubber match with Bisping, or even a fight with Souza, Romero or Weidman, so he called out Werdum.

“It’s chaos, isn’t it?” Rockhold said of his division Wednesday on “UFC Tonight” on Fox Sports 1. “I think they’re running down a slippery slope. Things could get out of hand. You never know what they’re going to do. Georges isn’t going to fight anybody at the top of the division if he wins this fight. Bisping could potentially be in the same boat. I’m bummed they took this route. It’s kind of taking away from the sport. The heart of the sport is about the top guys fighting each other. This isn’t WWE. This is fighting. It’s what it’s all about. When they make moves like this, it makes you question a lot of things.”

Rockhold and Werdum have a long-standing beef, and Rockhold stunned many in the MMA community when he suggested he fight Werdum to resolve it.

There are weight classes for a reason, and while Rockhold could easily fight at over 210 pounds, he’d still sacrifice a significant amount of size to Werdum if that fight were made. And while Rockhold regularly trains with UFC light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier and ex-heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez, sparring is much different than fighting.

This phenomenon isn’t limited to the UFC, however. Do you think Bellator president Scott Coker felt the late Kimbo Slice vs. Dada 5000 would elevate the sport when he made it last year?

No. It was a freak-show fight and he knew it when he made it. But Coker knew their names would draw ratings and that’s all that really mattered.

Bellator earlier this week announced plans for a pay-per-view show in June at Madison Square Garden, and announced that the main event would be Chael Sonnen against Wanderlei Silva.

Wanderlei Silva (L) and Chael Sonnen finally get to settle their long-standing rivalry at Bellator 180 on June 24.
Wanderlei Silva (L) and Chael Sonnen finally get to settle their long-standing rivalry at Bellator 180 on June 24.

That match is the antithesis of the welterweight bout Bellator is putting on in May when it pits welterweights Rory MacDonald and Paul Daley against each other. That is a quality bout between fighters in their primes with stakes in the division.

Sonnen and Silva are long past their primes – on fight night, Silva will have had one fight in five years – and their bout has no significance. It won’t impact rankings or influence the title.

But Coker is betting it can sell because their names have been known and they’ve been in the headlines for years.

These kinds of matches may appeal to the casual fan, but if they push the hardcore fans away, they’ll ultimately prove to be counterproductive.

It’s a fine line that White and Coker have to walk. They have a responsibility to their companies to maximize their revenues, but they also are running a sport they’re trying to sell as on par with all of the other major sports.

The NBA wouldn’t give the Lakers a playoff spot this year if Kobe Bryant announced he was coming out of retirement.

It’s hard to argue with the UFC rewarding St-Pierre for all he’s done for the sport over the years when he ended his retirement. He’d have to rank among the 10 most influential fighters in history and he’s done more to build MMA than most.

He deserved a significant fight and a big payday.

Did he deserve, though, to bypass Yoel Romero, who had conclusively earned the shot with his performance in the cage?

No way.

There’s no doubt, though, that the St-Pierre-Bisping fight will sell a lot more tickets and a lot more pay-per-views than a Bisping-Romero fight.

And in MMA at the moment, the ability to sell and to generate headlines, supersedes pretty much everything else, including results in the cage.

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