Why MMA is bigger than ever – and still growing

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Imagine, for a second, the interest that would be generated if the UFC put on a show in December at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, with Jose Aldo against Conor McGregor in the main event and Ronda Rousey against Miesha Tate in the co-main.

“That would blow up the Internet,” UFC president Dana White said, chuckling.

Now, this is all talk. Yes, Aldo and McGregor will fight for the featherweight title in a bout that will be as big as any the UFC has ever done. And yes, White said he plans to put the show in Cowboys Stadium, though there is no deal done or no date yet.

Ronda Rousey is MMA's biggest star. (Getty)
Ronda Rousey is MMA's biggest star. (Getty)

Rousey still has to defend her women’s bantamweight title against Bethe Correia at UFC 190 on Aug. 1. And White said he’s still not sure where he plans to slot Rousey’s next fight. He’d only say that if Rousey is successful, her next defense would be against the winner of the Tate-Jessica Eye bout on Saturday at the United Center in Chicago.

But the show with Aldo-McGregor, if it ever got put together, would make pretty much any other mixed martial arts event ever held look miniscule by comparison.

And it speaks to not only the UFC’s emergence but also of the sport’s health.

Combat sports tend to rise and fall based on the caliber of the stars at the top of the sport, and MMA has some extremely attractive stars now.

From the Roaring ’20s, when Jack Dempsey was as big of a star as there was in sports in this country, through the World War II years, when Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson were household names, through the ’60s, when Muhammad Ali was becoming the world’s most recognizable face, boxing has always lived by its star power.

And the same is true of MMA.

Following the sensational UFC 189 card earlier this month, it’s now fair to say that, at the very worst, the UFC has two of the five biggest stars in combat sports in Rousey and McGregor. One could argue that it’s two of the top three, with Floyd Mayweather representing boxing.

“People love them here [in the U.S.],” former undisputed heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson told Yahoo Sports of Rousey and McGregor. “But it’s not just here. They love them and they know them everywhere.”

UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta believes the time may finally have come when MMA fighters no longer have to take a back seat to boxers in terms of mainstream acceptance.

“We’re the future, and honestly, I don’t think there can be any question about that,” Fertitta told Yahoo Sports. “What the Mayweathers and the Pacquiaos have accomplished is nothing short of astonishing. It’s awesome. But when you look out into the future, it’s clearly the Conors and the Rondas and maybe the Jon Joneses, people of that generation, who are going to be the next generation of stars. Obviously, the tide is shifting significantly. The success of our last event [UFC 189] has gotten a great deal of attention, and is one of those kind of shows where you feel confident that if someone saw it, you know you’ve got them as a fan because it was so good.

“But in developing stars like Ronda and Conor, it’s not just [MMA] media who are into them. They’re crossing over and it’s non-fight media who are talking about them and what they’re doing and what they’re about.”

Boxing and MMA are cousins, decidedly different sports but emanating from the same bloodlines. And while Fertitta notes that MMA is capturing the younger fans at a vastly faster rate than boxing, he said it’s important that both sports be strong.

So Fertitta said he’s paying close attention to what Al Haymon, the powerful boxing manager and the founder of the Premier Boxing Champions series, which has brought the sport back to network television on a regular basis, is doing.

Haymon has been criticized by most long-standing boxing promoters and has been sued by both Golden Boy Promotions and Top Rank for alleged anti-trust violations and anti-competitive behavior.

Fertitta, though, said he’s been impressed by Haymon’s moves, even if so far the demographic of the PBC’s TV ratings skews extremely old.

“I absolutely think we’re both better off if mixed martial arts is healthy and boxing is healthy,” Fertitta said. “It’s not a zero-sum game by any means. I don’t know Al Haymon. I’ve never met him, but I’m really intrigued by what they’re doing because I respect their business acumen. The fact is, they’re putting their money where their mouth is. They’re investing. They’re taking risk.

“The fact of the matter is they came up with a new concept and a new idea. Guess what? That’s America. This is an entrepreneurial country. Just because they’ve come in and shaken up the industry, at the end of the day, that’s what competition and what America is all about. I think it’s fantastic. They are giving it a shot. They’re trying. In combat sports, you sometimes need to take a risk and you need to find ways to showcase your product and get it out there. He’s doing that.”

Conor McGregor has rocketed to stardom in the UFC. (Getty)
Conor McGregor has rocketed to stardom in the UFC. (Getty)

The PBC has had mixed results so far and is reportedly losing a lot of money.

But White agreed with Fertitta and said Haymon is doing what needs to be done to try to salvage the sport.

Still, it hasn’t hurt the success or growth of MMA, and it’s not just the UFC. Bellator’s recent show on Spike, headlined by Kimbo Slice against Ken Shamrock, was widely panned, but it drew a peak audience of 2.1 million.

Only four boxing matches all year – Canelo Alvarez-James Kirkland (peak of 2.296 million) on HBO; Keith Thurman-Robert Guerrero (peak of 3.37 million); Danny Garcia-Lamont Peterson (peak of 2.88 million); and Adrien Broner-Shawn Porter (peak 2.3 million) on NBC – have bested Slice-Shamrock’s numbers.

Of course, the most widely viewed MMA fight on television this year was the January bout between McGregor and Dennis Siver on Fox Sports 1, which averaged 2.75 million and drew a peak audience of 3.16 million.

White said he believes MMA’s popularity is at its peak and only growing.

He said that’s why he has decided to put the Aldo-McGregor fight in Cowboys Stadium.

“I went up to Lorenzo and said, ‘Do you want to do like we did in the old days and just go for it?’ ” White said. “And he said ‘Let’s do it.’ ”

Fertitta said that without a good product, none of the marketing would make much of an impact. But he said that UFC 189 has resonated so much because it was a great event, in which fighter after fighter poured his heart out trying to win, and it was promoted and marketed properly.

He credited the success of smartphones in helping the company market in an innovative fashion.

“This,” he said, holding up his iPhone, “has literally changed the world and changed so many industries. People literally have to change the way they compete. They need to evolve as the marketplace changes. …

“The phone has changed the way people communicate and disseminate information and it’s unquestionably changed what we do for the better. Our ability to market and promote our events in an efficient direct way is unlike anything that’s ever existed in history.”

Fertitta said that Tyson was so excited by UFC 189 that he was tweeting about it constantly throughout the show. That he said, had an impact.

Not all fights are going to be like the Robbie Lawler-Rory MacDonald welterweight title fight, or even the Thomas Almeida-Brad Pickett bantamweight bout that opened the main card of UFC 189. Those are special matches that will appear on UFC highlight reels for years.

Fertitta said it will have a long-term positive impact upon his sport. But he said he couldn’t say the same for the Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao fight that set every financial record imaginable on May 2. It sold 4.4 million pay-per-views, and figures to climb a bit as late sales reports trickle in.

Fans, though, weren’t enthralled with the fight, which Mayweather won by a wide decision. While boxing’s audience is generally older, Fertitta said it was younger for that one.

UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta says the Mayweather-Pacquiao bout may have set boxing back. (Getty)
UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta says the Mayweather-Pacquiao bout may have set boxing back. (Getty)

The coveted 18-to-34-year-old demographic, falling prey to the extraordinary media coverage and wall-to-wall promotion, purchased the fight in greater numbers than in years.

And then it failed to come close to living up to the hype, he said.

“That Mayweather-Pacquiao fight set boxing backwards, it really did, because they had this opportunity where they pulled in all these young fans,” Fertitta said. “My kids, their friends, people their age, they all got excited and planned to watch the fight. But when they watched it, they were going, ‘Oh my God. This is awful. Why did I waste my time watching this?’

“And that’s opposed to, and I don’t want to beat our drum, but the McGregor-[Chad] Mendes fight. Even if you’re not a big UFC fan, watch that and there is no way you’re not a fan. We’ve developed these stars like Conor and Ronda who are great at marketing and who pretty much always deliver. They’re going to do a lot of great things, I think.”

And it’s why all the little controversies that take up so much oxygen on a day-to-day basis, such as the firing of a popular cut man or the introduction of mandatory uniforms, won’t amount to much.

At the end of the day, it’s about big stars and compelling fights.

These days, MMA has both in abundance.

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