The UFC is persevering as it always has: by leaning into the chaos

Josh Gross
The Guardian

The final event of the UFC’s 25th anniversary year served as a proper example of how the promotion has made it this far

<span class="element-image__caption">Jon Jones celebrates after defeating Alexander Gustafsson on Saturday night at the Forum.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Christian Petersen/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images</span>
Jon Jones celebrates after defeating Alexander Gustafsson on Saturday night at the Forum. Photograph: Christian Petersen/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

When it opened for business in 1993 the Ultimate Fighting Championship was designed to disrupt.

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Challenging basic conventions about traditional martial arts this is exactly what the UFC did in its opening act, and from that point forward the company has operated at its best approaching the margins where most people would see only chaos and controversy.

On Saturday, the final event of UFC’s 25th anniversary year – UFC 232 – served as a proper example of how the promotion makes the most of the mayhem that has come to define the larger operation.

By writing their own rules, ignoring those rules when they want, and operating with a moral, ethical and practical flexibility that would have killed off less ferocious beasts, the caretakers of the UFC managed to operate inside the eye of a hurricane with the kind of calm and determination that the best fighters exhibit under heavy fire.

Packaging and selling violence brought fights over perception and pushback from powerful political forces that tried but failed to cap the UFC at its knees. Prior to casino owners from Las Vegas and an all-time great fight promoter turning $2m into $6bn, the UFC had to hang tight, get lean and refuse to die.

The ability to persevere when things appear at their worst has long been the key to UFC’s chaotic culture.

Being banned by the state of New York and getting blocked on cable television were life and death struggles at the time, but in 2018 these are remembered as mere dots in a constellation of difficult moments that the UFC successfully navigated during the last quarter century.

This is because the UFC’s longstanding pattern of almost always putting on fights regardless the obstacles in front of them remains among the most reliable things about the company.

If not in Buffalo then Dothan.

If not in Las Vegas then Los Angeles.

For all the madness surrounding UFC 232 – the last-minute chaos and controversy involving Jones and the UFC’s decision to leave Nevada so he could fight on Saturday – the card ended up producing a soothing and familiar effect.

Chaos. Controversy. Order. More than anyone competing in the UFC these days Jones, 31, represents this chain of events, an agent of chaos who benefits and suffers inside the mayhem of the UFC world.

Most fighters don’t matter any particular way. Some make noise outside the cage. Others inside. From time to time they combine to be relevant in both arenas. Jones happens to be an all time great fighter and an all-time great screw-up, which makes his issues especially polarizing for the fans, the media and his peers.

<span class="element-image__caption">Jon Jones lands a left-hand on Alexander Gustafsson.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images</span>
Jon Jones lands a left-hand on Alexander Gustafsson. Photograph: Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

“When you think about him as a fighter he’s one of the strongest people you see – physically, mentally, emotionally – all the drama this week, not getting to fight in Nevada, he was able to keep it together,” UFC president Dana White said of Jones, who showed no sign of ring rust while recapturing the UFC light heavyweight title in his first fight in 17 months. “The thing is if he can get his personal life together who knows what he could accomplish.

“This guy can completely turn this around.”

Having risen and fallen as many times as he has, Jones may well be as irredeemable as he is irreplaceable.

Jones’ performance after a week’s worth of confusing, infuriating and troubling headlines should remind everyone why the UFC and the fans put up with his mess(es). And Nunes shocking win over Cris Cyborg in less than a minute proved once more that literally anything can happen in and around the UFC, and no one should be that shocked when it does.

This makes UFC’s story over the past 25 seem more inevitable than it actually was, but there’s no denying an incredible amount of territory has been gained since the UFC existed as part of an underground culture in the US less than two decades ago.

“Every year we take it to another level,” White said following a robust year for the UFC.

Looking ahead to 2019, White proclaimed it will be “the most progressive year in the history of our company.”

As the UFC moves to ESPN for five years following a critical seven-year run with Fox that permanently forged MMA into the consciousness of mainstream American sports fans, the landscape for combat sports is quite different.

Landing on network TV doesn’t appear like the best place to be anymore. Instead OTT streaming services like UFC’s Fight Pass, DAZN, B/R Live, and even UFC’s new rights holder with ESPN+ will battle for fight fans’ attention and money over the next few years, yet another war White said he was looking forward to engaging in.

“The stuff we’re working on right now the next few years, what we’re doing with ESPN, what we’re doing in house is going to be a game changer for all involved,” said White, who correctly called MMA a “crazy ass business” while admitting that the “drama and bullshit makes it great too.”

Chaos. Controversy. Order.

As the UFC’s next chapter begins, the global leader in mixed martial arts appears to be as disruptive as ever, which should inspire comfort to those who know it best.

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