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The circus rolled through our town again. Our beloved and civilized fight community was once again invaded by a carnival attraction. And despite our refined nature and taste for the finer things in life, it looks like we were once again sitting in the front row, munching popcorn and guzzling our light beer of choice while helplessly watching our sophisticated game of fisticuffs get bastardized in the interest of money and media attention.
Spectacle has always been a part of fight sports. Unlike the more mainstream sporting contests, even officiating has a big lean toward the subjective. In those sports, referees make their decisions based on more concrete rules. In the National Football League, stepping over the line of scrimmage before the play begins is an automatic offsides or false start penalty. There are no arbitrary warnings like those given for eye pokes and groin strikes in MMA. In the National Basketball Association, the officials award three points for every basket made from outside the three point line. They can’t add or subtract a point because the player shot the ball in an aesthetically pleasing way or the fans cheered louder. The straightforward win-loss path to a championship is not so simple in the fight game. A team in the National Hockey League cannot be denied a rightful place in the Stanley Cup Finals because they did not show enough aggression en route to their victories. The room for interpretation and promotional structure in the fight world create a direct conflict to the hard-and-fast rules found elsewhere. The nature of combat sports lends itself to a particular amount of pageantry and show. So let’s not be surprised when the balance is disturbed.
YouTube celebrities Logan Paul and KSI took over the fight world with an amateur boxing match that was available via pay-per-view stream. Despite the fact that neither I nor many of my colleagues have any idea who these two are, the combat sports Twitterverse was in full force for the spectacle. Ultimate Fighting Championship light heavyweight contender Jimi Manuwa was ringside and happy to give a detailed account of the contest on social media. Middleweight Eddie Gordon provided a recap of his scoring and initial thoughts as well. Even notable names including former middleweight champion Michael Bisping and heavyweight turned multimedia personality Brendan Schaub weighed in with their thoughts. While the recently retired Bisping was adamant about it being a mockery to actual fighters, Schaub shared another thought: they are master promoters. Honestly, both perspectives aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive.
Two men best known for whatever they do on their respective YouTube channels had no business headlining an actual boxing event. That boxing event had no business garnering the attention that it did considering that there were actual fighters putting on legitimate bouts at the exact same time. However, the truth of the matter is that the showdown between the two online stars managed to get around 800,000 buys according to multiple reports. KSI went on record to claim the pay-per-view sales actually exceeded one million when a second streaming option was factored in. While the fight itself wasn’t an exhibition of world-class skill, it was undoubtedly a commercial success. In fact, its commercial success exceeded that of most recent outings from the UFC itself. In fact, UFC Fight Night 135 only managed to get a reported 596,000 viewers, the lowest number for any Saturday night event of its kind on Fox Sports 1. And this was a free show as opposed to the $10 price attached to the YouTube grudge match.
This also occurred while Bareknuckle Fighting Championships put on its second event, but at least they showcased actual fighters, even if it was done in a gimmicky environment. As of the time of this writing, the numbers weren’t available, but thier first card sold around 150,000 pay per views at $29.99.
So there must be a lesson to be learned. What did the UFC not do that the promoters of Paul and KSI did? Perhaps juxtaposing those events is not a fair comparison. After all, Justin Gaethje, while being one of the best lightweights on the planet and a member of the esteemed All-Violence Team, is hardly a name outside of our bubble. Also, isn’t there an FS1 fight card on almost every weekend? At this point, nearly every weekend is a rinse-and-repeat exercise in constant Reebok-clad roster spots meeting in an Octagon at some random point of the map.
So let’s look at what the UFC has provided in terms of pay-per-view offerings instead. So far, 2018 has been a lackluster year for sales. Out of the eight PPV events so far, none of them have come close to the mark set by the so-called biggest amateur boxing match in history. While the MMA holy trinity of box office draws -- Conor McGregor, Brock Lesnar and Ronda Rousey -- have not yet appeared in the Octagon in 2018, there hasn’t been a shortage of noteworthy moments. Cris Cyborg appearing in a main event, a champion versus champion superfight, and four dual title headliners comprised what we’ve seen from the promotion so far this year.
2018 also saw the UFC increase the price of its pay-per-views from $59.99 to $64.99. It’s very possible that this is at least partially responsible for the low buyrates. With an unreasonably crowded calendar, the UFC has unintentionally devalued its own product. In the same breath it has raised the price of the premium events while that premium has been diluted by the resulting thinly spread talent pool.
Of course there’s the spectacle element involved with well-known public figures. There’s no denying that attaching the name McGregor, Lesnar or Rousey will do wonders for the amount of people willing to pay extra for the product. And in some cases those people are willing to pay an even higher amount. Look no further than the $100 necessary to legally watch Floyd Mayweather Jr. versus both Manny Pacquiao and McGregor. Both of those events were once in a generation moments. Mayweather and Pacquiao dominated boxing within the same weight range at the same time and showcased their skills against a minefield of respected names on the way to their meeting. Similarly, McGregor was the right personality that was loud and powerful enough at the negotiating table to pique the interest of an equally polarizing personality in a separate sport. Neither of these money machines and lightning rods for attention can be reasonably duplicated at any time in the foreseeable future.
As much I’d love to believe in our good will and class, the truth is we’re already degenerates. When we normalized half naked men and women locking themselves in a cage or stepping into a ring to violently dominate another human being, we surrendered the right to look down upon the masses who show up in droves for the extra element of celebrity. This isn’t a call for Paul and KSI to rematch in the Octagon. Nor is this a cry for Phil Brooks to get his third crack at a UFC win. Instead, we should learn from what happened over the past weekend.
How many people who were mildly curious just gave up their credit card info because $10 was not an amount that turned them off? How many of those people would have just as nonchalantly let go of $64.99? How many more people would have been willing to part with a lesser amount of money to see Amanda Nunes and Valentina Shevchenko at UFC 224? The supposed 85,000 sales shows that something went terribly wrong in selling it to a public willing to pay for subpar caricatures of combat.
Instead of meeting the extravaganza with one of our own, how about meeting in the middle? The price point would be a good start. A lower entry cost for people with enough interest to check out a fight would help build the fan base. While the short term profits might not be as high as a one-off blockbuster, the sustained income from those eyeballs can make up the difference. This could also be a reward for those who have been there to keep the sport afloat amid the many struggles it has faced, while the price of being of fan has grown so much in recent years. This could be the best way to increase the followers -- and the money -- while not alienating the followers that already exist.