From the outside looking in, it might seem like mixed martial arts fans in the United Kingdom and Ireland have unrealistically high expectations. Up until a point not too long ago, that was probably true.
Irish fans want Conor McGregor to compete in Dublin’s Croke Park; Welsh fans offer the roofed Millennium Stadium in Cardiff as a perfect venue for major events; Scottish fans made their country an attraction with superb fandom; and England sees itself as a country that enjoys huge sporting events across the board and wants the same in MMA. The problem: In 2017, all of these countries have had to come to terms with the fact that they are secondary MMA markets, at least to the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
No announcement brought that to a head more than the news that Jimi Manuwa and Corey Anderson would headline the latest UFC Fight Night event in London. On its own, it’s a perfectly good fight. However, when you make it the main event for the biggest promotion in one of the foremost cities in the world, you can’t help but look on with astonishment and disappointment. Most of the ill feelings boil down to the fact that neither fighter carries a prominent name. What came before UFC Fight Night 107 also plays a role in the unmet expectations.
In years past, the UK and Ireland were witness to 20 or so UFC shows and plenty of top attractions, at least in the early days. Matt Hughes fought Carlos Newton for the welterweight title at the very first UFC event in the UK. Heavyweights like Frank Mir, Mirko Filipovic, Fabricio Werdum, Randy Couture and Andrei Arlovski were featured, as well. B.J. Penn won the vacant lightweight championship against Joe Stevenson in Newcastle, England. Michael Bisping and Dan Hardy had many interesting fights in the UK. You even had one of the biggest bouts of all-time in England, as Quinton Jackson unified the UFC and Pride Fighting Championships titles against Dan Henderson.
A few years ago, though, it all started to change. A UFC event in Nottingham, England, was headlined by Stipe Miocic long before he was heavyweight champion and saw him lose to Stefan Struve; the show was really only memorable for Hardy’s unbelievable walkout. In addition, Mark Munoz took on Chris Leben at an underwhelming Manchester card. Meanwhile, the latest shows in Dublin and Belfast wouldn’t have been much better than a Cage Warriors Fighting Championship or British Association of Mixed Martial Arts offering. All of this has culminated in fans on this side of the pond having a realistic if somewhat downtrodden outlook on what to expect out of events that carry with them a longing for something better.
The outliers don’t help. There have been high-quality shows that happen every so often, like the McGregor-Diego Brandao card in 2013, when Irish fighters ran the table and produced a magical night for the one of the best live crowds ever at an MMA event, or when UFC 205 went down in Manchester and the locals got a pay-per-view-worthy show, along with their own Bisping defending the middleweight title. Although those rare, quality cards are great for the UFC, the fact that the next one coming to the UK is being promoted by Bellator MMA is not great or the UFC. Add to that the fact that the respective event announcements came within days of each other and the optics just don’t curry favor with the fans.
Although UFC Fight Night 107 has talented fighters in headliners Manuwa and Anderson, as well the likes of Gunnar Nelson, Marc Diakiese and Joseph Duffy, Rory MacDonald taking on Paul Daley at Bellator 179, with Michael Page in chief support, is a far superior product than anything the UFC lineup is offering. That’s true by anyone’s standards.
The reasons for that are numerous, one being the difference between the UFC’s pay-per-view/TV/Fight Pass model and Bellator’s TV-only product. The lack of true stars in MMA mixed with WME-IMG cost-cutting measures is another. On top of it all is an organization that is stretched too thin because of how many events it has scheduled. The UFC simply does not have enough top fighters to provide headliners for the 30-40 shows it needs to populate each year. The best fighters will be saved for the best shows to maximize profits.
The UFC might not admit to such realities, but we’re all aware of them. Unfortunately, we’re coming to terms with our situation.