A great deal has been written about the UFC’s expansionist philosophy recently, much of it being negative. There’s nothing wrong with expressing a negative opinion, of course. I haven’t been shy about criticising Dana White and the UFC in the past. But unlike some, it isn’t the only club I carry in my bag.
There seems to be a section of the MMA media that revels in negativity for negativity’s sake. One could characterise their attitude toward any UFC misstep, real or imagined, as almost gleeful.
Follow any UFC event on Twitter, and the amount of snark you are likely to witness from prominent members of the MMA media would embarrass even the most caustic cultural critic.
This fetishization of anti-establishmentarianism that pervades MMA journalism is so utterly counter-productive, if for no other reason than the fact that it is intellectually bankrupt.
Rather than participating in an honest discussion about MMA, these journalists are more interested in demonizing the UFC and anyone who dare say anything positive about the sport’s premier organisation.
Tim Marchman’s recent piece titled “Whatever Happened to the UFC?” perfectly illustrates this attitude. Marchman is a journalist who never puts finger to keyboard unless he has someone or something to bash.
He’s too cool for school and the anti-establishment crew love him. Every article is written as though it were from the pen of a man sporting a leather jacket with upturned collar and a Fonzie-esque pair of shades.
And if you don’t agree with his tunnel-visioned assessment of things, you’re probably secretly working for “The Establishment,” as Yahoo Sports’ Kevin Iole was recently accused. This smear wasn’t accompanied by any supporting evidence, of course. When attempting to throw a colleague under the bus, I find it’s best to come armed with more than a mere hunch. But I digress.
Putting aside his paranoid conspiracy theories, Marchman’s piece mainly focused on the UFC’s increasingly hectic schedule and the resulting dilution of its brand. It’s all very intuitive.
More events means that card depth suffers, and we end up with main events like Nate Marquardt vs. James Te Huna and Cub Swanson vs. Jeremy Stephens—yes, he actually complained about the latter. Therefore, the idea that this is a good thing, that this strategy will attract more fans, doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense.
Unfortunately, Marchman is operating under the assumption that only elite fighters can combine to produce great fights. This simply isn’t true. We see undercard fighters routinely steal the show, just as we see legitimate main event talent regularly put the viewing audience to sleep.
The strength of the UFC’s brand is still sufficient to get the punters in the door. Whether they are persuaded to become fans of the product isn’t contingent on them being exposed to the sport’s stars but rather on how compelling the action inside the cage is.
It seems to have escaped the attention of some, but it has been a long time since the UFC was a North American organisation. The company has gone global, and continued growth requires putting on more events overseas in order to maintain a presence in the various markets.
This notion that there is a zero-sum conflict going on between the UFC’s business interests and our own interests as spectators is really a false dichotomy. Whether we like it or not, the sport’s success is currently tied to the UFC’s success.
If the UFC grows, the sport grows. That’s just the way it is right now. What’s the upside of UFC growth, I hear you ask? It means more money goes into MMA, which means greater earning potential for its athletes, which means a higher caliber of athlete will view MMA as a legitimate career option.
These are all good things, even if it means we are forced to endure a few events that boast all the depth of a paddling pool. What’s more, there is no reason to think that the current paradigm is anything but a temporary inconvenience.
If it hasn’t already done so, the UFC is currently in the process of redefining the role that it occupies within the sport. Criticizing the organisation for no longer being a destination exclusively for the sport’s elite misses the point.
The UFC doesn’t just want to be the place for the cream of the crop. It doesn’t simply want to showcase the very best of the sport. The UFC wants to be the sport, from third division to premier league. Indeed, one could argue that it has already achieved this status in the eyes of many casual fans.
We’ve all met the fan who “trains UFC” or “watches UFC.” The fan who “trains MMA” or “watches MMA” is a much rarer breed. If I tell someone that I write about the UFC, there’s a good chance they’ll know what I’m talking about. If I tell them I write about MMA, they are just as likely to think that I blog about "Men's Rights Activism"—this has happened on more than one occasion.
Once viewed in this light, the UFC’s strategy should make sense to even the most cynical critic—“should” being the operative word. When someone is married to a particular way of thinking, the introduction of logic and common sense is rarely sufficient grounds for divorce.
Why bother listening to me, though? I’m probably just one of those people “with stakes in the game.” Where’s my Zuffa paycheque? I could use it right about now.
James MacDonald is a freelance writer and featured columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow James on Twitter.