The Debate Over the UFC Booking Brock Lesnar vs. Frank Mir 3 and the Role of the MMA Media

Is there really someone who wouldn't like to see this again? Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

There's been an interesting discussion buzzing around the MMA media this week and it would be a lapse in BE's self-appointed role as MMA media ombudsman if I didn't wade in. The debate ranges over everything from Spike TV running international events on tape delay to Dana White's response to fan protests of Lesnar vs Mir 3 to the role of the MMA media.

Josh Gross started things off by objecting to the tape delayed showing of UFC 122 and discussing the role of the web in the UFC's growth:

When White talks about a UFC-dedicated channel, as he did in interviews last month, he very well could be referring to Web-housed content. Mixed martial arts, after all, survived online at a time when people like me would have given anything to watch free tape-delayed MMA on TV. Now it's something to bitch about. In part, the sport reached this point because of its close link to the Internet and the explosion of social media like Facebook and Twitter, where White has 1.2 million followers. Unlike boxing, which is woven into the fabric of traditional sports media, MMA was and is empowered by a strong, activated online community. Traditional media is attempting to play catchup.
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But back to the point on tape delay: You know what would really drive people to the UFC site? Free, live fights on a Saturday afternoon. If Spike TV is unwilling to carry these foreign cards as they happen -- there's no reason they couldn't when Canada's Rogers Sportsnet can -- UFC should adapt and find a willing live content partner. Or better yet, make it happen on their own.

I have to agree with Gross that making the Spike TV tape delay the only way to legally see Euro-UFC's in the U.S. is a real disservice to hardcore fans. But my suggestion is this, instead of trying to get Spike TV to air the fights earlier in the day and again later in the evening (which Zach Arnold does below), why doesn't the UFC just make it available on PPV and online in the afternoon and then let Spike run it in the evening? The hardcores will pay to see it live and the casual fans will tune in (or not) on Spike TV.

Dave Meltzer dismissed Gross' thinking (originally posted on the Wrestling Observer forums, reposted at the link provided) and questioned whether or not Gross understands the business:

The idea of a network paying for a television event of fighting and putting it on Saturday afternoon live and doing an 0.4 rating makes no economic sense for anyone involved. If people want to see the card, they'll watch it a few hours later. If they don't, they won't. But if it airs in the afternoon, the vast majority of viewers aren't watching it.

They already have the market research on PPV. Almost all of their buys on the U.K. PPVs come for the tape delay Saturday night shows. Very few watch the live afternoon shows, and if anything, the PPV fans willing to pay $44.95 for the product are the ones most likely to want to watch live. The whole deal about popularizing the sport is the communal aspect, getting together with friends.

And the idea that the Internet is what grew the UFC is ridiculous. They lost $44 million waiting for the Internet to grow the UFC and exploded with all those fans from that industry they hold their nose at that watched another hour on Spike in 2005.
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This is the truth. A very significant part of the MMA media and people who post on the web sites are the equivalent of people who think Bryan Danielson vs. William Regal should main event next week's PPV. As a fan, me, I'd rather buy a show where they get 25 minutes than watching Wade Barrett go 25 minutes. But I know that as a business, Hulk Hogan and Brock Lesnar are the people you build around, not Bryan Danielson and Frankie Edgar. I get it's a business, everything is because it's pro sports, and don't cry about that fact or say it's wrong. Honest to God, I could care less about seeing Lesnar vs. Mir again past the promos, but I hate when people who don't get business try and screw up the best thing for growth of the business by not getting the big picture. It doesn't make it pro wrestling or bad or fake, and it's wonderful than boxing right now has a guy who is small and super awesome who actually draws better on top than the heavyweights. But for most of boxing's history, they've built themselves around contrived personalities and protected their money people from those who will ruin the illusion. That's just how it is. And UFC in that realm is far more honest than the boxing I grew up with which was a mainstream sport and covered by everyone as real.

I have to agree with Meltzer about the internet not being the key to the UFC's growth. I've spent 15 years in PR and communications, mostly specializing in online media, and I have to say that TV trumps the internet every time when it comes to breaking into the mass consciousness of the American public. That doesn't mean the net doesn't have a key role when it comes to building hardcore loyalty or establishing thought leadership, but if you want to move numbers, forget online, get on TV.

My colleague Jonathan Snowden characterizes Meltzer's take as a "pro-wrestling view" of MMA that is focused on short-term profits at the expense of the greater potential of MMA to be taken seriously as a sport. He thinks Gross is being naive in refusing to recognize the reasons behind the UFC's business decisions but applauds him for taking a long term view and thinking about how things will be regarded in 10 to 20 years. 

But Snowden also thinks that Meltzer is right unless the UFC or another MMA promotion can secure major network television deals and truly break into the mainstream. Snowden is skeptical that this can happen.

Zach Arnold responded to Meltzer with this:

...no MMA writer should concern themselves with pushing ideas simply because ‘it will grow business.' If you want to be a hack, get into PR - it pays more, too. No shame in it, but you can't do both (despite the fact that a few writers do it now, ineffectively). As far as the live vs. delayed argument, there's a simple compromise: have Spike air the broadcast live and then air the delayed broadcast for the originally scheduled slot. Not hard. As far as Lesnar/Mir III, the only real purpose I see in that fight is more or less a ‘loser leaves town' match. If Lesnar lost to Mir again, it could be the type of loss that discourages him from future fighting. If Mir loses, his stock declines further.

Here I have to agree with Arnold over Meltzer. It's not the role of the media to act as cheerleaders for the MMA business. What we owe our readers is honesty and the best analysis we can provide. 

Now we get to the proposed Lesnar vs Mir 3 fight. Dana White floated that as the most likely option for Lesnar on his return.  We'll look at how Dana got played by a blogger and Meltzer's response in the full entry.

No sooner was the fight announced than S.C. Michaelson jumped all over it and launched a public twitter campaign to pressure Dana White to reconsider making this match. And lo and behold, Dana bought it:

"People have been saying on my Twitter that they're not happy with that fight," White told MMAjunkie.com (www.mmajunkie.com). "It's something I need to re-think."

...fans have taken to the Internet to express their displeasure in the potential fight. While the UFC president believes it's unwise to pay too much attention to Internet message boards, White says those that took the time to address him on his official Twitter account have made their feelings known loud and clear.

"I usually don't gauge things by the Internet; the internet is [expletive] stupid," White said. "My Twitter I do.

"On my Twitter, there's 1.2 million people that care about this thing and everything else, and you don't get the goofy [expletive] that you get in the Internet."

Meltzer comments on the irony of Dana reacting to tweets that were driven by a "message board" (it's a blog people, jeez) campaign in the Wrestling Observer (subscription only):

Brock Lesnar's next opponent in UFC turned into something of controversy over the past few days when Dana White made the remark that he was thinking of doing Lesnar vs. Frank Mir next, and then getting negative reaction and saying he may have to think about it.

White also created controversy saying that it is not the Internet reaction he was listening to, but the twitter reaction. The funny thing was that the twitter reaction was really an Internet campaign on some message boards to flood White's twitter with negative messages saying don't do the fight.

Meltzer goes on to discuss the business ramifications of the fight and lack of comparable alternatives:

The problem is there is at this point no fight possible for either that would do anywhere close to the level of business, nor would be as effective in building future business when it comes to creating a contender who could draw against the Cain Velasquez vs. Junior Dos Santos winner.

UFC built its company in 2006 by understanding building fights to get to an ultimate, most notably the Tito Ortiz vs. Ken Shamrock program that led to a record setting PPV number, a television rating that was probably the most important business number not for UFC's pocket book, but for mainstream media because the TV viewing audience with Males 18-34 of that fight said loudly UFC was something that could no longer be dismissed and ignored. That was White going on his gut, and ignoring the very negative feedback he got to those fights. If he is in a situation where you have the obvious best business fight and you don't do it based on a very passionate and vocal minority that has little big picture understanding, it's a recipe for a promotion getting badly derailed.

I agree with Meltzer that Lesnar vs Mir is the money fight to book. I also agree that the money fight is the fight that should be booked. But I strongly disagree with his characterization of Michaelson and company as "a very passionate and vocal minority that has little big picture understanding". What they are is fans who are agitating for the fight they want to see. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that. 

Unfortunately the fight they want is Lesnar vs Roy Nelson and Nelson's ridiculous legal difficulties will prevent that fight from happening anytime soon. 

Meltzer breaks down the other possible alternatives:

Those close to the situation say White has told Lesnar's people that he would like him to get two wins before challenging for the title. The problem is, unless UFC makes a major new signing, once you get past the Velasquez vs. Junior Dos Santos match this spring, there are no contenders ready.

For Lesnar, and Mir for that matter, the viable opponents list right now is terribly short-each other, or against Schaub, Mirko Cro Cop, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Cheick Kongo and Ben Rothwell. Of that list, Kongo and Rothwell should immediately be eliminated as an opponent for either because they are a step backwards for both that aren't needed to be taken. Mir has knocked out Kongo quickly and Kongo has done nothing great since. It would be a waste of Lesnar's drawing power to have him against Kongo. Honestly, it would be a waste of Lesnar's drawing power to have him right now against anyone but Mir, Velasquez, Dos Santos, Nelson, Alistair Overeem, Fedor Emelianenko (in the cases of these two only after they've been established to the UFC audience, although I do think Fedor vs. Lesnar could be promoted as a monster fight in Fedor's first UFC appearance) or Carwin at any time in the foreseeable future. And when you look at that list, almost nobody on the list is viable for his next fight.

In the end, I think that Lesnar vs Mir 3 is the best fight for either fighter and the promotion. Plus as a fan it's actually the fight I most want to see. 

Meltzer also talks about a potential Lesnar vs Nelson fight and why it won't happen:

But there is something about Lesnar vs. Nelson that could catch on as a curiosity fight. The fat guy who reminds you of someone you probably went to high school with that was a funny guy who actually surprised everyone in scraps, and isn't afraid of the jacked up bully in town. That connection is going to be a hit or miss based on promotion, but it could work. The thing also is, with a win, Nelson could go into a title match with a cult following even if people didn't think he could win. The other good thing about it is Nelson does have the type of personality and appeal that if he were to beat Lesnar, he could make a career out of it, and lose a title match, or even lose every other fight, or even several fights, but he'll be a star and everyone will remember his"glory day," and while be aware of his losses, they won't care all that much.

The problem is Nelson right now is in limbo. Apparently Nelson signed a contract with Roy Jones Jr.'s Squared Circle Promotions, where he faced Jeff Monson in a March 2009 show that also featured the Bobby Lashley vs. Bob Sapp fight. The promotion is now claiming they have rights to future Nelson fights, and White has said that they can't use him until he fulfills or gets out of that contract, and right now the deal is a very expensive proposition. The problem is, who knows if and when that group will run another show. And at some point, just the fact they haven't means he should have a strong case to get out of the contract and just be able to make a living.

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