It's been a rough few months for the UFC. From low PPV buys over summer to the cancellation of UFC 151 to the recent drastic reshuffling of UFC 153, it seems like everything is going wrong for the company. This coming weekend, they look to get back on track with UFC 152. They need this card to be a success, and it very well may be. The one potential pitfall? The main event. Jon Jones vs. Vitor Belfort is a lopsided mismatch - will fans tune in? They will if the UFC can convince them that it's a fight to see. And how can the UFC do that? They can use the example set down this past weekend by another sport: boxing.
Last week, much of the talk in the combat sports world was focused on boxing, with two big fights over the weekend. Both Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. vs. Sergio Martinez and Canelo Alvarez vs. Josesito Lopez drew considerable fan interest. And yet (and this is the part that is important to the UFC) both were essentially mismatches. Both Martinez and Alvarez were heavy favorites, and both proved that they deserved to be - the two fights went for a combined 17 rounds and of those 17, the underdog fighter definitively took only 1 round (round 12 of Martinez vs. Chavez, and what a round it was!). Despite these moderate mismatches, fans were intrigued. Why?
One word: promotion.
Boxing knows how to promote fights, and they drew fans into these fights. They did so by telling the story of the fight in a way the UFC seems unable or unwilling to do. The story behind Martinez vs. Chavez was fascinating - the great veteran Martinez, who has had to work hard for everything in his life vs. the rich, spoiled Chavez who has questionable work ethic, has been handed his career on a silver platter, and may or may not have the tools to win at this level. That's a great story that drew viewers in. It's also a story the UFC never would tell.
For the UFC, particularly for main events, the story of the fight inevitable comes down to one of two options - either it's an Intensely Personal Grudge Match! or this challenger is The Perfect Opponent To Defeat The Champion. Most every main event must be crammed into one of these constructs. Why? Because the UFC is so determined to never show their fighters as having any flaws. In the build to a fight there is never a mention of loses (they're either completely ignored, or called "tough battles"), never a mention of weaknesses. Yet these fighters are human, and they have weaknesses. And that's part of what makes sports so great - seeing athletes overcome adversity and triumph anyway. But again, the UFC won't tell that story.
Jones vs. Belfort is a perfect example of this. You can already envision Joe Rogan sitting in front of a black background telling the Official UFC Story behind this fight - Vitor is a former Light Heavyweight champion, he's a devastating striker, has the best hands in the sport, is great on the ground, and if you were creating the perfect opponent to defeat Jon Jones, it would be Vitor Belfort. The trouble is, that's not really an accurate story. What's worse is that this fight does have a fascinating story. How about this instead:
Vitor Belfort is one of the early legends of the sport, a fighter who seemed destined for greatness when he debuted. But for a variety of reasons, he never made it to the very top. Now, in the late stages of his career, he's been granted an unexpected shot at glory. For probably the final time, he has a chance to prove that he is a legitimate UFC champion. But to do so, he'll have to beat the man quickly establishing himself as the most dominant Light Heavyweight in UFC history.
That's a great story as well - one that lets us see a man struggle with his destiny and the expectations placed upon him. It's also a better story because it's true.
Will the UFC tell this story? Almost certainly not. But they should look to boxing, look to Martinez vs. Chavez Jr., look to their recent PPV buys. If they do, they'll see that this is a good story to tell - that fans care about weakness and redemption and loss. They'll learn from what their competitor is doing right. And that's just a smart way to run a business. So why is it that I'm so confident none of this will happen?
Maybe the UFC will prove me wrong. But it's unlikely. So when you hear Dana White and Joe Rogan screaming at each other as the prelims end, telling the story of the brutal KO power of former UFC Light Heavyweight champion Vitor Belfort, don't be fooled - remember the real story of this fight, even if the UFC refuses to tell it.