Bloody Elbow Roundtable, Part 2: Why isn't the current crop of UFC fighters connecting with fans?

Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sp

The Bloody Elbow staff gives the opinions on why the new breed of fighters aren't connecting with fans the same way as the superstars of the last generation. Part two of two.

Note - This is the second part of the roundtable. You can check out part 1 here.

T.P. Grant: Much of what I wanted to say has been said, but I will re-state. The UFC has lost it's edge in pop culture, and the saturation of fights and the white noise marketing of fighters "this guy is the best thing ever since ever" is reused over and over again. To the causal fan there is likely very little difference in their minds between Carlos Condit and Johny Hendricks.

UFC fights don't often have that "special event" feel much any more because the UFC went to well far too often, so as Ian pointed out people miss fights and think nothing of it.

Also I think part of it is the "cross over" appeal, which is now required to be a "star" in MMA. It takes a long time to build that appeal, and even in boxing it often takes till the tail end of a guy's dominant run to pull real attention. St. Pierre was in the UFC since '04, but his cross over to the main stream sports awareness didn't star until the second fight with Penn in '09 and his star really stared to rise outside of MMA in like 2011. Chuck started in the UFC in '99 and it took till 2005 for his face to start showing up outside of UFC promos.

We assume the higher profile of the sport of MMA will result in a faster rise to super stardom for fighters, but it has clearly not been the case. Brock Lensar is the exception, but his profile was already very high from his time in pro wrestling. MMA is similar to boxing, it will produce maybe one or two superstars a generation and many greats will go under-appreciated by the general sporting public.

And what makes those cross overs is much like what makes popular pro wrestlers. You gotta have the look, the talent, and a persona that speaks to people.

Chris Hall: Surprised this hasn't come up yet, but I don't think it's necessarily that the current generation of fighters are really missing something innate that the previous generation had. I think a big impact on the ratings and getting fighters over is the distribution of the product. Right now, the UFC is broadcasting over 4 different platforms (moving to 5 in the next couple weeks) with varying degrees of accessibility. Following the sport as close as I do, I still sometimes find myself not sure whether an event is on FS1 or FS2 or wherever. How is a casual fan supposed to keep up with that.

Another problem with that broadcast schedule is fans just not seeing their favorites or missing out on fighters that deserve attention. We saw it in 2012 with Chris Weidman taking out Munoz. It was the defining performance of his career before he KO'd Anderson and nobody saw it. In fact, it was held against him in the early talks of who'd face Silva at that point. He ended up being able to build himself off a narrative that Silva ducked him for the Bonnar fight after his surgery, but that's not near as strong momentum.

And now, with the upcoming digital network we'll be seeing the same thing with Alexander Gustafsson. The Mauler's star should be shining brighter than ever, instead he's going to be on a digital broadcast on a brand new pay service. Who's going to see the fight that's expected to send him to the rematch against Jones? Assuming the rematch happens this summer or early fall, are fans going to really remember the first bout and be as compelled to buy the rematch from a fighter they haven't seen compete in a year?

Dallas Winston: Though it's kind of a separate subject, I couldn't agree more with Connor on the staleness of UFC marketing.

I do think that some of the commercials have made notable strides (perhaps starting with that Shields/GSP spot) but their event posters are criminally bland and repetitive. "I've got a great idea: let's blow up and center pics of the two fighters in the main event, and we'll totally spice it up with a drop-shadow effect and by slightly changing the font style on occasion." Guy in the back: "Yus! Sometimes we could have them facing each other instead of just staring at the camera!" Other guy in back: "Let's go way outside the fucking box and have them lift up their glove like they're about to fucking punch something or someone you guys!!!" The lack of creativity and length it's persisted is laughable at this point.

Brent Brookhouse: Golovkin's last fight averaged over 1.4 million viewers with a peak at near 1.6 million. His PPV success isn't a guarantee or anything, but those are ridiculously good numbers for premium cable. It was only like .006 behind Julio Cesar Chavez Jr.'s last fight. That Chavez fight and Miguel Cotto, both proven stars, were the only cable fights that beat out his number. So...I think it's legitimate to say that he's developed into quite the star in a very short amount of time. Speaking English matters far less in boxing than MMA though.

Tim Burke: We're talking about top-level, company-carrying talents here. Georges St-Pierre. Chuck Liddell. We're not even including Jon Jones because he only sells 450k instead of what the other guys were. How in the world is GGG a comparable person in this discussion?

Chris Hall: Speaking to the fighters, though, I think we have a lack of real compelling rivalries right now. Historically, whether real or contrived, rivalries have driven the UFC's success. From Ken and Tito, the Couture/Liddell/Ortiz triangle, Brock/Mir, and Silva/Sonnen the biggest moments in the UFC have had a strong rivalry narrative. We're really missing out on that this year. You've got a bit of that coming up with Weidman vs. Silva, but neither fighter is playing to it. We could have gotten it from GSP/Hendricks, but then GSP happened. And again there's potential for Gus/Jones, but that's so far into the future that no one is really feeling it right now.

Fraser Coffeen: Dallas: "Laudable insight from Iain, Crookie and Timmy above."

Jerk!

Brent Brookhouse: I don't think he's on that level, but the point that was initially being made when he was brought up was that promotion matters in building a guy. He went from someone no one heard of to a star based on a combination of promotion and his own achievements. And that happened in a year. The idea being that if you promote well, you can find success. Can he carry boxing? Who knows? He's been positioned well. If he can get the big fight and win it (Andre Ward maybe?) then maybe he can carry the sport on PPV.

Manny Pacquiao barely spoke English and fought in lower weight classes but when promotional muscle was put behind him and he did his part I think we can say it went well. And that's probably the comparable guy for Golovkin. The foreign destroyer that gets plush TV spots and promotional push.

Tim Burke: What exactly did they do to promote him though? 24/7's? Documentaries? Billboards? I'm not aware of any of that. No, they put him on TV 4 times in a year and he destroyed increasingly credible opponents. What "promotional muscle" was there other than a platform?

Fraser Coffeen: I agree on the rivalry aspect, which ties back into the professionalism side. There was a sporting rivalry between Edgar and Maynard, but not really heated bad blood in the style of Silva/Sonnen because Edgar and Maynard aren't those kinds of trash talkers. And yes, that's what people want. MMA has moved away from pro-wrestling, and many fans hate it when you bring that up at all, but you can't deny the impact the pro-wrestling model had and continues to have on the promotion of MMA. We're still not fully past that desire for larger than life pro-wrestling style fighters, and I'm not positive we ever will be.

Going back to boxing, isn't Floyd Mayweather essentially a pro-wrestling figure from a self-promotion standpoint? Incredibly talented sure, but that's not all that has made him the star he is today, not by a long shot.

John Nash: I can tell you for sure there is one thing missing from this generation of stars, and that's the power that the UFC brand used to hold. For whatever reason (it's no longer the hip thing, oversaturation, poor marketing, natural ebb and flow, something else) the UFC no longer gives a fighter the rub it used to. Payperviews are no longer being bought because of the acronym and instead almost solely on the backs of fighters or the fight headlining it.

Fraser Coffeen: Tim, HBO did their "2 Days" special about him, they put him in main events in notable markets, they brought him up on commentary in fights he wasn't in, they included him in their promo videos for the fall season... they have most definitely put his name out there on a consistent basis, which is promotion.

Tim Burke: Fair enough, Fraser. But it's nothing the UFC doesn't already do, correct? Just in a different form?

Brent Brookhouse: I think they do it with angles that don't turn off people. The UFC use of the music they use and the constant shouting and everything feeling the same doesn't do the same thing. HBO really gave weight to him as "special" beyond "this is what we do for our good fighters."

KJ Gould: Countdowns and Prime Times are completely generic and interchangeable at this point because of what Brent mentioned. They're almost as stale as the TUF format. Outside of the occasional innovative or off-kilter youtube promotional videos, the UFC has been creatively bankrupt for a while now.

Iain touched on the saturation of fighters meaning there's less time for each fighter to get marketed and even seen. This will only worsen with more shows due in 2014 which will be seen by even less people when some of these will be exclusively on the UFC's paid content service.

But I think the UFC's problem is probably a match making one more than a creative or marketing one. Joe Silva under the desires of White and the Fertittas has been tasked with making sure UFC match making doesn't look like Boxing match making, because setting up cans to be crushed is a 'problem' in Boxing and has contributed to some inflated records.

However I'd argue fighters like Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz in particular benefited from favourable style match ups that allowed them to dominate in their primes. At the time you couldn't argue either completely outmatched their opponents going into the fight (save for a Jeremy Horn rematch here, or a Ken Shamrock rematch there), but stylistically they were in fights that favoured them and played to their strengths allowing for finishes or at the very least violent displays of superiority.

GSP had a similar level of supremacy for a lot of his run, until the division started catching up and he was booked against the very best in the world the UFC could find or put in front of him, leading to a more conservative, risk managed approach.

Then there's Jon Jones who is a bit of an anomaly because he became ridiculously good ridiculously quickly and was carefully coached to use the most of his physical assets to make very good fighters look very average next to him. On in-ring talent alone Jones should be the most popular fighter in the world, but his immaturity and as it turns out hypocrisy revealed when his contrived persona falters has turned at least a very vocal hardcore fan minority against him.

Then there's Nick Diaz who while a Top 10 welterweight built his fame from favourable match ups in a 'home town' promotion in Strikeforce. If it weren't for the conditions of his Strikeforce career, I can't see him ever growing to the star he is had he stayed with the UFC all this time.

Fans of combat sports have almost always enjoyed seeing a fighter rise up and put together a win streak as champion. But often these win streaks are broken by UFC match making when someone like Joe Silva have hot prospects or rising contenders eliminate each other's streak before making it to that next level. The UFC is not a set of tournaments throughout the year with brackets and seeds where the best end up fighting the best. The UFC is about prize fighting and a Pay Per View and Television product, and how they book their fights will influence how many fans will join them on the ride as the build to fights with the appropriate pay off. I'm sure fighter injuries hasn't helped the match making, but I think it's time Joe Silva stepped back to allow someone else to manage things for a while just to change things up.

Fraser Coffeen: Agreed with Brent here. The UFC likes to position everyone the same way, as this special fighter. But if everyone is special, then no one is special. Boxing is more willing to say "Gennady Golovkin is a big deal. Curtis Stevens is not." And that trains fans to see the difference between them and to appreciate Golovkin more. Obviously it doesn't always work - HBO really REALLY wants Andre Ward to be a superstar, but it's not happening - but I think overall boxing has shown that there are ways you as a promotion can help build a fighter.

Zane Simon: I understand Brent's point about promotional stagnation, and I think it does have some impact in that even people who like the product as a whole tend to just mute the tv or change the channel when a commercial or even a mid-event interview comes up. I can't remember the last time I actually made myself listen to Dana and Joe's screamy "Buy the PPV" shtick. And the same goes for mid event fighter interviews it's like getting to the part of a talk show where the guest plugs their book, I'm just not that interested in watching Rashad and Jon Jones stand around akwardly, or Miesha and Ronda stand around awkwardly, or Chael and Jones stand around awkwardly, etc.

That said there is just a general loss of brand interest that the UFC has little to do with and can't recapture. I keep hearing Chuck brought up over and over again as a guy who had "it" and in reality I think all he had was a title at the time when the UFC was really cool. He was in just the right place at just the right moment. Because beyond that I've never seen Chuck do anything outside the cage that made me excited for his next fight.

I honestly think the UFC is willing to put some promotion behind fighters they think can self promote, but that's the biggest problem, the fighter has to be willing to show that initial work and even if they're willing to do it, they have to have a personality people are drawn to. I've seen a bunch of guys popping out of the woodwork and trying to be a heel lately (Cole Miller and Mike Pierce spring immediately to mind) only to get about a weeks worth of juice for it before they drifted back to normalcy. A fighter that wants to be popular right now really does have to be willing to put themselves out there almost every day. And if the UFC sees that they'll grab on and give them a push, but they won't dive in behind someone who they don't think can promote themselves.

KJ Gould: It also seems like it's never been easier to fight in the UFC if you have the right manager, and by right manager I mean one that's willing to sell you off cheap.

Steph Daniels: GSP got the perfect cross section of factors for his success. He's good looking, genuinely skilled/talented, has that huge Canadian fanbase, but most importantly, he got to ride Hughes and Penn's wave of success and rework it into his own. He pretty much crushed all the name guys AND the name guys they were trying to build up, as well. It's like the two cats from Weird Science plugged in their G.I. Joe action figure to the machine, the lightning struck and GSP was the result of a very perfect storm.

Zane Simon: GSP also had something that very few athletes ever achieve, even those who really work for it... A flawless public persona. He was never mean, or impolite, always humble and friendly, and never seemed fake or forced while doing it. Jones tried for years to have the same personality and failed miserably. GSP's personality is a real rarity among high level athletes.

Steph Daniels: Yep, he is that rare fighter that exhibits grace and class at all times, even in the face of what would have been a very humiliating public dressing down by Dana White. The way he handled that was magical, and without ever saying a derogatory word, everyone knew that Dana was being a jerk and GSP was being mistreated. I commend him for his constant, iron control of his public image. This is what Jones was striving for, but failed completely at.

Iain Kidd: I think KJ was onto something with the favorable match-ups comment. If we look at a guy like Anderson, the two biggest things that turned him into a draw was his domination of Griffin, and his rivalry with Sonnen. Letting guys go in there to get highlight reel footage and giving them a short turnaround to get them back in there is something that could really help the UFC. I know purists may balk at the idea of not putting on the most evenly matched fight possible every time, but I would like to see a "mis-match" happen once in a while for the spectacle, and I think most fans are the same.

KJ Gould: Showcase fights for the win.

TP Grant: Pride did showcase fights better than anyone and it lead to fighters being nearly legendary in their own time, the UFC could stand to do a few them.

John Nash: The favorable match-ups was a big reason why PRIDE was such a star making factory. PRIDE guys would fight top competition about as much as UFC fighters did, 2 or 3 times a year, but then they'd also get in a few more fights against overmatched fall guys. You might be able to see Cro Cop or Barnett fight seven or eight times in one year, and over half those fights were guaranteed to end in a highlight reel finish thanks to the level of competition they were facing. A hell of a lot easier to make a star when you get that many chances to introduce him, in the best possible light no less, to the fans. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, the UFC can't duplicate this without completely abandoning the identity they've spent years buidling.

Steph Daniels: Yep, mismatches are the bread and butter. They lend the most novelty to that carny, sideshow type atmosphere that surrounds MMA less and less these days.

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