Guys fighting pt.2.
Some time ago I wrote an only marginally related piece called 'Guys fighting…or how fight teams might change the seemingly endless sea of UFC events.', you can read that here.
The UFC roster currently holds 466 fighters, and the organisation is planning to hold 50+ events in 2014. What do these numbers mean for the fighters under contract? How often will they see action in 2014? Do they get enough opportunities to make a name for themselves inside the cage? To get a better understanding how often UFC fighters see action I take a look at the numbers for the events of previous year, 2013.
In 2013 the UFC organised 33 events with a total of 386 fights on the cards. Fighting on a regular basis is essential for fighters who trying to make it in the big league. They need to get the experience and the exposure to make it to the next level. Judging from fighter interviews, most fighters like to fight 3 times per year. This keeps them busy, gives them enough opportunity to stay relevant and provides a steady stream of income. In 2013 a total of 772 fight slots were available on the cards. That leaves room for 260 fighters to have a meaningful year. It is important to note here that because there is no clearly defined 'fight season': 2013 is an arbitrary period but it is long enough to give some meaningful insight. Now let's have a look at the data for 2013:
Fights per fighter in 2013
The first things that pops out, is that not 260 but 450 fighters came in action in 2013. Of those 450 fighters only 16% fought the preferred 3 or 4 times. Of the available 772 slots, 132 were for Main Events and Co-Main Events, normally reserved for top 10 fighters. Another 208 slots were for the main card and 432 slots for the undercard. Of course not all fight slots are created equal: For instance, all champions, with the exception of Demetrious Johnson, fought only twice in 2013.
Fighting regularly is one of the most important tools the fighters have to promote themselves. The UFC has put its mind on global expansion and looks not really interested to build up the roster they already have. Even a champion like Renan Barao does not get the promotion that could turn him into a star. If you, like most fighters, you ply your trade on the undercard, you are essentially barely noticeable blip on the UFC radar. Fighting only 1 or 2 times a year is a major obstacle if you are looking to get yourself noticed. Of the 450 fighters who fought in 2013, 140 fought only once and on the undercard. Not the most productive year if you want to be a professional fighter.
Another way to make a name for yourself is by performance. The quickest way into the hearts of the UFC brass and the public is by finishing fights. Old-school MMA fans will reminisce the time when every fight on every card would end in spectacular fashion. The numbers for 2013 show that MMA still has a major advantage over other combat sports; 51% of the fights ended in a finish.
Main events had the highest finishing rate of all fights but in contrast the co-main events ended in decisions most of the time. The relative high decision rate on the undercard doesn't show a great sense of urgency from the undercard fighters. Everyone is well aware of the DFW adagio: "Don't leave it in the hands of the judges", but it seems to fall on deaf ears with undercard fighters.
It is a Catch22 situation, fighting without the security of being a UFC household name makes the W seem so important, but that spectacular finish that could really help establish your name. With the numbers for 2013 in mind new fighters should ask themselves what is the value of being just another UFC fighter that fights to a decision on the undercard once a year. Because that is the hard reality for a lot of them.
In October 2013 the UFC roster held around 390 fighters. Now, 4 months later, it has grown to 456 (excluding the newly formed women's straw weight division). The current roster is full of relatively new faces, 44% is still within their first three fights for the UFC. The problem of the low fight frequency ( 46% of the fight roster fought only once in 2013 ) is further aggravated by the limitation of exposure on the undercard by the advent of UFC Fightpass. Even with the enormous amount of events in 2014, it begs the question how much opportunity the new fighters really will get to make an impact.
Meanwhile the UFC is focussing on expansion of their roster rather than developing what is already there. As they keep building their giant pyramid that encompasses all things MMA, the top of it seems to be getting ever smaller and further out of reach. If the UFC keeps gobbling up new fighters without a consistent policy for development of the lower tier of their fighters it might turn out they have been building on quicksand rather than on a rock solid foundation.