This is a guest feature by Zak Woods, formerly of Watch Kalib Run.
In sports media Bill Simmons is arguably the most popular writer in the United States. Thus when Mr. Simmons gives his opinion on sports many take notice.
Recently the self-proclaimed "Sports Guy" made an assertion regarding the popular status of the Ultimate Fighting Championship on an ESPN.com chat:
Joe (Decatur, GA)
The popularity of the UFC seems to have plateaued. Do you think it has reached its peak? What can they do to continue to grow?
Bill Simmons (3:09 PM)
The UFC has one problem: there's too much turnover at the top level. On the one hand that's good because you're not tied to the fate of 3-4 guys like boxing is right now (and how boxing is being hijacked by this Pacman-Mayweather fight that just isn't happening), but on the other hand, from a mainstream standpoint, there's so much turnover that casual fans don't gain any longterm familiarity with anyone. Chuck Liddell is a great example - right after he blew up and started popping up on magazines, someone beat him and his career was never the same. That seems to keep happening. Brock Lesnar was the latest. I don't know if the sport is built that way - that anyone good can beat anyone else good on any given night, and you just never know - or if they just had bad luck. But they need a signature guy who can last for longer than 18 months AND connect in a mainstream way.
I respect Bill Simmons' position, but unfortunately I believe the main thrust of his argument is an easy and convenient answer from someone without the depth of understanding or expertise to offer a real, substantive critique of the state of the UFC.First, let's lay out Mr. Simmons basic argument: Too much turnover in champions makes it difficult for casual fans to become attached to a dominant fighter.
That appears to be completely reasonable on the surface. Several divisions have dealt with serious turnover, e.g. the light-heavyweight division has had five different champions since 2007 and only two successful title defenses, one of which was extremely controversial. Yet other divisions have remained relatively stagnant with a dominating champion. Georges St. Pierre is enjoying an unprecedented run of excellence (a chat participant points this out later), and then there is Anderson Silva's vice grip on the 185-pound crown. Until the middle of 2010 B.J. Penn was thought to be unbeatable at 155 pounds -- if the judges could score fights properly.
Thus we can see that the theme was an era of too much dominance rather than repeated turnover at the top. (Note: One could argue that the perception of the now infamous "Lyoto Machida Era" may be included). So why does Mr. Simmons make the argument that champion turnover is a problem for the UFC?
The answer lies in the two examples Mr. Simmons cites as evidence: Chuck Liddell's loss to Quinton "Rampage" Jackson in 2007 and Brock Lesnar's loss to Cain Velasquez in 2010. Ironically both of these examples represent failures of a different variety rather than something endemic to the nature of mixed martial arts as the "Sports Guy" asserts.
Early 2007 would mark the moment when Zuffa pulled out all the stops with a major Memorial Day weekend fight card featuring their brightest star, Chuck "The Iceman" Liddell, facing off against the last man to beat the champion, Quinton "Rampage" Jackson.
The mainstream offensive was on as Chuck Liddell appeared on Entourage, the cover of ESPN the Magazine, and local television. Liddell became the focus of the mainstream media's coverage (the other story was the UFC vs. boxing).
Some argued that Zuffa was making a fundamental mistake in the one-sided marketing of Chuck Liddell (Quinton Jackson reportedly wanted more fights to introduce himself to legions of new North American fans), but the personal relationship between White and Liddell made such a course of action impossible.
Despite the emerging narrative of Liddell's impending victory (ESPN ran a "celebrity pick segment" where each individual picked Liddell) the perception within the MMA community that had followed the sport before the arrival of reality television was far different.
Many pointed out that Liddell's impressive run from 2004 to 2007 was primarily against grapplers and wrestlers that fed into his "sprawl and brawl" style, not to mention the fact that Liddell's partying lifestyle could be a serious detriment, which infamously played out on Good Morning Texas two months before the Jackson title fight.
Long-time observers favored Jackson who had dominated Liddell before, and even Randy Couture predicted that Chuck Liddell would lose.
The old adage of "styles make fights" would be reaffirmed. For three years Liddell had no need to fear the punches of his opponents, and in the first round he threw an unprotected body shot. The result was quick counter hook from Jackson that floored Liddell who was subsequently bludgeoned on the canvas until the referee stopped the fight.
The shock over the loss should not be attributed to "being caught" but rather a lack of situational awareness on the largely new audience and mainstream coverage.
Mr. Simmons is a huge professional wrestling fan so it comes as no surprise that he would see the championship of Brock Lesnar as the rise of a truly dominant fighter.
Yet the title bout against Cain Velasquez would highlight the mainstream media's inability to heed the analysis of MMA insiders nor the dissemination of such information to casual fans.
Many took the wrong lessons from Brock Lesnar's title fight with Shane Carwin. While the media wrote of Lesnar's tremendous heart in adulation of his comeback victory the fact remained that the champion had a serious deficiency in his stand-up abilities.
MMA insiders saw a flaw that could be exploited. Cain Velasquez's training staff at American Kickboxing Academy were figuratively licking there lips in anticipation for the upcoming title fight.
In the week before the fight, it was the challenger who was overwhelming picked by professional fighters, MMA insiders and reporters to win the fight yet the sense of an inevitable Lesnar victory still encased the mainstream.
Jordan Breen of Sherdog.com detailed many interactions with mainstream media members being completely flabbergasted that Cain Velasquez stood any chance at all. These individuals and many others were ignoring the holes in Lesnar's game while criminally overlooking Velasquez's impressive NCAA wrestling resume. In essence Velasquez trumped Lesnar in every category except size.
One MMA writer would later opine, "Brock Lesnar has never been a good stand up fighter. Cain Velasquez is a great stand up fighter and has the wrestling pedigree to negate the bigger man's take downs. Vegas had Lesnar as a slight favorite, but that was because he was the champion. In short, Cain Velasquez did what almost everyone thought he would." (emphasis added)
In sharp contrast to 2007, Zuffa focused their marketing campaign on the Hispanic market. While Lesnar is notorious for not wanting to interact with the media it appeared that Zuffa was attempting to use their public relations energy on the lesser-known Velasquez.
The end result a virtuoso performance from Velasquez and a humiliating defeat for Lesnar.
Obviously there is room for disagreement and debate and the predictions in both fights was not unanimous by any stretch of the imagination. But both instances represent a fundamental failure of education, especially when it came to the status and capability of the opponent. The first was due to the overwhelming focus on marketing Chuck Liddell, while the second came from the mainstream media and casual fans' inability to listen to MMA analysts and insiders.
Note: It should be stated that this is also an indictment of the relative voice of the MMA media and it's inability to reach many casual and mainstream sources
For Mr. Simmons, who models himself a fan first, this is to be expected. It is unrealistic to expect a casual fan (Mr. Simmons identifies himself as such later in the chat) to dig deeper and understand the the minutiae of mixed martial arts. Yet it doesn't change the fact that his conclusion is fundamentally wrong.
That is not to say the UFC doesn't face a shortage of stars or issues in creating new ones to replace the aging veterans (it most certainly does) and Mr. Simmons does make the correct point that the champions need to "connect" with the audience in a meaningful way. But to blame any issue with "plateauing popularity" on championship turnover is a red herring. It should be noted that in 2010 the Ultimate Fighting Championship once again achieved record pay-per-view buys.
Ultimately what determines the success of these fighters to draw the public is a resonance with the sporting society and what creates that affect is marketing and media coverage. A mutualistic and messy relationship to say the least.