The Ultimate Fighting Championship is in an odd place. While the sport of mixed martial arts has grown exponentially with the UFC leading the way, 2017 was a rough year from a consumer engagement standpoint.
Pay-per-view numbers and live gates were down from the last two years and the promotion/sport’s two biggest stars have been absent from competition. This is all taking place as the UFC’s major broadcasting deal with Fox is set to expire. In 2017, the exclusive negotiations between Endeavor (the group formerly known as WME-IMG that purchased the UFC) and Fox ended.
The UFC is now shopping its product for a new network. Oddly enough, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) is also shopping for a potential new TV deal as well. It’s possible some of the same networks could be interested in both companies. Some may believe that the UFC is a more valuable or safe product to invest in because the action is real and unscripted, but WWE programming consistently delivers higher ratings.
Obviously, pro wrestling and the WWE have a long-standing foothold in American culture, and that’s part of the reason it remains so popular today. Another reason the WWE still continues to thrive is its theatrics and personalities. Love or hate them, fans show up to boo or cheer John Cena and Roman Reigns.
Their characters have been built and fans choose sides. This is largely missing from the UFC. That’s where my suggestions for the promotion begin.
The Gyms and/or Promotion Needs Paid Hype Men
Conor McGregor is the biggest star the sport has ever seen as he’s also arguably MMA’s greatest self-promoter. Bellator’s Chael Sonnen is definitely in the discussion. These guys have the mic skills to sell themselves and their upcoming bout.
It’s the biggest reason both men are as wealthy as they are today. It also explains why McGregor has the leverage to hold the UFC lightweight title hostage while the promotion waits for him to return to the sport. Unfortunately, most mixed martial artists aren’t as gifted as McGregor and Sonnen in front of a mic. Many of them are awkward when speaking before and after fights. After wins fighters who have competed in feature bouts get an opportunity to speak in the middle of the Octagon. Few take advantage of this time to build their brands or to even specifically name the person they would like to face next.
How many times have you heard this after a fighter scores a potentially star-making finish in the UFC? “whoever the UFC wants to give me is fine.” Most deliver a similarly dry response when asked to make a callout. Those guys and girls almost never become much more than just another fighter in the UFC. Let’s face it, not everyone is going to be McGregor or Sonnen and no one should ask them to be anything but themselves.
Guys and girls who struggle on the mic are a thing in the WWE as well, but oftentimes these performers are matched with a “manager” who serves as their mouthpiece. Why do you think Paul Heyman and Brock Lesnar are attached at the hip in the WWE? It’s because trash talk and self-promotion aren’t Lesnar’s things. However, it’s what Heyman was put on Earth to do it seems.
I’m not suggesting the UFC hire Heyman or others like him to strut around the Octagon, interfere with fights and the whole nine yards, but I do believe the UFC and/or the training gyms that feed the promotion a good piece of its roster should have people assigned to build their fighter’s brands.
I know part of Joe Rogan’s job is to gush over the four fighters in the main event and co-main event during a promo that airs a week or so before the show is live, but something deeper and more personal would be helpful. If American Kickboxing Academy, Team Alpha Male, Jackson Wink, American Top Team and other top professional gyms also had a brand manager whose function was to hype its fighters, it could go a long way toward growing the popularity of its members.
Call it silly, but the brand managers should be instigators, embellishers and the voice for fighters who aren’t capable of representing themselves in a way that is exciting to most fans. Fighters like Stipe Miocic, Robert Whittaker, TJ Dillashaw, Cris Cyborg and even Rose Namajunas should be bigger stars than they are currently. If it was someone’s job from their training camp or the UFC to heighten their exposure, they might receive more attention and in turn generate more pay-per-view buys.
Head coaches and trainers do attempt to talk up their fighters now, but it’s not at the level it needs to be to maximize effectiveness. Quite honestly, the UFC should allow these men or women into the Octagon to speak before and after fights to increase their own exposure thus making them a must-follow of sorts on social media. At that point, their future rants would be all the more impacting.
It’s pro-wrestling-style management with an MMA twist.
The WWE recently did away with pyrotechnics in its wrestler introductions, but every appearance of one of the promotion’s stars is still a spectacle. As someone who has attended a number of WWE events, I’d best describe the experience as a cross between a combat sports event, a musical concert, and a circus.
The theatrical entrance is largely responsible for this quality.
You see them in the United Kingdom before boxing matches and at Bellator Events, they were even popular during Pride’s heyday with Lenne Hardt, but you don’t see theatrical entrances in the UFC. The most you’ll get is a cool walkout song and Khabib Nurmagomedov’s Dagestani hat.
There’s room for more and it wouldn’t cheapen the product. Too often MMA fighters and purists forget that the product is still a sport and entertainment. It’s important not to lose sight of either one. Theatrical entrances would grab fan’s attention and allow fighters to establish a personality. At the end of the day, both things are good for the promotion and the sport. As is the case with the aforementioned suggestion, fighters still have to take care of business once the Octagon door shuts, but there’s nothing wrong with generating some electricity before the first punch or kick is thrown.
More Dramatic Info Reveals
The WWE and other wrestling promotions do their best to keep their dramatic announcements and plot twists a secret until the big reveal takes place. When they’re ready to drop the hammer, they do it with as much theatrics as possible.
It has made for some iconic moments in the industry’s history and many have become pop-culture references. Canelo Alvarez vs. Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. was a horrible fight, but you know what nearly saved the entire broadcast? It was the dramatic faceoff and reveal of Canelo’s agreement to face Gennady Golovkin in the long-awaited middleweight title unification bout.
There was drama and excitement in the ring after fans had nearly been bored to death by the lackluster fight they paid to see. In arranging this reveal, the promoters essentially gave fans in attendance and viewers at home more than they expected. The UFC needs to stop depending on the action in the Octagon to be its sole provider of thrills and entertainment.
Right now they make announcements during events, but it never happens in the Octagon or in front of the camera with the principal figures involved. When and if Jon Jones/Conor McGregor or Nate Diaz return to the Octagon there should be a planned spot for them to walk into the Octagon to announce their intentions.
No matter what the quality of the fight was before the appearance, this kind of thing would only augment the appeal of the event.
It’s a new year and the UFC is headed for a new deal. It’s time to be bold and create some new formulas for success.