The impending demise of the Ultimate Fighting Championship has been a favored topic in certain circles since the endeavor itself got off the ground in 1993.
In the early days, of course, there was plenty of cause for concern. The nascent sport of mixed martial arts was nearly legislated out of existence in the late-1990s before being revived under the guidance of Lorenzo Fertitta and Dana White in an oft-told tale.
Since then, though, every time the company goes on a tear, the worrywarts aren’t far behind. There was no way the UFC would survive the loss of stars like Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz, and Matt Hughes, they fretted. There was no way to win back the fans who left when Brock Lesnar departed. The loss of Anderson Silva and Georges St-Pierre will cripple the company. On and on the naysaying went.
At no point, though, has fear of the future been more in vogue than in the year since WME-IMG purchased the UFC from the Fertitta-owned Zuffa last summer at a cost of $4.2 billion.
Major corporate takeovers are always a time of frayed nerves, which holds true whether you’re a media company or a Wall Street firm or a fast food chain or a fight promotion. New management comes in with new ideas on how to do things. The uncertainty is amplified when the newbies have no prior experience running a business as specialized as fighting and the previous owners were the most successful in the history of their genre.
Compounding this was the timing of the sale. The UFC was at its highest business peak when it was sold last summer. Since then, one of the two fighters driving the boom, Ronda Rousey, fizzled completely and is likely to never compete again. The other, McGregor, took an extended absence, and is returning on Aug. 26 to meet Floyd Mayweather in a Las Vegas boxing ring.
The headlines, meanwhile, have at times seemed a non-stop stream of fighter complaints about pay, matchmaking, the company’s Reebok apparel deal, the USADA drug-testing program, and so on.
But every down time has come with a rebound. Old stars gave way to new. Fights which seemed incomprehensible became reality. Bad runs once again gave way to big events.
And we’re seeing signs, a year into the WME reign, that the new owners finally seem to be finding their footing.
Take, for starters, UFC 214 on July 29 in Anaheim, California, which was headlined by Jon Jones’ third-round knockout of rival Daniel Cormier in which he regained the UFC light heavyweight championship.
Heading in, critics claimed fans were fatigued by the rematch, which was supposed to go down last summer at UFC 200, but fell apart when Jones was suspended by USADA following a failed drug test. Insiders claimed the potential pay-per-view buy rate would come in around 500,000. Instead, the event projects to be about 860,000 buys. That was the biggest event so far this year, the 20th-best all time, and the sixth-biggest which did not involve McGregor, Rousey or Lesnar.
Speaking of Lesnar, Jones has taken aim at the former UFC heavyweight champion and current professional wrestler. The duo seem interested in a fight at heavyweight. If that happened, it would be next summer at the earliest, as Lesnar still has six months frozen on a USADA suspension related to his UFC 200 fight with Mark Hunt. He would have to re-enter the testing pool to wind down his suspension before being allowed to fight.
But the re-emergence of Jones has made a potential megafight with Lesnar a possibility.
The UFC is also getting a boost by the return of McGregor to the spotlight, even if he’s not doing it in the Octagon. According the Wrestling Observer, the UFC is expected to get a 33 percent cut of McGregor’s pay in exchange for allowing him to compete. If McGregor makes in the neighborhood the $100 million figure being bandied about, that’s more than $30 million without having to shoulder any of the promotional expenses: Mayweather Promotions is the chief promoter and Showtime is handling the PPV end. All the UFC has to do is show up and collect a check equal to some of its bigger shows.
Even better for the UFC, McGregor doesn’t sound like he’s about to retire any time soon. At an open workout on Friday, the UFC lightweight champ said he foresees himself competing in both boxing and MMA after the Mayweather bout.
“Boxing has been dear to my heart my whole entire life,” McGregor said. “I will contend in boxing bouts going forward, and I will contend in mixed martial arts bouts going forward. I will rule both with an iron fist, and that’s where my mindset is.”
That doesn’t guarantee McGregor will step back into the Octagon any time in the short-term future, but it leaves open the possibility that a trilogy fight with Nate Diaz, which would likely shatter all the company’s PPV marks, is something the company can pencil in.
While all this has played out, the UFC’s next megacard started to assemble. UFC 217 on Nov. 4 at New York’s Madison Square Garden will be headlined by Michael Bisping’s middleweight title defense against Georges St-Pierre.
There’s been some grumbling about the matchup, but there’s little doubt this event will sell itself: St-Pierre, one of the most popular fighters in MMA history, returns after an absence of nearly four years. The former welterweight champ will look to become just the fourth fighter in UFC history to hold titles in two different weight classes. And Bisping has a knack for using his mouth to turn any bout into a grudge match.
Other fighters are already angling with the prestigious MSG date, with matchups like Cris Cyborg vs. Holly Holm and Jose Aldo vs. Cub Swanson already being discussed. UFC 217 is likely to end up as loaded as UFC 214, which featured three title fights.
There are still issues for WME ownership to resolve. But after rough sailing, the company has one surprise hit already in the bank; its biggest star back in the spotlight; and the next major event rounding into place.
And that’s all it takes to keep the machine moving right along.