How different from April 2007, when UFC 70 arrived on a wave of publicity that proclaimed a new era. The crowd went wild as home boy Michael Bisping mounted the cage after smashing his opponent and it was clear to all those present that we were witnessing a revolution. Six and half years on, a smaller crowd (many of them on freebies dished out in the preceding week to make the gaps less embarrassing) were at the same arena to witness a more subdued event, Ultimate Fight Night 30, and the idea that MMA is about to become more popular than boxing in the UK anytime soon is laughable. So what went wrong and what are the prospects for the ‘sport of the future’?
In the aftermath of UFC 70, a solid series of cards came to these shores; including the Rampage Jackson/Dan Henderson title unification bout at the O2 in London and BJ Penn taking the Lightweight belt in Newcastle. UK fans lapped it up, but the brass at Zuffa (the UFC’s parent company) soon realized that the figures didn’t make sense. Moving high profile contests to another time zone was adversely affecting pay per view revenue in America. As a result; the stars stayed at home, the British fans felt unloved due to the drop in quality and the UFC brand was damaged over here.
While a loyal, hardcore fan base remained, the breakthrough to mainstream acceptance never came close to happening. The pre UFC 70 growth spurt coincided with the sport being shown free to air on the Bravo channel. Events were aired on the evening after they happened and old fights were used as filler in the station’s schedule. Bravo also screened The Ultimate Fighter reality show. This meant that as you were flicking through your TV planner, there was a good chance you would stumble upon some geezers battering each other in a cage. Popularity led to a move to subscription sports channels: first Setanta then ESPN. Both these entities existed mainly to broadcast one Premier League match per week and few new eyes were attracted to UFC programming as it languished in the subscription channel ghetto.
From day one, the UFC had a dramatic effect on the martial arts community in Britain. New found respect for the grappling arts, particularly jiu jitsu, and the confirmation that muay Thai is the most effective striking art caused a boom in these disciplines and many specialist MMA gyms flourished. Despite this participation explosion, we have yet to produce a homegrown fighter who can hang at the very top level. Michael Bisping was a star attraction at UFC 70 and he was slated to headline UFN 30 before the recurrence of an eye injury ruled him out. After over half a decade as the poster boy of UK MMA, Bisping can still walk around any city in his homeland without fear of being mobbed. The other Brit fighters are barely household names in their own households yet the UFC decided that a minimum ticket price of £75 was appropriate for UFN 30. In recent months, a couple of big domestic boxing clashes have sold out the Phones4U Arena within minutes of the tickets going on sale. In the week leading up to the latest UFC show, an unprecedented series of giveaways culminated with Bisping standing in Piccadilly Gardens dishing out tickets to passers-by. Sports fans love nothing better than wrapping themselves in the flag and cheering one of their own on. The lack of credible British contenders has hampered the opportunity to widen the fan base.
Although UFN 30 marked a low in Zuffa’s British campaign, there are definite signs that the UFC can get off the canvas and mount a comeback. The most important figure in this revival is the managing director of Europe, the Middle East and Africa; Garry Cook. The former Man City CEO is best remembered over here for a few trivial gaffes, but he is renowned as a marketing genius and forward thinker. With Nike, he proved himself as a master brand builder and he overhauled City to put in place the structure of a modern, world class sporting organization. Indeed, it was Cook’s own updated procedures that meant he had to leave his job after his email howler. In the past, the UFC never seemed to understand the UK market and have even moaned that it’s the fault of the punters for being behind the times when things haven’t gone to plan. There has to be a year zero clear out with an acceptance that everything they have done so far is wrong. The evidence is there. The UFC hit the ground the ground running with a red hot product and have failed to get more bums on seats. They must accept that their product is not irresistible and has to be sold in way that appeals to the target market. The old take it and be grateful attitude has to stop.
The early indications are good. The main obstacle to attracting new fans is the fact that most of the significant events take place across the pond in the early hours of the British Sunday morning. As Cook himself pointed out recently, it is also important for the fights to mean something. In the last two weeks, boxing fans have turned out in numbers in Belfast and Sheffield to cheer on local boys who they know are only one step away from a world title shot. UK UFCs have had headline fights that have little or no impact on the grand scheme of things- with Couture v Vera and Struve v Miocic redefining irrelevance for a generation of MMA fans. Cook aims to kill these two birds with one well directed stone: the European fight series. Starting with London next March, the UFC will deliver a minimum of six fight nights at prime time. There has even been a suggestion that European champions could be crowned. With Istanbul, Lodz, Malmo, Dublin and Berlin on the timetable and other cities keen to follow- this seems like the perfect way forward.
So we’ve got a solid strategy to showcase the best European fighters in meaningful bouts (including Brits with a realistic chance of winning belts) at UK prime time, overseen by a mastermind with a proven track record of success. Surely this is the kind of plan that every person who wants MMA to grow and succeed has been praying for. All we need to do is get the word out.
On this front, the outlook is less than rosy. The UFC have failed to build any kind of relationship with the mainstream press. In the past, the papers used to run ‘human cockfighting’ scare stories but they can’t even be bothered with that anymore. With an inherently dramatic product populated with real characters, it is apparent that the UFC’s UK media operation is not doing its job. The dull official website and lame social media effort are further testament to this and the situation must be dealt with if progress is to be made.
Away from the real world, we have the MMA media. The concept of the fourth estate holding the powerful to account is alien to them as (with a few honorable exceptions), to retain access and in the hope of getting on the payroll, they copy and paste press releases- only adding to them if they can praise the almighty company further. As the sport has stagnated in a niche somewhere around speedway or domestic ice hockey level, phrases like ‘fastest growing sport in the world’ and ‘overtaking the dying sport of boxing’ are still used without irony.
Of course, the key to progress is getting the right TV deal. After the Setanta and ESPN letdowns, the UFC spent months weighing up a number of offers before finalizing their current deal. Presumably, the other bidders were Discovery Shed and Babestation as they decided that BT Sport was the best option. Hopes were raised by the news of a weekly magazine programme then dashed with the announcement of Telegraph journalist Gareth A Davies as the presenter. Davies attended UFC 70, his first MMA show, and has carpetbagged his way into any on-camera opportunity ever since. He is the face of the failure. As with all his MMA work, Beyond the Octagon is a combination of entry level simplicity and North Korea level sycophancy.
Even though the warning signals were there, nobody was prepared for the horror of BT Sport’s live coverage of UFN 30. The tone was set by a Blue Peteresque explanation of the sport after the titles. As Fight Nights are not pay per view in the States, they are traditionally riddled with ad breaks. In their place, BT Sport decided to repeatedly return to the sterile confines of the studio- killing the atmosphere. The gold standard for coverage of a ‘new’ sport is the NFL on Sky- accessible and informative without dumbing down. BT Sport managed to insult the intelligence of newcomers and alienate long-time fans with froth and banal observation dressed up as analysis. By the time of the main event, most fight fans will presumably have deserted to the Kell Brook fight on Sky- where the action was evaluated by a trio of articulate and knowledgeable fighters located in an open studio within earshot of the buzzing crowd. Hopefully the UFC will be able to use their influence to persuade the BT management to rejig their output- preferably with an axe.
I have no doubt that the Ultimate Fighting Championship still has the potential to be successful in the UK and propel the sport of Mixed Martial Arts into the mainstream. There will always be an audience for men (and increasingly women) fighting each other and the UFC is the home of the most efficient prizefighters on the planet. At its best, their cocktail of art, brutality and spectacle is untouchable as a fan experience. The new Euro series, under the new Euro boss, is the perfect opportunity to move the sport to the next level. With a little imagination and a willingness to listen rather than dictate- the UFC brand could become as big in Britain as it is the States and Brazil. The ‘sport of the future’ still has a chance to live up to that tag.