A completely one-sided fight between Yair Rodriguez and the returning B.J. Penn closed a lackluster UFC Fight Night 103 in Phoenix, Arizona. The event drew a decent crowd and probably had an acceptable TV rating on Fox Sports 1. But the quality of fights—especially during the prelims—once again showed that the UFC is watering down its product that should only showcase the best mixed martial artists in the world.
In 2016, the promotion held 40 events, with one being canceled. The number could go down slightly this year, but it is questionable whether the promotion will change it's strategy. Regular events in Las Vegas and New York, occasional shows in as many U.S. states as possible and in Europe, East Asia and South America require a big roster.
To fill dozens of undercards, the UFC has to recruit talent from the regional circuit, even when these fighters do not necessarily meet the criteria the 'NFL of mixed martial arts' should apply. Dana White even launched the reality YouTube show “Lookin’ for a Fight”, where he and his friends attend shows across the country, scouting talent for the roster. Yet giving out contracts like candy at a Christmas party goes hand-in-hand with lowering the standards of what is necessary to make it to the big leagues.
It's barely possible to create stars when undercarders seem like faceless and replaceable competitors. Maybe here and there, someone can cut an impressive promo or score a highlight reel knockout, but mostly UFC’s prelims—outside of a few major PPV events—display a mediocrity that could drive fans away from these below-PPV shows. Historically, UFC cards that took place shortly after the end of NFL’s regular season drew high ratings.
But what do viewers who are not familiar with the product think after watching this week’s fight night? The prelims seemed particularly weak and illustrated how big the gap between established and lower echelon fighters is. On top of that, two questionable judging decisions—Joe Lauzon’s split decision win over Marcin Held in particular—hurt the main card. As if that wasn't enough, in the main event Yair Rodriguez brutalized the much older and slower B.J. Penn in what can only be described as a total mismatch caused by a complete booking failure.
While money talks more and more dominate the title scenes in all weight divisions and the sporting aspect has taken a backseat, cards like yesterday’s fight night could diminish UFC’s credibility in general and do not help business-wise in the long run. Rumors that the promotion will make changes have been floating around for a while.
In a time where UFC’s new owners need every Dollar they can get in order to pay back loans, these alleged changes could go in one of two directions: either the UFC cuts significant portions of the roster and will mostly build up big cards or, and that is the likely scenario, events will more often feature freak fights and novelty acts, further sacrificing credibility.