When Hollywood talent agency powerhouse William Morris Endeavor bought a majority stake in the UFC, they needed to borrow money from multiple creditors—as usual in business deals of this magnitude. The loans add up to $1.8 billion, which puts the new owners of the biggest MMA organization in the world in a position where they urgently need to find ways to make a profitable company even more profitable in order to pay back the money. Actions to cut costs have already taken place, as the UFC let go a big portion of its staff in home and overseas offices, including high-profile names such as former UFC fighter Chuck Liddell.
That said, the UFC relies more than ever on successful big-time events headlined by big-time names. Conor McGregor, the company’s biggest star at the moment, fought thrice in 2016 and drew more than 1.6 million pay-per-view buys each time. Meanwhile, UFC’s second superstar Ronda Rousey disappeared for a year after her devastating loss to Holly Holm at UFC 193 in November of 2015.
Besides McGregor and Rousey, there aren’t any other stars with name value in and outside the MMA bubble. What about Jon Jones? He could have the potential but seems like an unreliable option at this point, given the several incidents that led to arrests and suspensions in the past. And heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic? Big guys usually generate excitement among fight fans, but the Cleveland-native is lackluster. His contenders in the division, Fabricio Werdum and Cain Velasquez, are not draws either. And pound-for-pound number one Demetrious Johnson? He is arguably the best fighter in the world and virtually no one cares, according to his viewership and buy rate numbers.
Pro Wrestling followers would indicate the UFC has ‘booked’ itself in a corner by not producing any alternatives to the two biggest names on their roster. The fight game, however, is far more difficult. Creating stars by following some sort of manual has not worked for the UFC so far. Exhibit A: “Super” Sage Northcutt.
Look alone is not what makes a star. Talent alone is not a star maker either. A mix of in-cage abilities, charisma and promo skills, plus a big amount of luck, is necessary to become a figure that moves the needle or even transcends into mainstream culture. Yet without a promotional machine that pushes a potential superstar and creates either a mystique surrounding the fighter or an intriguing narrative it is almost impossible to reach a significant level of prominence.
Facing potential financial hardship, the UFC decides to put all their chips on two names: McGregor and Rousey. The former started playing hardball with the promotion a while ago. He announced his retirement when negotiations did not go his way during the summer. He applied for a boxing license in California in November. And he recently talked about offers from Hollywood and WWE. Even though the outspoken Irishman is the current reigning lightweight champion and has probably years left physically and mentally, it is at this point not clear how many more PPV events he will headline for the UFC.
In Rousey’s case, her professional MMA career could be over very quickly—especially when she loses to Amanda Nunes at UFC 207 on Friday. And even if she wins, her days in the MMA circus are numbered, with maybe one big money rematch against now-145 lbs title contender Holly Holm in sight.
Yet the UFC decided to release promotional videos for UFC 207 that almost solely focus on contender Rousey, who is a WME client, while the defending bantamweight champion Nunes is barely mentioned. Even UFC color commentator Joe Rogan, who has been a long-time admirer of Rousey, expressed his concerns over the way the UFC’s marketing machine is approaching the next PPV event. It is completely against anything that has worked for decades in boxing and MMA. Some spotlight for Nunes would not hurt Rousey’s appeal in any capacity.
Fightful’s own Showdown Joe Ferraro mentioned in his recent column that, despite the promos might be disrespectful to Nunes, the current champion will get a big piece of the financial pie. And the more casual viewers the name ‘Rousey’ can draw the more money Nunes will earn. That being said, in case Nunes defends her title the UFC would have missed a chance to introduce their bantamweight kingpin to a wider audience properly, as they do not maximize their resources in the lead-up to an event that will certainly draw eye balls. It is not even safe to say that the promotion would be behind Nunes following a victory.
After Holm knocked out Rousey, the new champion went on a tour through morning shows and radio stations, yet when she returned to the Octagon to defend her title against Miesha Tate at UFC 196, “The Preacher’s Daughter” seemed to be an afterthought. No movie-like features on the UFC’s YouTube channel, no main event spot and only little hype for a woman who had shocked the world with her title win. The same could happen to Nunes, who is one of the two current champions from Brazil, a market that has historically been important to the UFC.
No one denies Rousey’s mainstream appeal. She has starred in several movies, hosted Saturday Night Live and is a regular guest on shows like “Conan” and “The Ellen Show”. That is why the UFC is rooting for her to dethrone Nunes, believes the Brazilian.
“Honestly, I’m OK with it,” Nunes said at Thursday’s UFC 207 media lunch in Century City. “The only thing that I look for in my career is this thing right here—the belt. Be the champion. And whatever they want to do with Ronda, they can do. She promotes good. It’s gonna sell a lot of pay-per-views. This is the thing that I look for.”
She is right. Rousey, who has been a PPV draw for quite some time, is responsible for the economic success of UFC 207. Nevertheless, Nunes cannot be happy about her treatment, because her belt alone will not turn her into a superstar. There are currently enough examples in the UFC that prove this theory.