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More Champions, Less Problems? Should MMA Adapt a Boxing Model of Promotion?

The best business model any sports league can have is capitalizing on and sustaining the star power of their greatest talents. One way to do that in MMA is by making more weight classes so that there can be more champions. This way you give the best in each division the opportunity to hold a belt, which the UFC uses shamelessly as a marketing crutch. It’s certainly worth an attempt given the unwarranted number of interim belts being competed for. More Champions, Less Problems? Should MMA Adapt a Boxing Model of Promotion?The women’s divisions will benefit the most from this adjustment. 

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Matchups like Joanna vs Shevchenko and Joanna vs Waterson always cost at least one fighter in terms of promotional value. It also leaves money on the table on the promotional side because of the UFC’s penchant for short term profit. With only a 5-7lb gap in each division and more divisions, all three of these women would likely be sitting champions and their bouts could have been champion vs champion. Two champions almost always draw more attention than a champion and a contender.

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Dana’s message that the UFC puts on the fights that the fans want to see is a misdirection that has become institutionalized within their advertising. For one, bouts are not always booked despite fans’ clamor for them. Secondly, what they are really doing is seeking out short term buzz and immediately risking it by matching that fighter up with the next biggest challenge. Remember Rousey vs Holm, McGregor vs Mendes, and Garbrandt vs Dillashaw 2. This strategy has not worked well for them in maintaining PPV attractions, which is supported by the UFC signing a pay per view deal with ESPN that gives them a safety blanket against low selling PPVs. Now their PPVs are now behind an additional pay wall.

It is so hard to keep selling lots of PPVs if your champions keep losing the belt in a few years or less. Even harder when the women have only four weight classes and the 145lb title may not survive past its current champion. The UFC had a golden opportunity to profit from a transcendent star in Ronda Rousey, but they failed by rushing her into matchups that could decimate her marketability. They failed to protect her as a brand, and even worse, they flagrantly failed to build her back up as a competitor and as a champion by pairing her up with Amanda Nunes. For heaven’s sake the woman just got flatlined, and they match her up with one of the hardest hitters in women’s MMA history. That is remiss to put it mildly. 

A post shared by ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Amanda Nunes🦁 (@amanda_leoa) on Jan 8, 2017 at 5:38am PST

There is no reason why talents like Shevchenko should have been delayed this long to grasp a belt. Especially considering she was delayed because she was busy losing to the soon to be pound for pound queen of all women’s divisions. All loses hurt the mystique of these fighters because there are so few contests per year and such large gaps in between each contest.

Joanna may be the most marketable women’s fighter on the roster and fans say that she is not the same after losing one title fight to Rose Namajunas. A few fights later, suddenly she’s a loser because she does not look good against Shevchenko, who will likely crack the top five on the pound for pound list within two years. But after Shevchenko’s second loss to Nunes she was irrelevant because she was trapped at 135, like Joanna has been trapped between 115 and 125. Funny how the opportunity to win a belt changes the upside to a fighter’s entire legacy.

At the end of the day, nothing solidifies athletes in the spotlight more than retaining the title of champion for years on end. Most Americans know nothing about tennis, but they know Serena Williams keeps winning contests and they are reminded every time they see those NIKE commercials, billboards and posters in the stores.

The boxing model is corrupt and archaic, but they understand the value of longevity. There is still value in the way they pace the development of their fighters into becoming big and sustainable draws. Boxers pad their records shamelessly and the fans still pay to see it. With more weight divisions, there would be no need for padding, the divisions would be thinner and more of the top women would hold on to belts. This is consistent with the UFC marketing strategy anyway.

A post shared by ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Amanda Nunes🦁 (@amanda_leoa) on Aug 28, 2019 at 7:55am PDT

Champions like Rose are talented, but they are not helping the divisions by being taciturn and having negligible showmanship because the casual fans do not care. Under Ronda’s reign, Bantamweight was burgeoning. Everyone cared. Today most of the audience could care less about the women’s divisions and it’s disappointing. Ronda was very talented, yet it is clear today that the talent itself is not enough. The more belts you have, the better chance of a marketable athlete holding on to one and that is what the sport needs.  

There is nothing more on paper that Nunes could have proven up until today. She knocked out Ronda, she knocked out Holm, and then put to sleep Cyborg in under two minutes. But on December 14th she is scheduled as a feature bout under Colby Covington. Let that sink in.■

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