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The UFC Marketing Machine

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Conor McGregor, the brash Dublin native that fought Floyd Mayweather in a boxing match last August, is still widely regarded as the top star of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the promotion that the WME group bought for $4.2 billion in 2015. McGregor, the current Lightweight champion, formerly held the 145 LBS belt before he vacated the title to defend the championship of the 155 division. It was quite the promotional tool, one that UFC brass delightfully shoehorned into each division, as Conor received a shot at the Lightweight title before he ever defended the Featherweight championship he won after he defeated Jose Aldo.

Clearly, management wanted to market Conor as the two-division champion. But, the marketing monster that they created might come back to bite them.

When management saw their two-division project completed, McGregor posed on top of the octagon with two championships after he defeated Eddie Alvarez at UFC 205. Ronda Rousey suffered her second career loss and was TKO’ed into retirement a month later, cementing Conor as the top star in the organization by a large margin.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hPiw27AQYh0&w=560&h=315]

The problem is, the Irishman took his status as the top draw in mixed martial arts to the sport of boxing to make exponentially more cash for the previously mentioned Floyd fight than he made in the octagon prior to that. The rumored $100 million payday gave him much leverage in negotiations with UFC president, Dana White. Conor hasn’t fought in the cage since he posed with those two championships in November 2016, and questions remain about his status in the company.

Since the McGregor/Mayweather super fight, Max Holloway claimed the Featherweight belt after a pair of wins against Aldo, while Tony Ferguson beat Kevin Lee to win an interim Lightweight title last October. Theoretically, that would set up a Conor/Ferguson contest to determine a unified 155 lbs champion, but Khabib Nurmagomedov is scheduled to fight Ferguson at UFC 223 in April. Khabib, an undefeated contender with a record of 25-0, impressed the UFC pay-per-view audience just a few months ago when he won a lop-sided decision against tough challenger Edson Barboza at UFC 219. It remains unclear if McGregor will be stripped of the title or will be scheduled to fight the winner of Khabib/Ferguson.

To further complicate this situation, a video was posted on social media of Floyd as he walked into the octagon, implying a Mayweather/McGregor rematch could be in the future. On a recent edition of UFC Tonight, Dana suggested a rematch was possible. If Floyd actually signs to fight in the cage and/or if it would sell as well as the boxing pay-per-view is another discussion for another time. The point is, another “super fight” would take McGregor out of the championship conversation and halt the entire division for another extended period of time if he isn’t stripped of the belt. On the flip side, if he eventually is stripped, he will go from a two-division champion to a a non-champion without any title defenses, which would dilute the UFC’s original marketing plan.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IeZGfd7F0cw&w=560&h=315]

The bottom line is, the UFC pushed Conor as THE fighter of the organization, and it’s debatable if the return will be worth the investment. The opportunity cost was the ability to build other legitimate, money-drawing stars while both 145 lbs and 155 lbs divisions were halted so that Conor could fight Floyd in boxing for a mega paycheck. In some ways, that boxing match made McGregor bigger than the UFC because the payoff gave him the financial security to retire if he didn’t want to fight in the octagon again. It also forces the UFC to increase the money they offer him to step into the cage again. Basically, the UFC needs Conor more than he needs the organization right now.

While management put the pieces in place to give him the opportunity to win two belts, other talented fighters weren’t given the same chance to become major stars for the company. Outside of Stipe and Cormier, a bout that is penciled in for July, what UFC regulars truly boost numbers on pay-per-view? The price of UFC events was increased to $65 so who on the roster is really a draw to the casual fan? Keep in mind, diehard MMA fans will watch and appreciate the other talented fighters regardless, but the key to major money in any genre is the ability to draw the general public.

There can be tremendous action on a fight card, but if there aren’t stars to motivate the general public to buy the event then from a business prospective, the show isn’t as successful as it could be. A prime example is the event from last weekend, Rockhold vs. Romero for an interim belt. The show took place in Australia and featured some entertaining bouts, but the event isn’t expected to do major numbers because mostly unknowns were on the card. Rockhold and Romero are well-known among fight fans for their impressive skills, but neither athlete is necessarily known to the general public. Ironically, very similar to the lightweight division, the middleweight rankings are left unresolved because Georges St. Pierre was given a title shot four years after he vacated the welterweight title. GSP won the MW title and promptly vacated it, which made the entire title shot pointless.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1FFNghBq52I&w=560&h=315]

The sum of all this is, that it’s no coincidence that the only major stars currently on the UFC roster are Stipe and Cormier because they fight in divisions that aren’t diluted or halted. Sure, one could make the argument that Demetrious Johnson or Cyborg stand out in their respective divisions, but there’s not enough depth there to create bouts that are anything more than glorified exhibition contests. On the flip side, the lightweight division has the depth to create intriguing fights, but the ranks are halted because there are questions about if McGregor will actually defend a championship.

Khabib is a marketable star and the persona of the Russian grappler fighting the lavish McGregor could create an intriguing dynamic. The UFC invested a lot of promotional work into the process to market Conor as the top draw in the sport so at least at this point, a McGregor pay-per-view fight is the biggest draw the company has right now. After last year saw a decline in buys, it remains to be seems if the company can cash in the star power of McGregor this year.

What do you think? Comment below with your thoughts, opinions, feedback and anything else that was raised.

Until next week
-Jim LaMotta

E mail drwrestlingallpro@yahoo.com | You can follow me on Twitter @jimlamotta

MMA

UFC 249 has a long and adventurous story

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UFC 249 was originally planned to take place on April 18th in New York but, due to the ongoing pandemic, governor Cuomo restricted mass gatherings and sports events, confining everyone to their homes, leaving them with little more to watch than reruns of old fights and perhaps Game Changers. UFC president Dana White then announced that the event was still on but the location will change. Later, it was announced that it will take place at the Tachi Palace Hotel & Casino in Lemoore, California. ESPN and its parent company Disney didn’t like this, though, pressuring White to suspend the event for the time being – which he did. Finally, the event was rescheduled for May 9

Meanwhile, interesting news started circulating about a potential location for future UFC fight nights that, if it becomes a reality, might put an interesting spin on the world of mixed martial arts.

UFC Fight Island

Even before the issues with the event, White planned to arrange a brand new location where fight nights could be organized: a private island where athletes could train and fight.

“All the infrastructure is being built right now and getting put in place,” he told the press back in April. “As we get closer to that, then I’ll start figuring out booking fights, getting guys ready. Plus, I can ship guys over there earlier, and they can start training over there, on the island. So, once that’s all in place – we’re looking at like a month – I’ll have that all put together, and guys can start training and can go there.”

The UFC is serious about it: it has already registered several trademarks around the “UFC Fight Island” brand, covering several types of goods, services, even jewelry. 

When, and Where?

The “where” is still a mystery. Although he spoke repeatedly about the arrangements being made for athletes to be able to train and stay on the island, White has not revealed its location yet. Some theorize that it may be somewhere in international waters so it could serve as a place where international athletes could stay without restrictions, perhaps off the coast of California. But this is just a theory – all will probably be revealed in due time.

The “when” is a bit less vague: White told the press that UFC Fight Island will be operational by June. It will have amenities like an Octagon on the beach, and hotels for the fighters to be lodged at. And most importantly, it will allow international fighters to participate in fights, even with the pandemic-related travel restrictions still in place.

The idea of an island dedicated to fighting may sound familiar – it was the topic of the 2006 martial arts movie “DOA – Dead or Alive” and 2007’s “The Condemned”, among others. Let’s hope this one will have a happier ending.

As for UFC 249 ‘Ferguson vs. Gaethje’, that event will now take place at Vystar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida. 

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What Justin Gaethje’s past fights tell us about his chances at UFC 249

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It’s fair to say that Justin Gaethje has firmly taken up the role of underdog ahead of his clash with Tony Ferguson at UFC 249 on May 9th. The latest Tony Ferguson v Justin Gaethje betting offers present Ferguson as the clear favourite, after his opponent was drafted in at the last minute to replace Khabib Nurmagomedov, who is on lockdown in his home country of Russia. 

Gaethje is relatively inexperienced in the world of UFC, having fought just six times in the competition in the past. But his calibre from prior ventures in MMA, notably the World Series of Fighting, means that he is a fighter not to be trifled with, and while he won’t represent as formidable a challenge for Ferguson as Khabib would have, there is much to admire about the 31-year-old.

To understand fully Gaethje’s chances ahead of UFC 249, it’s important to analyse his performances in recent fights. Indeed, his past three bouts have resulted in impressive victories, with Gaethje winning Performance of the Night awards in two of those fights — against James Vick and Donald Cerrone respectively. 

But his UFC started off in disappointing fashion, with just one win from his first three fights. That victory came against Michael Johnson in the reality show The Ultimate Fighter: Redemption Finale, but from there he failed to gain a strong foothold in the championship. He suffered back-to-back defeats against Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier, including a knockout at the hands of the former, as he struggled to adapt to the competitive nature of the UFC.

Those defeats obviously shook Gaethje into life, because he has come roaring back in his last three fights, mustering up a trio of impressive performances to bring him to the level he finds himself at today, where UFC chief Dana White is drafting him to replace someone of the calibre of Khabib. 

The first of this trio of victories was a win over James Vick in August 2018, where Gaethje produced a fine display which silenced some of the doubters who had perhaps questioned his ability at the highest level. He won Performance of the Night for that one, and was then involved in the Fight of the Night the following March as he defeated Edson Barboza by knockout in Philadelphia. His most recent victory was a TKO triumph over UFC veteran Donald Cerrone in October last year, where Gaethje once again walked away with the Performance of the Night accolade. 

All three of his most recent wins have come via first round knockout or technical knockout, proof that Gaethje has the ability to overpower opponents in the opening stages of a fight. Of course, to do this against Ferguson will be a whole different ball game, as he is the most high-profile fighter Gaethje has faced so far, but perhaps the key lies in ensuring he comes out all guns blazing early on.

Gaethje’s Performance of the Night wins indicate that he is capable of producing a show-stopping performance on any given night. He is undoubtedly the underdog going into the fight against Ferguson, but with a few good wins now under his belt, who’s to say he can’t spring a surprise on May 9th and truly announce himself in the UFC. 

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UFC to provide a welcome sports fix for hungry fans

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UFC 249 had promised to be a rare occasion of a sports event going ahead, but the April 18th showpiece ultimately fell victim to the coronavirus outbreak, and was cancelled. However, UFC chief Dana White is not one to be put out, and so came the recent announcement that there would be a series of UFC fight nights in May.

It’s a great chance for fans to see some sporting action, for fighters to keep in shape and perhaps make a name for themselves in these strange circumstances, and for people stuck in lockdown to have some alternative entertainment, something a bit different from Joe Wicks workouts or Zoom quizzes! Here, we look at why these UFC fight nights will be welcomed by so many people.

Live action

The sporting world has basically been at a standstill since the coronavirus pandemic has swept across the globe. It feels like an eternity ago that we were watching horse racing’s Cheltenham Festival and Liverpool’s exit from the Champions League, but the measures put in place by the government to protect the public meant that most events had to be cancelled. 

And so, the news that there will be some live sporting entertainment in the form of several UFC fight nights will give sports fans that much needed fix of live action. Sports nuts all over the world have been forced to make do with virtual championships and races, or with trawling the archives to reminisce on past sporting occasions, but now White and co. have brought some welcome live sporting action back to our screens.

Mouth-watering match-ups

Of course, these are not just any old fighters going head to head. Some of the best in the business will be battling it out, not least Tony Ferguson who takes on Justin Gaethje on May 9th. The Tony Ferguson odds have him as hot favourite for the bout, but Gaethje will be a man on a mission on fight night to prove he has what it takes to cause a stir at the highest level of the sport. 

May 9th sees two other interesting clashes, as Henry Cejudo takes on Dominick Cruz for the Bantamweight Championship, and Francis Ngannou meets Jairzinho Rozenstruik. The Cejudo vs Cruz fight features two men with similar records, and will therefore be an intriguing clash as both try and prove themselves on the big stage. Meanwhile, Rozenstruik will be trying to defend his 10-fight unbeaten record as he takes on Ngannou, and so there will be plenty on the line in that one.

A welcome distraction

Perhaps one of the key benefits of these fight nights is that they will provide a welcome distraction from the sad news and gloomy headlines we’ve all been reading in recent weeks. Sport has the power to unite people and spark a feel-good factor among the public.

Although the UFC may not be everyone’s cup of tea, it’s a chance for a lot of people to get to know a sport they perhaps wouldn’t have considered watching before, and few sports have to power to grip and entertain like mixed martial arts. Many people are craving a dose of live sporting action, and thanks to the UFC, that sporting fix is not too far away.

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