Original image by Justin Moore, altered under a Creative Commons license.
Original image by Justin Moore, altered under a Creative Commons license.
It took Junior dos Santos 64 seconds to claim the UFC heavyweight title from Cain Velasquez on Saturday night. The punch that took it was a well-timed and even more well-placed overhand right that left Velasquez effectively defenseless. MMA is not a sport that easily lends itself to comebacks. Abrupt endings are inevitable when a 240-pound man wants badly enough to make you unconscious.
When the post-fight formalities were over, Fox’s cameras cut to neophyte MMA analyst Curt Menefee, who deferred to his more experienced partner. The difference here being that his partner was UFC President Dana White, who proceeded to show the world—MMA fans, curious first-timers, anyone who happened to catch UFC’s debut on Fox—that he had mastered Eric Cartman’s shitting-out-of-your-mouth technique. White, unlike Cartman, wasn’t satisfied with that incredible repudiation of basic human physiology. No, the UFC’s president had to shit on something. The somethings he chose were his former and current heavyweight champion.
And that’s how a typical display of MMA’s chaotic nature and dos Santos’ signature power were recast as a bad, stupid thing—the natural result of Velasquez fighting foolishly against a one-dimensional foe—which in turn recast a heavyweight title fight as an anti-climactic scuffle pitting an idiot against some non-athlete. At the risk of belaboring things, the person doing this was the president of the UFC, whose job is supposed to be spinning any result into a story that makes the viewers care. I’ve followed the sport for over a decade, and even I was starting to wonder if I should keep caring.
In less time than it took dos Santos to win the heavyweight title, White reached the apex of the mindless white noise he delivered throughout the evening’s nearly 40-minute buildup. With his hand visibly shaking, White yelled himself hoarse, taking Menefee’s even tone as an invitation to turn the dial up to 11. Any viewer unaccustomed to White’s (um) style, had to be wondering why the loud man in the shiny black suit was channeling Howard Beale. Brock Lesnar, who joined Menefee and White on the analyst’s table, came off as a 280-pound meat cube of charm by comparison. This was the same meat cube who once celebrated a win by bashing UFC sponsor Bud Light and declaring carnal intentions with his wife.
This is the alternate reality the UFC occupies as a niche sport supposedly hell-bent on mainstream acceptance. The promotion’s president calls a reporter a “bitch” and her source a “faggot”; UFC color commentator Joe Rogan, who’s probably best-known as the host of rebooted national disgrace Fear Factor, goes even further. Somehow, the guys locked in a cage brutalizing each other are the ones who end up looking sane. Except when they don’t: Former UFC light heavyweight champion Forrest Griffin made a string of rape jokes in the days leading up to the UFC’s debut on Fox, although at least he had the decency to—eventually—offer an unconditional public apology and make a donation to the Las Vegas Rape Crisis Center. This puts Griffin a notch or two above Joe Rogan and Dana White on the grand scale of “Holy shit, how do you still have a job?” Their transgressions are a lot of baggage for a sport angling for mainstream acceptance.
Of course, the UFC was doing pretty well without that elusive mainstream imprimatur. After years of relentlessly strip-mining the white male 18-34 demographic, the UFC posted roughly 10 million pay-per-view buys in 2010. The promotion, which keeps its exact PPV buy numbers private, trumpeted that good news to anyone who would listen and promised more of the same to come.
But the UFC is facing a drop in PPV buys that will end up somewhere in the 25 percent range at year’s end. Injuries to the promotion’s precious few stars and a clusterfucked economy carry some of the blame, but so does a failure to give old fans a good reason—and new fans any reason—to tune in. Years of investing in the UFC as a brand came at the cost of investing in individual fighters capable of taking the promotion’s value to the next level, a fact embodied by its lone pair of reliable PPV stars: Brock Lesnar, whose star power is owed almost entirely to the WWE, and reigning welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre, whose fervent following in his native Canada has been free money for the UFC.
The UFC’s contribution to the fame of their two biggest stars boils down to providing the cage and a camera. Until recently, the promotion’s idea of an effective ad campaign consisted of generic nu-metal played over knockout clips with Mike Goldberg and/or Joe Rogan screaming “OHHHHH!!!” Just as problematic is the promotion’s notoriously combative history with the media. Credential-related dickishness with regard to smaller MMA-focused websites is one thing, but the UFC’s public squabbles with mainstream outlets such as ESPN and CBS Sports contradict its stated desire for mainstream exposure.
Add it all up, and you’ve got a product with a fan base of hardcore lifers, but no avenue to the new sources of income and exposure it needs to sustain its own growth. The seven-year, multi-platform deal with Fox—and a proud Mexican-American heavyweight champion in Velasquez—looked like possible solutions. But while the Fox family of channels is committed to over 2,200 hours of UFC programming in 2012, and Velasquez still offers the promotion’s first real hope of cashing in on the popularity of combat sports with Mexican audiences, Saturday was proof that neither Fox nor Velasquez can fix the UFC’s problems. Not all of them, at least, and certainly not the biggest one.
“To all you artists out there, who don’t wanna be on a record label where the Executive Producer’s … all up in the videos, all on the records, dancin’ … then come to Death Row!”
When Suge Knight bellowed those famous words in the direction of P. Puff Poppa Swag Daddy at 1995’s Source Awards, he revealed the blunt perception that a sociopathic streak can give. Hip-hop fans were getting tired of Sean Combs being “all up in the videos,” especially given that his talents were limited to producing poppy beats that gummed up the established, rugged East Coast sound. By the turn of the millennium, Combs’ solo career fizzled and his credibility had taken more shots than Club New York. A generation of would-be heads knows him best as the guy who sent a bunch of aspiring rappers on a moonlit walk across the Brooklyn Bridge so they could fetch him a cheesecake from Junior’s.
There is a lesson here for White, if he wants to see it: success isn’t always a pathway to more success. For all of White’s considerable personal and professional faults, he played a vital role in the UFC going from punch line to multi-billion dollar business in less than a decade. If not for him, the UFC may not have survived and the sport of MMA may well have joined it in the same grave. But even before he aimed his Cartman-ian shit-stream at his promotion’s would-be champion, it was clear that White was not the man to lead the way on UFC’s run at the mainstream, at least not in any sort of public capacity.
Lorenzo Fertitta, Chairman/CEO of Zuffa LLC, and by extension, of the UFC, has taken on a more prominent role within the organization, firing rumors of an internal power struggle. The other rumor, this one longer-simmering, concerns the Fertitta brothers looking to sell the UFC as the cost of doing business grows in lockstep with the promotion’s constant push for more exposure.
Whether it’s the men above him on the UFC totem pole looking to cash out or the promotion’s own intrinsic incompatibility with mainstream norms, White’s spot as the face of the UFC and MMA as a whole is already under the microscope. The culture White has made synonymous with the UFC is one that bristles at change and rails against critique, which is not the easiest way to enter—let alone exist comfortably within—the mainstream. This suggests that White’s leg of the run toward major-sport status may be about over.
At the end of his post-fight LOUD NOISES on Saturday, White took a rare beat before saying, with a grin that was now shit-eating, “But what do I know?” White had a lot to do with getting the UFC onto Fox last weekend, and that’s something. His “what do I know?” was rhetorical. But it didn’t feel that way to many UFC fans.