As UFC 200 looms, the company is facing the same problem it’s faced since day one: it’s marketing is forced to focus on individuals who are often found to be physically fallible. The injury bug hits often and it hits hard in a sport as demanding as this.
Growing up, football was my first love. The glorious nature of your favourite team sport, whatever it may be, is that it sells itself. You played it as a kid, and as such you know the all technical intricacies that make it wonderful. At the same time, you have a team you root for, come rain or shine. Even if half of the team are injured (like Tottenham Hotspur’s ‘lasagne-gate’ foodbug illness of 2006 that still gives me nightmares) you don’t care, because you still have a TEAM to root for.
And therein lies a major problem within MMA, and for the UFC’s marketing department. MMA is very much an individual sport. It’s up there with track running as a ‘you’re really on your own’ kind of game. You can put your time in at the best MMA gym in the World (that’s Jackson-Winkeljohn in New Mexico, by the way) and have the best training partners in that gym, but every fan knows that when the Octagon door closes, you’re on your own. And what happens when you succeed passionately and explosively after that door closes, is that fans want more of you- right now!
For me the classic example of fan excitement from a single, seemingly random fight was Khabib ‘The Eagle’ Nurmagomedov fighting Abel Trujillo. A strange looking small man from the Dagestani region of Russia entered the arena wearing an odd hat of sheepskin. To the casual fan this was probably someone that was going to get KO’d by the physically imposing Trujillo, whom we were told had great boxing. Khabib then threw Abel around for 15 straight minutes. Literally. It was genuinely amazing to watch. Nurmagomedov became an insta-hit after the fight, having broken a take-down record due to having suplexed a depressed looking Trujillo time after time. Occasionally it looked as though Khabib let him get back to his feet just to get a better angle on his next throw. Fans loved this guy- they wanted more of this guy- right now!
Unfortunately for the fans, the totality of a standard UFC fight isn’t simply a 15 minute explosion of violence, but a three-month training build up, followed by said 15 minute explosion. Let’s remember that this is without question the toughest sport on earth. It’s fighting. If we were all logical about this, we’d have to accept that injuries are going to happen a lot during the three-month training camps. So much can go wrong. Single incident injuries, like a freak concussion from a knee during sparring can, and has, stopped full careers indefinitely. TJ Grant hasn’t fought for three years due to suffering the infamous head trauma, despite being on a five-fight win streak and being told he’d fight for the lightweight title. Equally problematic, recurring injuries are common to the areas highly pressured on a fighter. The ACL injury is the culprit for our example Khabib Nurmagomedov, flaring up virtually every time the lightweight monster gets booked for a fight in the last five years or so, making him so desperately sparse in fights.
— khabib nurmagomedov (@TeamKhabib) April 18, 2016
The unfortunate thing for the UFC, though, is that there can be no expectancy for the casual fan to be so logical about the nature of injury. Once a fan has seen a fighter do something exciting, and as such has latched an attachment to that person, that’s the one they want to see again. And so frustration to the fan happens over and over again when UFC cards are changed countless times, so that the eventual card bears no resemblance to the original card announced. How can we expect the casual fan to stay up to date with the continuous changes in the hope of seeing the same guy they were to impressed with previously? Even I, as a ‘hardcore’ fan, have written that I check MMA news sites almost daily just to keep up with the injury news. Honestly, it’s ridiculous at times. But just because I’m used to it, doesn’t mean I expect new fans to put up with it. If you settle in front of the TV to watch Manchester United or the New England Patriots, that’s who you’ll see, injuries or no. But with the UFC, you might ask for Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz, but end up with…Gegard Mousasi and Derek Brunson?
Of course, it wasn’t injury that has kept Conor and Nate off of the UFC 200 Card, but that’s a whole other topic. But the fact is that this is meant to be the UFC’s largest ever event, and so far things aren’t stacking up too great.
This is what we’ve got for the main event: The Jones v Cormier light heavyweight rematch, which is great news. But beyond that we’ve an interim belt scrap between Aldo and Edgar which feels utterly pointless. First because Aldo already beat Edgar as the actual champion, second because everyone is completely sick of ‘fake’ interim belts, and third because this is Conor’s division now- so give us Conor! Then you have Miesha Tate defending her belt. Great! Against Rousey or Holm? Errr…against Nunes…? Pass. Finally we have ex-champs Velasquez (very injury prone) and Hendricks (missing-weight prone) in less challenging events against top 10ers. Is this really shaping up to be the biggest event of all time? Dana White says he has a major announcement coming up- but my problem is not even the current weak nature of the card, it’s the fact that in three months time when UFC 200 comes about- half of the fights will be different.
So can the UFC do anything about this injury-epidemic? Not really. The UFC has already become more controlling of fighters in recent years what with the Reebok deal (fighters have to wear a ‘kit’, meaning sponsorship is severely limited) and the UFC have always been deeply against any kind of fighter unionisation. The only way the UFC could attempt to limit fighter injuries would play the role of the ‘nanny state’ once again and perhaps contractually ban certain sparring practices, but I’m sure this would be seen as a step too far. I remember after Jose Aldo broke his rib the first time he was supposed to fight McGregor, UFC owner Lorenzo Ferttita personally bought him a protective vest such was their frustration with the injury-prone star. This was a hint at the kind of control the top bosses would like to have.
Until we get this kind of top-down fascist-style rule, however, all I can say to new fans is this: the coming together of a UFC event will probably have more twists and turns than the event. Embrace the change! Your chosen fighter may not appear for six months after you thought he would- but unlike a three-round heavyweight slugfest on the undercard of a FOX TV event might suggest, this is indeed a sport of patience.