With its 200th fight, the UFC finds itself smacked by issues and rumors of a sale — but it remains an unstoppable force
The words human cockfighting hung over mixed-martial arts for a long time. Which is not entirely how you want your image framed by a United States senator.
John McCain has been the nation’s highest-ranking boxing devotee for years now, and a champion of fight game reforms. He’s the architect of both the Professional Boxing Safety Act and the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act, the latter designed to protect fighters from some of the more predatory aspects of the business.
So in 1996, when he dropped the cockfighting bomb on MMA, it sealed a 36-state ban on the sport. That all melted away over time, particularly after Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta bought the growing, but niche, Ultimate Fighting Championship in 2001 for $2 million. It took until this March for New York to relent and legalize MMA, the last state to do so. But that “human cockfighting” tag still hovers like a dark cloud. It’s just that now it feels more germane to everything outside the octagon.
The milestone UFC 200 is set for July 9 at the T-Mobile Arena, the first card at the shiny new venue and the presumptive future home of every major MMA fight in the city for the foreseeable future. The neat round number aside, breaking in the new digs would make UFC 200 enough of a reason to ponder the state of Las Vegas’ most prominent sports franchise. But MMA gotta MMA. It’s a sport with more-is-more excess in its DNA. Why have just one prominent issue when half a dozen will do?
After Ronda Rousey set out to humiliate Bethe Correia in her native Brazil at UFC 190 in August, and succeeded by any possible metric, the rumor mill spun, salivating at the possibility of a UFC 200 supercard with the then-unbeaten Rousey, as well as the unbeaten-in-UFC Irish smack-talk-Picasso Conor McGregor. It could make for a legendary event. UFC 200 was nearly a year away at that point, but both fighters seemed like the kind of unstoppable punishment machines who would cruise through their next fights. Combat sports, though, tend to be as unforgiving of hubris as Greek tragedy.
Rousey was knocked out in her next outing, in November. The following month, McGregor needed all of 13 seconds to evaporate top rival Jose Aldo’s head with one punch. But in March, McGregor flew too close to the sun by jumping up 15 pounds (two weight classes) to fight Nate Diaz, who stunned the MMA universe by forcing McGregor to tap out. With Rousey’s temporary withdrawal from the sport — she says her loss to Holly Holm left her contemplating suicide — what once seemed inevitable became precarious.
An expected McGregor-Diaz rematch for UFC 200 blew up in April when the UFC asked McGregor to go on a promotional tour. Claiming it disrupted his training schedule, the Irishman dug in his heels, tweeting that he was retiring young. It touched off a civil war between the fighter and pugnacious UFC boss Dana White. McGregor fanned the flames on rumors of a fight with retired boxing king Floyd Mayweather — a circus that would’ve ended in embarrassment for McGregor if contested under boxing’s rules. White insisted McGregor’s UFC contract precluded him from outside fights. The mutual loathing in the subtext of this war put real housewives to shame. When there was finally a thaw in June, all White had to do was get Diaz on board. Just days later, TMZ spotted White storming out of a meeting with Diaz.
Finally, the rematch was announced for UFC 202 in August at the T-Mobile, when at the same time, it was revealed that Brock Lesnar, the former wrestler-turned MMA fighter-turned wrestler, would switch jobs again and appear on the UFC 200 card, his first since 2011. It’s easy to see why the UFC lured Lesnar back. According to industry watcher Dave Meltzer, of the 11 UFC pay-per-views that notched more than a million buys, four featured Lesnar, a guy who looks like the Platonic ideal of a high school bully crossed with the Hulk on one of his more angry days.
Great news, right? No, of course not. Hours before the UFC officially released the news during the UFC 199 broadcast, highly respected fight reporter Ariel Helwani broke the scoop. For his dogged commitment to well-sourced journalism, the UFC banned him for life. The furor of a scorned press and irate public was swift, and Helwani was reinstated two days later. Damage control at its least subtle.
The Helwani incident did obfuscate the other controversial aspect of the Lesnar announcement. Namely, that a mandatory four-month drug testing period required by the UFC and the United States Anti-Doping Agency for athletes coming out of retirement would be waived for Lesnar. His opponent, Mark Hunt, said he thought Lesnar was “juiced to the gills.” The UFC has been adamant about strict testing in the sport. Lesnar immediately went into the testing protocol, but that’s only a month’s worth of surveillance.
Hanging over all of this is increasing smoke about the possibility of the entire promotion being sold. ESPN business reporter Darren Rovell originally broke the story in May about how Zuffa LLC — UFC’s ownership group comprising the Fertitta brothers, White and the government of Abu Dhabi — was in advanced talks with four separate bidders to sell UFC for $3.5 to $4 billion. Then, on June 20, the site FloCombat.com reported that it had confirmed a $4.2 billion sale to an ownership group that included the Ari Emanuel-headed talent agency WME-IMG and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, which would remove the Fertittas from the picture but keep White on board. White adamantly refuted the first story; as of press time, UFC had issued a strong denial of the second to its employees and suggested it may take legal action against media outlets.
Longtime fighter Randy Couture, however, indicated that he knew the sale was a done deal from his sources inside the organization.
The original sale report came just days after U.S. Rep. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., announced he’d be sponsoring legislation to make the Ali Act apply to MMA along with boxing. Among other things, it would require promoters to open the books and show fighters just how much money events bring in. Some have estimated that fighters in the UFC take in as little as 15 percent of total revenues, far behind the 40-50 percent athletes in other pro leagues get. Applying the Ali Act is seen as a move that would favor fighters and help drive up their share of the pie.
Lorenzo Fertitta said at the end of last year that UFC generated $600 million in revenue, a record, and a significant jump from roughly $520 million in 2014.
So any consideration of the state of UFC finally becomes a question of whether these controversies will slow the juggernaut. Individually, not a chance. Even collectively, it seems unlikely, with only the Ali Act having any real potential to damage UFC’s bottom line. If the sale rumors are true, all this does is force Zuffa to weigh billions now against more billions down the road. Las Vegas’ premier league has joined the ranks of the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB: institutionally entrenched, too big to fail and going nowhere in our lifetime.