The UFC isn't a star-making vehicle, it's an acquisition factory
After a truly strange weekend for mixed martial arts, it was fitting that one of the biggest stars of the sport had a star-making moment - in another sport(s) (entertainment) entirely. Ronda Rousey came away from her debut in the WWE to rave reviews, proving her talents and fame cross over.
Rousey is one of the few cases, of course, of a star who transcended their sport. Her performance at Wrestlemania wasn't just a success for Rousey, but, to steal a pro wrestling phrase, gave the rub to her former employers the UFC. Rousey's moment was also theirs.
Because osetsibly, Rousey's star was and will always be tied to the UFC brand. It was in their home, under their roof, that Rousey became a household name. To most people, the UFC made Rousey a star.
The truth is somewhere on the other side of the 'A Star Is Born'-spectrum (no, there isn't such a thing). Look no further than Dana White's headline-making statement that the promotion would be preparing a $500 offer to Anthony Joshua, the WBO, IBF, IOC, WWE, NBA heavyweight champion boxer from the UK. The hot takes were sizzling, of course. In so doing, White showed all how the UFC builds its stars: acquisitions.
But first, we must understand why of this before the what.
The UFC is a business. And businesses are about making money. This isn’t a cynical observation, by any stretch. The UFC has shamelessly wore its greed on it sleeve the last few years in a way that would have been unprecedented ten years ago. The UFC wants to make big money as often as possible.
You can’t blame them, of course. They are a business. They exist to provide a service and reap the financial rewards. When talking about the UFC, you either approach what they do sport of MMA (conveniently ignore that financial why of it or you accept that every choice has less to do with sport and more to do with green dollar bills.
Then let’s ask the question. How well does the UFC do business? Under ZUffa and the leadership of the Fertitta bros, pretty damn well. After all, they sold their stake for $4.2 billion dollars. There isn’t a better gauge for the quality of your business acumen than that. To reach to that valuation, a company must grow and to grow, they must acquire.
This makes the Joshua move not the outlier move it appears to be for UFC. This is part of the playbook that build their business.
Building a star means taking someone with no name brand recognition and putting them in a position time and time again to build it until they are a draw. We’ve seen the UFC try this approach before with the Sage Northcutt’s and Paige Van Zant’s of the world. With Sage, there’s still a lot of work left to do (even though he draws the eyeballs, he isn’t a star yet), but with Van Zant, the UFC has made her must-see TV.
Hold on, you say, Sage Northcutt draws big ratings bumps – didn’t you see that spike when he headlined the Prelims for UFC Fight Night in February? True, true, true. Northcutt is someone people will watch, but he’s not someone people ask to watch. He’s the Netflix of fighters. He’s the fighter you have playing in the background. He’s not the fighter you demand to see. That’s called a star.
Has the UFC ever manufactured a bonafide star? Someone that fans don’t just want to see, but need to see? If we take the biggest names in the sport, the pattern doesn’t pan out.
Ronda Rousey is example number one. Many critics would tell you she’s a product of the UFC. But that’s not being generous. Rousey was a name before she hit the UFC. Was she a big name? No. But she sure didn’t need the UFC to get the attention of the MMA media, who loved everything she was selling (and now she thinks their shit stinks – and every other media outlet). The UFC wanted to be in the Ronda Rousey business – they went after her.
There are a few who are UFC-made, no doubt. GSP had very little profile before the UFC. Jon Jones, too.
Jones and GSP are perhaps the best example of stars you could argue were built by the UFC. The UFC put them in a position to succeed again and again, to capitalize on their abilities in front of big audiences on big platforms.
GSP was booked in Montreal so often, the sheer energy in the arenas pulsed through the television and was impossible to deny. The famous quote where he told Matt Hughes ‘I was not impressed with your performance.’ Was because the UFC brought him in the cage after Hughes’ victory over BJ Penn. They featured him on The Ultimate Fighter. The UFC marketed him as a star and put him in a position to become a star.
With Jones, the UFC fast-tracked him to a number one contender match with Ryan Bader and then was quick to use him as a replacement for an injured Rashad Evans against Shogun Rua. After Jones won the belt, they booked him against every name in the LHW division they could – within a year he had decimated three former champions. Within two years, he’d added a fourth and the biggest trash talker in the business at the time. The UFC put him in a position to fight big names and Jones became a star.
Outside of GSP and Jones, going down the list doesn't produce many other hits. Brock Lesnar, Conor McGregor, Anderson Silva, Cyborg Justino. The big stars all had reputations that preceded them when they came to the UFC. Lesnar from his WWE days, McGregor was a known product in the UK and had the 'it' factor as soon as his first UFC fight. Silva had a run in Pride, Justino in Strikeforce and Invicta. The promotion simply decided it wanted to trade in their business. The business relationships were mutually beneficial – but leave no doubt who built the star.
It’s simple. If you own a business and you want to expand your business, you either get a huge investment to grow your core business or you acquire another business to add their services to what you do. The UFC determined that with women’s MMA there was money to be made, so they acquired Rousey and she made them bank.
Here’s where it plays out on an even more grand scale: the UFC hasn’t just done this for individual fighters, but entire rosters.
The UFC bought Strikeforce in 2011. They bought the WEC in 2006. They own license the rights to broadcast Invicta on Fight Pass (another form of acquisition).
Imagine where the UFC would be without Strikeforce. A who’s-who of fighters with name recognition came to the UFC via the Strikeforce purchase. Some are champions who headline cards (or anchor broadcast teams), like Daniel Cormier and Tyrone Woodley. Some are top fivers in their divisions like Luke Rockhold, Fabricio Werdum, Alistair Overeem, Yoel Romero, and Jacare Souza. Others came, made an impact, and left like Miesha Tate, Gegard Mousasi, Cung Le, Jake Shields, and Josh Thomson. Others, like Bobby Green and Gil Melendez are still featuring on main cards.
Imagine where the UFC would be without WEC. No Demetrious Johnson, Urijah Faber, Dominick Cruz, Jose Aldo, Donald Cerrone.
Imagine where the UFC would be without acquisition.
The UFC is a brand. It’s a platform. This has been central to their business strategy since White and the Fertitta’s got in on it. The UFC doesn’t make stars – it lets stars shine.
Rhys Dowbiggin @Rdowb
Rhys is the host of The Hurt Take on Not The Public Broadcaster