Many fighters in the UFC find themselves in the dilemma of wholeheartedly devoting themselves to the craft of mixed martial arts, only to find out that their real payday will actually come from the craft of marketing. It’s like the old thought experiment question of: “if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Except, in this case, it’s if one fighter beats another, but nobody is there to witness it, does it even matter?
On one hand, you have rankings. The very concept of rankings forms the backbone of all sports: the better your ranking, the more accomplished you are in your sport. It provides an empirical way to identify someone being better, more capable, or more deserving that another, versus being inferior, less capable, and less deserving than someone ranked higher than them. In many sports, but especially in combat sports, rankings also provides a clear way to determine the proverbial “pecking order” of who gets the next opportunity to compete against — and possibly defeat — the reigning champion, or person with the top ranking.
In any given professional sport, athletes don’t get these incredible salaries based on whether they win or lose. They don’t make more money than the next performer if league observers deem them to be better than the other. Professional athletes get paid these incredible salaries because the amount of money being made available to them, thanks to the enormous television, multimedia, and sponsorship deals that are made to promote their performances. In other words: they get because people want to watch them, and because intermediaries will pay for the rights to broadcast their performance. The Super Bowl might showcase the two best professional football teams, but it’s one of the grandest events in all of sports because it’s the one of the two most watched sporting events on the planet (next to the World Cup Finals in Soccer).
Unfortunately, the same thing applies to the UFC. Fighters might have to come to the unfortunate realization that their payday isn’t going to come from simply being better than their opponent, but instead from the ability to beat a given opponent while drawing the maximum number of viewers in the process. The former might produce a great fight, but the latter produces a money fight.
And yet, money fights are a little bit of a double-edged sword, when it comes to the actual product that’s being put out there. A bout is considered a “money fight” because of the fact that there are a large number of people who are willing to pay a sizable amount of money to see the bout take place. That obviously implies that there’s a demand for such a bout, which would inherently translate that there’s a demand to see certain individuals performing in said bout. But, there often isn’t a linear correlation between the fighters the fans want to see perform, and the fighters who are performing the best in their sport at that given time.
In Hollywood, certain actors will always draw viewers to the box office, irrespective of how good the film is, or whether there’s someone who is a more capable actor than them. The same could very likely be said about the UFC; fans want to see certain athletes fight — as opposed to others — sometimes irrespective of whether or not they’re the best in the game. Whether it’s the concept of simple recognition, banking on past performances, or some type of personal affinity towards the fighter, certain fighters draw fans, and others don’t. And thus, the former fighters are the ones who are more privy to money fights, and the latter fighters aren’t.
So, it basically comes down to this: what do UFC fans really want? It seems inherent that sports fans want to see the best possible event in that particular sport, or see the best performers compete against each other. That’s why we love sports in the first place: to experience he thrill of victory and lament the agony of defeat experienced by the most skilled competitors in that sport. Ultimately, fans are going to want to see the fighters who “entertain” them the most, through a combination of both outside-the-octagon bravado and inside-the-octagon skills. It’s just a simple fact that fighters can’t have one without the other.