As UFC President Dana White has often pointed out in the past, when you’re in the business of promoting fights, “bad shit happens every day”. Fighter injuries, market penetration, and ignorant lawmakers are just a handful of the obstacles one has to overcome in order to put on a successful event. But there’s one aspect of promotion, perhaps unique to combat sports, that probably gives White as much heartburn as any other: not being able to control the outcome of the fights.
Fighting, perhaps more so than any other type of live entertainment, depends a lot on creating characters and storylines that fans will pay to see. If you want to make money as a promoter, it’s not enough to just throw two dullards into a ring and have them slug it out, even if they are a couple of tough guys. Fans are inherently attracted to fighters who have personality, sometimes even disproportionate to their level of skill. Urijah Faber may have been defeated by both Renan Barao and Mike Brown, but who has the most followers on Twitter? (If you’re curious, it’s 273k for Faber, vs 32k for Barao and 26k for Brown.)
Of course, the UFC, being the profit-seeking institution that it is, wants its champions and top contenders to be popular. Combine a natural crowd-pleaser like Faber with a championship belt and you’ve got the potential for big, big dollars. But it doesn’t always work out that way. I wonder how bad White wanted to curse after Frank Mir slapped that miracle kneebar on Brock Lesnar? Or what about when Bigfoot Silva derailed the Alistair Overeem hype train? From a revenue perspective, Overeem vs Cain Velasquez for the UFC heavyweight title would have almost certainly garnered more pay-per-view buys than UFC 160 did, especially considering Cain had just destroyed Bigfoot only a year prior.
As we gear up for UFC 162, we may be entering another situation where the company has a big stake in seeing one fighter emerge victorious. UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva has for years been a bastion of the sport, with crossover appeal and a well-earned reputation for being MMA’s top pound-for-pound fighter. But at age 38, the Brazilian’s dominant reign is unlikely to continue on for too much longer. A super fight with UFC light-heavyweight champion Jon Jones could be a mega-event, but beyond that, the UFC’s investment in Silva is reaching the end of its time horizon.
Anderson could retire undefeated, riding off into the sunset as he passes the torch to the next generation. But if you were the UFC, wouldn’t you rather have Chris Weidman climb into the Octagon and emphatically snatch that torch right out of Silva’s hands? Weidman is young, photogenic, and supremely talented, traits that make him well suited to be the UFC’s new middleweight poster boy. If Weidman can manage to put a beat down on Anderson come fight night, the UFC doesn’t have to rebuild; it can skip straight to the part where the next champ is a household name.
At the end of the day, we can only speculate as to the UFC’s preferences, but it’s hard to deny the realities of cold hard cash. If Weidman does manage to pull off the upset, don’t be surprised to see dollar signs in Dana’s eyes when he buckles the belt around the new champion’s waist.