“Oh my god. How embarrassing is that?”
These were the words that came from the table next to mine after Chael Sonnen’s first cringe-inducing interview of Saturday evening. The one where he had compared himself to cigarettes before turning to the camera in David Caruso-like fashion and claimed that he “may be hazardous to your health”, looking for all the world that he was waiting for “Won’t Get Fooled Again” to kick off the opening credits to CSI: Miami.
I had successfully negotiated with the owner of the establishment to turn the TV from the NHL All-Stars skill competition to the UFC’s second Fox telecast. I knew that while it appeared to be a UFC neophyte crowd, they would surely fall as head over heels as I have with the sport and be glued to the human drama, the technique, and yes, a little organized violence. Then Sonnen spoke, and you could feel the air be let out of the room.
“Is this wrestling?” I heard another female patron ask. The evening had just become an uphill battle in the crusade to win over fans to mixed martial arts.
Recently, the “pro wrestling” antics of Sonnen and others have become a hot topic on MMASucka. Trevor Dueck wrote an article where he extolled the virtues of UFC/WWF crossover, and this past week on MMASucka Radio Canadian MMA personality Paul “The Mauler” Lazenby blasted anyone who thinks otherwise. Dueck and Lazenby are both great people. Dueck is an old-school WWF fan, while Lazenby is a former pro wrestler himself and friend of Sonnen’s. While I understand and respect their point of view, it may be time for them to step back and see how the other half lives.
Indeed, the most interesting Sonnen was on Saturday night were the fifteen minutes he spent in the cage doing battle with Michael Bisping. Not the Caruso moment before the fight, not the post-fight interview where he ripped off an old WWF interview from the 70’s. But since the crux of the argument of people who enjoy the pro wrestling antics is that it draws people to the sport, let’s examine that shall we?
Sonnen’s first foray into the pro wrestling style interviews was in the lead-up to his Middleweight title shot against Anderson Silva at UFC 117. He was lauded for his trash-talking abilities and there were many who agreed that Sonnen had done the best job possible in promoting the fight. Some analysts, including Yahoo’s Dave Meltzer, predicted a monster pay-per-view buyrates.
The fight itself was incredible, as Sonnen fought a blistering pace for over four rounds, punishing the champion before being caught in a submission in the final frame. But the monster business that Sonnen was supposedly driving? Well, that didn’t exactly happen. UFC 117 did 600,000 buys, no slouch by any standards. The numbers were up slightly from Silva’s previous defence against Demian Maia, but below what Silva had done the previous year against Forrest Griffin.
The most telling number is that of Silva’s defence after he fought Sonnen. Silva faced off against fellow Brazilian Vitor Belfort, a man who couldn’t be less like Sonnen if he tried. Belfort’s pre-fight talk centers more on his training and spiritual beliefs then anything that sounds like it came from Roddy Piper. Yet Silva-Belfort did 725,000 buys, easily besting the Sonnen number without any of the pro wrestling style interviews preceding it.
If Sonnen was drawing so many new eyeballs to the sport, why wasn’t his number against Silva greater than Belfort’s? Moreover, why did none of these Sonnen fans spend money to see his comeback fight against Brian Stann? Sonnen’s comeback fight against Stann after sitting out a CSAC suspension for elevated testosterone levels was featured on UFC 136, an event which drew a paltry 225,000 buys. That number was the lowest for UFC’s pay-per-view offerings last year.
Saturday’s Fox event, an event supposedly buoyed by the trash-talk between Sonnen and Bisping, failed to meet the numbers of UFC’s premiere Fox event. The Sonnen-Bisping segment had less viewers than the main event of Evans-Davis, so was it really Chael’s WWF spiel people were tuning in for, or the fights themselves?
The other name that gets bandied about when people speak to the advantages of WWF-style promoting is Brock Lesnar. Lesnar turned to MMA after being a WWF star and became the biggest draw in UFC during his career. This much is true. Was it really the WWF-style antics that made people want to see Lesnar though? Initially, perhaps. Lesnar’s UFC debut against Frank Mir did a good number based at least in part of people wanting to see how a “WWF guy” would do in the cage against a UFC fighter.
People liked what they saw and obviously continued to follow Lesnar. But did WWF theatrics really have much to do with it? Or was it because people saw the massive, agile Lesnar laying beatings on Mir, Heath Herring, and Randy Couture and decided he was a fighter worth paying attention to? The Heavyweight championship in any combat sport is considered the pinnacle, and when you have a Heavyweight champion that looks as impressive as Lesnar did in stopping his opponents, that’s basically a license to print money.
If it was based on the WWF tie-in, why did Lesnar never do those kinds of numbers while he was headlining WWF pay-per-views? WWF pay-per-views headlined by Lesnar in 2002-04 averaged between the 275,000-400,000 buy range. If so much of Lesnar’s appeal came from pro wrestling, why were his actual pro wrestling numbers less than half of the business he was doing in UFC?
Now other fighters are hoping to jump on the Sonnen bandwagon and use pro wrestling style hype to their advantage. Ronda Rousey is the latest doing the schtick, laying it on thick in recent interviews trash-talking her upcoming opponent Miesha Tate, as well as telling former women’s champion “Cyborg” Santos that Santos “has a dick”. Rousey went on to criticize UFC Welterweight Champion Georges St. Pierre for not being entertaining enough and saying that GSP has done all he can do for the sport.
I know Rousey is trying to get her name out there but this is just silliness. GSP is now the number one draw for the promotion. Dana White freely says GSP is the biggest star in the sport, even insisting that GSP is a bigger worldwide star than Wayne Gretzky (often to the chuckles of Canadians). GSP is also the prime example of how an athlete should carry themselves in public. Always affable and respectful outside of the cage, and a precision technician inside of it. The court of public opinion seems to rest on GSP’s side as well, as UFC events featuring the French Canadian since he became champion have topped 7.5 million buys. Rousey’s career pay-per-view total? Zero.
What the more vocal of the pro wrestling/MMA crossover audience fails to realize is that UFC is still struggling for mainstream acceptance. The pro wrestling shenanigans will do more harm than good in the long run in achieving this goal. The NFL is the top dog in mainstream sports right now, with over $9 billion in annual revenue. Who was the biggest story in the NFL this year? Tim Tebow. Tebow’s humble “aw, shucks” demeanor and constant shout-outs to his god are the kinds of wholesome stories that the mainstream media loves. As a confirmed and practicing atheist, I’m certainly not suggesting every fighter drop to a knee in prayer after every round, but Tebow’s story is one that people everywhere latched on to. Sonnen’s or Rousey’s have yet to permeate.
For years, the UFC struggled finding top-shelf mainstream sponsors for their product. I cringed a little whenever I heard Bruce Buffer yell out the slogan for Mickey’s Malt Liquor “get stung!”. Now the UFC has finally got excellent sponsorships with companies such as Bud Light and Harley-Davidson. Meanwhile, despite pulling good ratings on cable for a generation, Vince McMahon’s Monday Night Raw still finds itself lacking when it comes to top-flight sponsors. McMahon is also forced to accept a much lower ad rate than shows with comparable numbers. This is because corporate America views wrestling fans as low-income and low-education. Whether they’re right or wrong, perception is reality. Should UFC be trying to be more like the NFL or the WWF?
The ratings for Saturday night’s broadcast told another interesting story. Among the top markets tuning in were: Louisville, KY; Greenville, SC; Tulsa, OK; and Knoxville, TN. The UFC did almost double the number in those markets than they did in New York or Los Angeles. Mainstream sponsors appreciate the numbers in middle America, but assuredly they would like to see them stronger in the largest US markets, where many of them are headquartered. Making the presentation more like pro wrestling is not going to help matters in that area.
I love mixed martial arts. We are fortunate to be fans of the most exciting sport in the world. It’s aggressive yet technical, there are great human interest stories, it’s everything a fan of sports could want. I look forward to the day when this weekend’s Diaz-Condit fight is as highly anticipated as the Super Bowl the next day. Not one where people are looking down on what they see and are clamoring to have the TV put back on hockey players doing practice drills. Dragging MMA down to the level of pro wrestling is not what’s going to get it there.