Watch the 30-second spot for Sunday night’s UFC Fight Night, and you’d be forgiven if you couldn’t figure out who this Conor McGregor guy was fighting. Dennis Siver receives less than a second of screen time, and he’s seen standing in the shadows – a poetic touch whether it was intentional or not. Siver’s name shows up on the end title card for a whole five seconds, but even then McGregor’s name takes up roughly 23% more screen space.
The slanted promotion is also evident in the UFC’s Youtube playlist for the event. Of the 28 listed videos, eight titles suggest content that focuses completely on McGregor; one title – the generic “Dennis Siver Pre-Fight Interview” – focuses on his opponent.
This, apparently, has led to some backlash, or at least enough perceived backlash for Lorenzo Fertitta to address it. Fertitta told MMA Junkie, “It was kind of just a taste, and also we just wanted to get you guys pissed off and riled up.” (Later in the article, Dana White provided some balance when he noted that Siver was not “some bum that was swept in.”)
This backlash, real or imagined, is misguided. Best Fight Odds, which aggregates betting lines from the major online sportsbooks, lists McGregor as an 11.5-1 favorite. If it seems the UFC is portraying Siver as a mere stepping-stone for McGregor, it’s because he is. The UFC isn’t promoting the McGregor vs. Siver fight on Sunday night. They’re beginning their promotion of the Aldo vs. McGregor fight coming up later in the spring or summer.
And what’s the alternative? Do you hype Siver, heading into the fight as a MASSIVE underdog, as a realistic threat? The UFC’s done that before. Take, for instance, the promo for St-Pierre vs. Hardy from UFC 111. The promo acknowledges St-Pierre being fighter of the year in 2009 and that he beat the best to become the best while showing a montage of him demolishing fellow welterweights. Then this: “But in this game, there’s always somebody better.” Close-up on Dan Hardy.
Or how about this excerpt from a promo video for Silva vs. Okami at UFC 134? After detailing Silva’s resume as the pound-for-pound king, Mike Goldberg says, “Riding a three-fight winning streak of his own, Okami’s strength and power makes him the greatest threat Silva has faced as champion.” Yushin Okami had a long run as a top middleweight, but top middleweight does not greatest threat make.
When it comes down to it, good promotion is about good storytelling. The story on Sunday is about Conor McGregor and his inevitable showdown with Jose Aldo. Dennis Siver is not a bum, and, however unlikely, he could beat McGregor on Sunday night. That would be the story on Monday morning, and promoting Siver as something more than he is would betray that story.
For all their success as a business, the UFC has never been particularly great at the fight promotion side of things. Unless the story tells itself (Jones vs. Cormier, St-Pierre vs. Diaz, Silva vs. Sonnen, etc.), we end up with things like the delightful “greatness within reach” pun from UFC 165 or the cookie-cutter “[challenger] has all the tools to beat [the champion]!” The promotion for Sunday’s Fight Night has been a refreshing divergence from their typical efforts, and an effort lauded, not derided.