Editorial: The UFC’s card shuffling and sleight of hand

MMA fans undoubtedly began Tuesday with a familiar disappointment, as it was announced that Darren Till had been forced out of his April 10th…

By: Jordan Breen | 2 years ago
Editorial: The UFC’s card shuffling and sleight of hand
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

MMA fans undoubtedly began Tuesday with a familiar disappointment, as it was announced that Darren Till had been forced out of his April 10th middleweight main event with Marvin Vettori at UFC Vegas 23. Before the day was over, that dejection had quickly turned to elation, as late in the evening, it was reported that UFC 262 would now feature a welterweight contest between Nathan Diaz and Leon Edwards, in the company’s first ever five-round, non-title co-main event.

It was quite the magic trick, highlighting the UFC’s true promotional power. The maneuver, however, also speaks to the best and worst features of the company’s contemporaneous control of the sport.

Even with the revelation of Diaz-Edwards, it is nonetheless lamentable Till’s collarbone injury forced him out of an intriguing main event, topping an otherwise ho-hum card. Naturally, the UFC’s Johnny-on-the-spot Kevin Holland – he of nine fights in two years, many of them late replacements – has already volunteered to step in for Till, though he has yet to be officially slotted in. Whether it is Holland or any other middleweight doesn’t really matter though. It simply goes to show how fungible most of the UFC roster is at this juncture, because when it comes to the vast majority of its fights – especially with events on the scale of UFC Vegas 23 — any shuffle of the deck will do. The only real stakes in play now are whether said opponent could manage to upset Vettori, who is on a quest to avenge his split decision loss to UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya. Beyond that, little changes.

That fact doesn’t matter to the UFC, as its revenue tied to events of this stature is locked in, due to its $1.5 billion deal with ESPN. This is especially true in the current COVID-19 pandemic, in which there are no live crowds (at least not until April 24th if all goes according to plan). No live crowds means it doesn’t matter how good a card like this is or who is in the main event, because it can’t draw a live gate. There’s no adjusting ticket prices for a stellar event that would be better than the average.

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the Diaz-Edwards fight. For the casual sports viewer, this will be viewed as the true main event of UFC 262, with all due respect to Michael Chandler and Charles Oliveira’s lightweight title bout. Hence, Diaz-Edwards will get the historic honor of being the promotion’s first ever five-rounder in a co-featured contest – another little magic trick. Prior to this announcement, UFC 262 was an above average pay-per-view card, anchored by Chandler-Oliveira and another excellent lightweight bout between Tony Ferguson and Beneil Dariush. Now, due to Diaz’s star power alone, it will do outstanding numbers and be a major boon for the UFC.

As a headliner, Diaz has drawn huge coin for company. His star-making two-fight series with Conor McGregor drew an estimated 2.9 million pay-per-view buys combined, and that doesn’t even account for his bout with Jorge Masvidal, which while never confirmed, allegedly drew over 900,000 buys and did a $6.57 million gate. He organically became one of the biggest draws in the sport by beating McGregor, and in turn, his war with Masvidal helped make “Gamebred” a major draw. In his subsequent fight at UFC 251 this past July, he challenged welterweight champion Kamaru Usman – an unknown outside the MMA sphere – and racked up an estimated 1.3 million global PPV buys.

The UFC’s process of manufacturing stars doesn’t always work to perfection, but it has had considerable success recently. Now, when it does pan out, the promotion can utilize them any way it wishes to create its major pay-per-view outings which are the real meaningful, money-earning events it relies on beyond the ESPN money. However, what’s worth noting in this case, is that the major players I’ve discussed here – Diaz, Edwards, McGregor and Masvidal – are all fighters who in recent memory, have held out for more money, bigger fights and criticized the company, winding up on the sidelines for extended periods.

This is the connection to the bigger story that has dominated the week: the Jon Jones debacle.

I’m not suggesting that this is proof that Jones’ return is imminent whether or not he gets his financial demands to challenge UFC heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou. The key here is that even if Jones is a major box office attraction, the UFC can go on without him, because its financial security is assured and the company is free to put the squeeze on any fighter It desires. This is simply because UFC contracts are ceaselessly constricting and predatory, as they have no set termination date. Unless a fighter either fights out their contract or are released, they’re not going anywhere.

Do you think either Diaz or Edwards are fond of Dana White and Co. after how they’ve been treated over the years? Absolutely not. But, when the UFC needs to bolster a card or create a blockbuster, it has such a command on the sport’s top talent that it can almost always find a way to concoct a ploy to do so. Diaz and Edwards aren’t interchangeable the way a fighter like Vettori is to be certain, but if either were unwilling to fight, the promotion would simply line up some other attraction to draw eyeballs. They’re not replaceable, but rather the UFC will never have any explicit reason to kowtow to their demands. The UFC is now in a position where it’s too big to fail.

That’s the predicament Jones faces. The UFC’s bottom line is assured and it has amassed so much talent, locking them down with borderline draconian and unethical contracts. Thus, even with Jones being as big of a superstar as he is, the UFC has very little actual incentive to acquiesce to his demands, unless its top seven or eight fighters suddenly all drop dead of disease.

Jones deserves every penny of his demands, just as Diaz deserved his and Edwards deserved the major fight he now finally has. However, at no point in the immediate future will Jones be explicitly needed the way many UFC stars were in the past. Jones may ultimately get his druthers, but if that comes to pass, it will be on account of Dana White’s capricious nature and nothing else. Those maniacal whims are the only actual leverage any fighter has in the current UFC climate.

For better or worse, it really is a magical machine.

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Jordan Breen
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