BOSTON — One of the more bad-blooded battles at the UFC this week didn’t involve fighters. Instead, Boston city council president Steven Murphy waged war against the mixed martial arts organization, supporting a petition that would ban minors from UFC events, even if they were accompanied by adults.
UFC president Dana White claimed that Murphy had a vendetta against the company due to the influence of the Las Vegas culinary union, which is embroiled in a dispute against Station Casinos, a group run by the UFC’s co-owners Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta.
Murphy denied that he had any knowledge of the culinary union, saying the UFC’s cage fighting product promoted anti-social behavior. But that didn’t sit well with White.
“This Murphy guy is a stereotypical politician. He's a bad guy… typical liar politician,” argued White.
If White seemed annoyed with the situation it was because the UFC was staging an event in Boston on Saturday that was the highlight of the launch-day for the Fox Sports 1 network, a channel available to 93 million US homes.
Further local resistance against the UFC came from the enforcement of a previously ignored state law requiring all fighters to obtain social security numbers, a difficult task given that many of the organization’s competitors are not US residents. The implementation of the rule seemed strange given that the UFC had an event in Boston without any such headaches in 2010.
Even though it has existed for nearly 20 years, the UFC has not received complete mainstream acceptance and MMA remains illegal in New York. White says that opposition in New York is also driven by the culinary union dispute. The increased mainstream exposure of the UFC following its television deal with Fox makes it a bigger target for interest groups, which is further augmented by the company’s reported $2 billion valuation.
Despite all the hindrances, or “gnats” as White called them, the Boston public ultimately rallied behind the UFC on Saturday, with a crowd of 12,539 (including some of the folks pictured above, who didnd't seem to care that UFC didn't find it smooth sailing in putting this card together in Boston) turning up at the TD Garden to generate $1.53 million in gate revenue. Moreover, some of the states most notable figures, namely New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Boston Celtics CEO Wyc Grousbeck, were cageside to lend their support.
The attendance was down from the 15,575 that resulted in a $3 million gate in 2010. A key factor was likely the absence of a title fight on Saturday’s card. The larger problem for the UFC is that as its brand has gained greater exposure, its number of star fighters has diminished. Crossover names such as Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Randy Couture, Tito Ortiz and Brock Lesnar have departed, while its current leading draw, Georges St Pierre, has been plagued by injury. Some critics argue that the UFC has become overexposed and its popularity has peaked. White counters that the number of big name stars is a cyclical issue and not a problem with its model. He believes that given further promotion new big names will emerge.
“We promoted some of those guys [Couture, Ortiz, St Pierre] for years and years before they became big,” he said. “We’ll see it happen again in time.”
While Saturday’s card may have lacked star power, it compensated with an array of competitive matches involving some of its most talented fighters. In all there were 13 bouts that saw exciting action and outstanding performances. There were upsets [Chael Sonnen’s submission of Mauricio Rua and Travis Browne’s knockout of Alistair Overeem] and impressive displays from charismatic young fighters [Conor McGregor and Michael McDonald] who could potentially become big draws for the company.
In the absence of crossover stars the UFC must stage big cards that are loaded with competitive matchups. But when there are a larger number of dates to fill there is a strain on the top talent. The company is in a difficult situation as it wants to build its brand and gain greater acceptance, while avoiding a watered-down product.
Time will tell whether the UFC’s model of increasing exposure is sustainable enough generate increased long-term popularity. Its ratings on Fox will be scrutinized, but White isn’t too concerned about Saturday’s figures, noting that the launch of a new channel takes time to resonate with the public.
On Saturday the UFC put on the best card it possibly could and as White accurately summarized the event: “Here is all I care about: we delivered tonight.”
Ronan Keenan can be contacted at email@example.com or on Twitter @rokeenan