The ordering process for Ultimate Fighting Championship pay-per-views has changed: UFC 241 is only available on ESPN+ in the U.S.
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In no sport do financial fortunes swing as wildly based on results as in MMA. Team sports’ playoff systems drive interest and maintain a healthy floor for ratings even when marquee teams are eliminated. Individual sports like tennis and golf allow stars to enter major tournaments even when they are struggling. Combat sports, by contrast, are built around individual matchups. The difference between two title fights, each built around the two best fighters, can be massive. Boxing defends against this by protecting elite fighters, so it’s rare when a fighter like Andy Ruiz spoils the plans of promoters.
MMA has developed a different culture. While Pride Fighting Championships used to protect its superstars leading up to the biggest fights, the Ultimate Fighting Championship gives star fighters tough bouts each time out. Bellator MMA by and large does the same. Anthony Joshua was a 30-to-1 favorite against the aforementioned Ruiz -- odds that are pretty much unprecedented for any UFC fight in history. MMA promoters make competitive fights and then hope for the best.
Sometimes fight results turn out well for the promoters. Conor McGregor kept winning for most of his UFC career, and the revenues kept rising. On the other hand, Ronda Rousey left the sport after losing to Holly Holm and Amanda Nunes. If she had kept winning, she might well have kept fighting and profits would have flowed in. In 2007, the UFC thought it had a massive box office fight with Randy Couture- Mirko Filipovic. “Cro Cop” just had to get through Gabriel Gonzaga. A massive head kick later, that bout was permanently tabled. Couture-Gonzaga was still a major fight, but it’s safe to assume Couture-Filipovic could have been much bigger.
This is where matchmaking becomes so important. Matchmakers can’t give star fighters safe fights, but they can weigh style matchups and risk-reward ratios in deciding how to use those stars. This is particularly important for non-champions. Titleholders generally just fight the top challenger or the opponent perceived to be most marketable, but non-champions have many options. The wrong series of opponents can badly damage the appeal of a star and the right series of opponents can move that star back into big-money fights.
In the past five weeks, two major stars fought for the first time in the UFC since 2016. Nate Diaz and Urijah Faber are major names in the sport and among the most popular fighters in their weight classes. The track record of fighters returning after such substantial hiatuses is not good. Thus, the choice for their return opponents was an important one. The UFC selected well because after a pair of big wins, Diaz and Faber are in line for some enticing upcoming fights, and the promotion can use all of those that it can get these days.
In Faber’s case, many questioned the choice of Ricky Simon as his comeback opponent. Simon was much younger, sported a flashy record and had done well in the UFC. It was an open question as to whether or not Faber should have been given a softer touch. Faber and the UFC had the last laugh on that one because after a quick and spectacular finish, he gained much more credibility in 2019 than he would have had he defeated a struggling opponent. Faber posed with Henry Cejudo at UFC 241, and clearly, that’s a fight that’s under strong consideration. Either way, Faber’s next fight is likely to generate even more interest than his return.
The stakes were even higher with Diaz. He is younger than Faber, so there is more time for him to potentially be a factor and make major fights. Moreover, Diaz is coming off his mega fights with McGregor, giving him a level of recognition and star power above even the popular “California Kid.” Diaz has also been more of a boom-or-bust fighter than Faber, alternating between performances where he dominates and contests where he loses decisively.
For Diaz’s return, the UFC chose Anthony Pettis as an opponent. In hindsight, it was a brilliant bit of matchmaking. Pettis was coming off a highlight-reel knockout of one of the best welterweights in the world in Stephen Thompson. The impressive nature of that finish masked the fact that Pettis has struggled in recent years since losing the UFC lightweight title. Even against Thompson, Pettis didn’t look his best before the finish. Yet the finish was the story of that fight.
There was also the matter of styles. Welterweight is the weight class most dominated by wrestlers, with Kamaru Usman, Colby Covington and Tyron Woodley at the top. Wrestlers have given Diaz problems throughout his career. Pettis is more like Diaz, a fighter with strengths in striking and submissions but less of a penchant for taking down and controlling opponents. Pettis was going to be a challenge for Diaz, but he played into the Californian’s hands more on paper than most prospective opponents.
The UFC’s choice paid off handsomely. Diaz delivered an impressive win in front of an adoring crowd and reminded fans of his unique charm in his post-fight interview. Amidst an unending stream of dull callouts for fights that aren’t going to get made, Diaz’s challenge to Jorge Masvidal felt like a perfect next fight for both men. It would generate a lot of interest on its own while also setting up the winner for even bigger things. None of that would have been possible without a quality win from Diaz. The UFC booked his return well.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.