Roundtable: State of the UFC and what to expect from UFC 205 in New York City
- Ahead of UFC 205, SI.com and FoxSports.com experts break down the state of the UFC, the lingering questions about McGregor and Rousey, the significance of UFC coming to NYC and more.
The biggest fight card of the year is almost here: UFC 205 at Madison Square Garden. Coverage begins Saturday on FS1—or streamed live via the Fox Sports Go app—with the Prefight Show at 7 p.m. ET, followed by the preliminary bouts at 8 p.m.
If you haven't heard the news already, the UFC is coming to New York City for the first time on Saturday, Nov. 12, and the card guarantees a memorable lineup of fights on a historic night for the promotion. UFC 205 will be headlined by three title fights featuring four current champions—Eddie Alvarez vs. Conor McGregor, lightweight title fight; Tyron Woodley vs. Stephen Thompson, welterweight title fight; and Joanna Jedrzejczyk vs. Karolina Kowalkiewicz, strawweight title fight. Featherweight champion McGregor is looking to make history by becoming the first simultaneous two-weight champion in the promotion's history. The card also features four other former champions.
With New York becoming the last state to legalize MMA in April, and with an iconic boxing venue in Madison Square Garden as the event's host, UFC 205 is a must-see for all sports fans. Below, the UFC experts at SI.com and FoxSports.com, including Jon Wertheim, deputy manager editor, Sports Illustrated, Damon Martin, senior MMA writer, FoxSports.com, Mike Dyce, MMA writer and senior director of editorial operations, Fansided.com and Jonathan Bradley, UFC writer and digital content producer, FoxSports.com, break down the current state of the promotion, the lingering questions about the UFC's biggest stars, McGregor and Ronda Rousey, the significance of the UFC coming to New York City and much more.
November 12 will mark the first time the UFC will hold an event in New York City. What is the significance of this milestone?
Mike Dyce: In a lot of ways it can be looked at as the last barrier between the UFC and main stream. Access to the world's biggest stage and most iconic venues has always been a hurdle for 20 years. You've seen the WWE host WrestleMania and the NFL host the Super Bowl outdoors at MetLife Stadium, risking the elements because of how big of a stage New York City presents.
Jon Wertheim: It’s another earmark of mainstream acceptance. It's another frontier in MMA’s manifest destiny. It’s symbolic to hold a sports event in the Garden. It’s symbolic that the last holdout state has now sanctioned MMA. But I think the real significance here is the “stacked-ness” of the card. For years the UFC’s position was, “Sure, New York would be cool, but they need us more than we need them.” That this card is so comically flush with great fighters suggests that this is a big deal all-around.
Jonathan Bradley: UFC 205 is a fantastic opportunity to continue to grow their brand and a make a ton of cash at the same time. Financially, the UFC has a chance to rewrite their own record books as they invade the market with marquee cards that garner top dollar from fans.
Damon Martin: It's a huge moment for the UFC after a long, arduous battle to get the sport legalized in New York. This process has gone on for several years and New York was the longest holdout to finally sanction the sport and now that it's finally done, the UFC has a whole new market to explore that's an untapped resource. UFC 205 is expected to be the biggest card of the year and Madison Square Garden and the Barclays Center will probably become to huge destinations for the biggest fights in the sport going forward.
Is McGregor vs. Alvarez the biggest fight in the promotion’s history?
MD: No, at least from a fighter vs. fighter standpoint this isn't close to being the most significant fight in the promotion's history. It's certainly not bigger than McGregor vs. Nate Diaz, which was a non-title fight, or McGregor vs. Jose Aldo.
That being said, the historical potential of this fight is that it is set on the grandest of stages. It makes it a must-watch for fans. McGregor could cement his place in history as the first fighter in UFC to win a belt in a second weight class while currently the champion in another division. It's a feat that has never been done before and one that can occur at Madison Square Garden.
JB: The history McGregor is chasing on fight night, coupled with the monumental debut in New York City, absolutely makes the main event at UFC 205 the most important fight in UFC history. The card hosts three title fights, is on pace to shatter the Madison Square Garden gate record and could feature the first fighter to hold two UFC belts simultaneously. The stakes don’t get much higher than that.
JW: That might be a little bit of hype, but this fight is up there for sure. McGregor is an absolute A-lister in sports. And he is absolutely the brightest star in the MMA cosmos. Any time he fights, it’s a big deal. When he headlines the UFC’s first card in Manhattan, it’s a bigger deal. When he kinda-sorta needs a resounding win, all the more so. I could be an ogre and say that even if McGregor loses, he’ll still be a draw—this is the beauty/genius of MMA/UFC. But you do get a sense that a strong showing by both the UFC and McGregor in Manhattan will serve as a growth accelerator for both.
DM: It's a massive fight, but not the biggest in history. There could be history made, however, if McGregor can actually win two world titles. It's never been done before so that would be a very special moment for him and the sport. Still, it's hard to imagine anything bigger right now than the rematch between McGregor and Diaz.
For now, the UFC has transcendent stars like Ronda Rousey and McGregor. But what will happen when they are no longer the face of the sport?
MD: Someone else will step in to fill the void and become the next rising star. It might not be immediately, but the trails have been blazed. Rousey is an example. One of the criticisms in her early years, whether fair or not, was a lack of talent, but the division is deeper now than it was before. Part of that is because there wasn't a lot of opportunity for women in MMA, but now there is and you see fighters like two-time judo Olympic gold medalist Kayla Harrison making the leap, or jiu-jitsu star Mackenzie Dern. World champion boxer Holly Holm, who has become a star in her own right, switched to MMA in part because of more opportunities for herself, financially and otherwise. That presence of an opportunity gives those who love the sport an incentive to stick with it because there is an opportunity to do what you love and earn a living. A young Paige VanZant could be an example of a rising star.
Likewise, McGregor has pushed the sport forward and raised the profile that people competing in certain disciplines will continue to pursue the sport. He reminds me of someone like Chael Sonnen because of the way he's marketed himself and made himself a "must-watch" fighter. I think other fighters can take the blueprint from that approach and build on it. Mickey Gall is a young guy who has shown this already. He knows when he has a stage and a microphone, he can set his future by calling for fights, and it's worked. He asked for CM Punk and got that fight, instantly raising his profile and fast-tracking his journey to the UFC.
JB: Dana White is right when he says the UFC always has had and will always have stars. I was one of those people who was worried about the downturn of the careers of Anderson Silva and Georges St-Pierre. Then Conor and Ronda came around and took the sport to all-new heights. There is plenty of talent on the roster right now, so it’ll be interesting to see what direction the new owners go in developing superstars that continue to push the sport forward.
One of the keys to the UFC’s success: there are stars but they never tend to get bigger than the sport or the promotion. Fans have their favorites, but they show up for the event and the spectacle as much as they do for individuals. We see what happens when Tiger Woods is not playing in a golf event; there’s a sense of anti-climax. MMA doesn’t suffer from this nearly so much. If GSP disappears, it’s a blow, but the sport continues. If Jon Jones serves an anti-doping ban, it’s regrettable, but there’s a new champ and someone fills the vacuum. If Rousey or McGregor departed tomorrow, the UFC would suffer but it would survive just fine. Always new faces. Always new belt-holders. Always another card.
DM: New stars will be created. Several years ago no one thought Chuck Liddell or Tito Ortiz could be replaced but then we had the rivalry between Anderson Silva and Chael Sonnen, which was epic. B.J. Penn put the lightweight division on his shoulders and brought in huge pay-per-view numbers. Brock Lesnar came out of nowhere and became heavyweight champion along with being a transcendent star. If McGregor and Rousey disappear, someone else will eventually come along to fill the void.
Almost a year after her shocking loss to Holly Holm at UFC 193, where is Rousey right now? Has she recovered? Where do you think she will be a year from now?
DM: It' so hard to answer this question considering no one knows for certain what Rousey has been up to this past year. She has been training for Amanda Nunes since August, bringing in fighters to emulate the women's bantamweight champion so clearly she's taking this seriously. That being said, some fighters never recover from a loss like the one Rousey had so it's impossible to know where she's at until that first exchange with Nunes. I think Ronda has maybe three fights left in her and I don't think she'll be around past 2017.
MD: Physically she has recovered, but if she has mentally recovered is the question. She has removed herself from the public eye so it is hard to gauge where she is at mentally. A determined Rousey is never a fighter to count out, but the blueprint on how to beat her is out there. Rousey has always said she wants to retire before she turns 31, which comes in February of 2018. That means 2017 could be her last year in the sport.
JW: I was going to say, “Ask me a year from now.” It’s still a huge question/riddle hovering over the sport. Rousey may never be the same fighter again. And she may go back to dominating and we can write off the Holm fight and the inevitable loss that triggers the great comeback story. What we are seeing with certainty: MMA is like no other sport. When you lose, it’s not like the other person hit the golf ball into the cup with fewer strokes or threw the ball in the basket more times or swam to the pool edge in less time. You were physically dominated by another person. There was this referendum on your entire being and you came up short. I just think Rousey's loss exacted such a psychic price. You dominate your sport for years, created this image of indestructible. When you’re the one leaving the cage with a concussion, it’s jarring.
Madison Square Garden has a rich boxing history, hosting some of the greatest and memorable heavyweight championship fights. How can UFC take advantage of this history, perhaps to garner new fans?
DM: The best course of action would be turning Madison Square Garden into the destination for huge UFC fights. Considering the new UFC owners, WME-IMG, have offices in New York it only makes sense to hold some of the big events here three or four times a year, potentially. That will certainly hurt Las Vegas as the destination for big UFC fights, but McGregor clearly loves New York. Jon Jones is from New York. MSG will soon become the mecca for MMA.
MD: The way the UFC can best utilize Madison Square Garden's boxing history is to keep adding new chapters to it. UFC has risen in popularity, taking the mantle as the premier combat sport. Staging historic and huge fights, like McGregor vs. Alvarez, is the right way for the UFC to book cards at the venue. Fights that are the biggest in the sport, huge, must-watch spectacles with historical ramifications. There should never be any doubt that a UFC event at Madison Square Garden is a great event that can't be missed.
JW: The UFC benefits—and always has—from the self-inflicted wounds of boxing. I always say that once you get into MMA, watching boxing is like going from iPhone to a Palm pilot. Wait, you can only punch? You can’t take the fight to the ground or use your legs? What, the two best fighters might not meet if their promoters can’t agree on terms? A UFC show is a terrific, gripping live entertainment. Notice the sold out attendance, the buzz even for the undercard, the PPV buys. The knowledge fans have for even the deepest undercard fighters. I suspect that with this 205 card, boxing in New York recedes a little deeper into the rearview mirror—just as it has elsewhere. The real question: what can boxing learn from MMA to try to improve its product?
Do you think the UFC will break through into the circle of mainstream sports, such as the NFL, NBA or MLB? How does the UFC’s television revenue, pay-per-view revenue, attendance and event schedule match up when compared to other sports leagues?
JB: Without knowing exactly what the new owners over at WME-IMG have planned for the future of the promotion, it’s hard to say whether the sport with break into the mainstream. It is at a crossroads, however, and the next few years will determine where the sport and promotion is a decade from now. If they continue to develop relatable superstars like Rousey and McGregor, they’re well on their way, popularity wise. Financially, right now, the UFC can’t hold a candle to the NFL, NBA and MLB, which each boast individual teams worth as much as the entire UFC and take home billions of dollars a year in revenue.
MD: The UFC will break into the mainstream and we might be seeing that now. Rousey and Tyron Woodley are staring in movies, McGregor is in the new Call of Duty game. The key will be for the UFC to continue to grow, and that means not becoming to greedy to the point that it waters down the product, which new ownership seems to have identified since reports indicate they're decreasing the amount of events in a year. But as the sport grows, better sponsors will come in to pay more money, generating more revenue.
The UFC does a solid job making pay-per-view events available in many mediums: YouTube, Fight Pass, television, etc. This sport will never have seasons like traditional sports, but it is important to schedule lulls to coordinate with build-up to fights, like what we've experienced between UFC 204 and UFC 205—over a month and just one event in between.
DM: There is no offseason for the UFC so it's hard to gauge. Obviously the biggest problem the UFC has versus the NFL, NBA or MLB is team loyalty. Cubs fans are going to be Cubs fans no matter what but MMA doesn't command that same devotion. Fans are typically attracted to certain fighters and if they aren't around, it's unknown how often they might still watch. The UFC shares far more traits with boxing and even WWE than it does with the four major team sports.
JW: I’ll stop you there: any sport that embraces the PPV model is going to have trouble penetrating the mainstream. If even the Cubs/Indians had a $60 price point, viewership would be down. The reality, too, there is always going to be a cap on the growth curve when the product is two dudes (or women) going into a steel cage to fight. All that said, the UFC does a lot right and it can be a towering success without being the equal of the “mainstream” leagues. Not for nothing did WME pay $4 billion for the UFC. The flip side: pretty much any two NFL teams are worth more than that.
What impact do you expect UFC 205 to have on the sport? How will it affect sponsorship barriers or other obstacles facing UFC, and MMA in general?
JW: This will sound like a horrible snobbish New Yorker comment, but I do think there’s a certain legitimacy that comes with having an event staged in Madison Square Garden, the self-aggrandized Most Famous Arena in the World. This is where Wall St. firms have suites and political figures cavort. How “renegade” or “rogue” can the sport be when it’s being held in midtown Manhattan, in the same joint where they hold charity benefits the week before?
Also, from an exposure standpoint, this will be huge. I live within walking distance of Madison Square Garden and already it’s been impossible to avoid signage and references. This is not Vegas, where the UFC has been part of the fabric for years and years. This is exposure to people who see “UFC” and think it’s the code on the back of the Rao’s tomato sauce jar.
DM: First and foremost, this is the most stacked card we've ever witnessed. Three title fights at the top along with a slew of former champions and top contenders decorating the undercard. The UFC already rolled out special clothing for the first New York event along with custom gloves for the fighters. I'd expect some sort of spectacle inside MSG on Saturday night as well but people will have to watch or be in attendance to find out what it will be.
Long term the only major impact is the UFC coming to New York more often for big fights. If this card goes off the way it's expected, Madison Square Garden may soon challenge the T-Mobile Arena as the biggest place to see a marquee UFC fight.
MD: There have been rumors that the UFC's inability to stage events in New York City, the nation's largest media hub, has been an issue for potential sponsors. Crossing that barrier can have a positive impact for the UFC as a promotion. For fighters, the larger stage could help them raise their personal brands in an attempt to leverage it for outside sponsorship or other media opportunities, since they're not allowed to wear sponsors in the cage.
And for MMA in general, the continuing growth of the sport means more young people watching, getting into training and potentially becoming competitors in the sport later.
JB: I think some people will always have a tough time coming to grips with a sport where people bleed and get punched and kicked in the face. But money talks, and as the UFC continues to exploit a gigantic new market, I think they’ll see a surge of new advertisers looking to piggyback on their success. The Reebok deal, for example, while not great for fighters, was a huge step forward for the promotion. I envision more opportunities like that now that they can tap into the New York market.