UFC, after $4 billion sale, can finally grow up

The UFC has been sold, and mixed martial arts can finally decide whether it wants to stay in the frat house or graduate.

On July 11, UFC owners Frank Fertitta III and Lorenzo Fertitta announced that their Zuffa company was selling its majority stake in the mixed martial arts promotion to Ari Emanuel’s WME-IMG talent agency. This came just two days after a UFC 200 bill that lost headliner and lightweight favorite Jon “Bones” Jones to a failed drug test, featured replacement headliner Miesha Tate getting beat up in a match in which she was heavily favored, and slotted in circus freak show Brock Lesnar to the ill-advised one-off spectacle that it was.

Put simply, those kinds of slip-ups with top-flight talent aren’t going to cut it in a fight company owned by a talent agency. Emanuel is already talking about more “television and movie opportunities” for fighters. But that implies that the UFC will have to view its fighters as more than expendable chattel and fodder for upsets based on last-minute changes to the bill. It’s great that Ronda Rousey’s been on “Saturday Night Live” and in the movies “Furious 7,” “The Expendables 3” and “Entourage.” But you can’t match Rousey up poorly with Holly Holm, watch her lose, let Holm duck the rematch, awkwardly match Holm against Tate, watch Holm lose and then put Tate (who lost twice to Rousey) in a last-minute headliner’s spot just to lose again. That not only doesn’t leave you a superstar to sell, but it makes your division look like an absolute mess.

At least when Jones failed his drug test, challenger Daniel Cormier was allowed to fight the shadow of what once was Anderson Silva. It has previously flat-out canceled fights featuring fighters who’ve violated its drug policies and has scrapped or switched more than a dozen fights in 2016 alone because of drug violations. It’s actually a step in the right direction for UFC, where steroid suspensions haven’t been uncommon and where Nate Diaz — initially suspended for five years for marijuana usage — had his punishment reduced and defeated superstar Conor McGregor as an injury replacement for Rafael dos Anjos.

Injuries have been another issue plaguing the UFC in recent years. They’ve canceled pay-per-view events (most notably, UFC 151 in 2012 and UFC 176 in 2014) and haven’t ended well for fighters even when replacements are found. Dos Anjos’ injury not only proved costly for McGregor, but may have dented the Brazilian champion’s own career. In his first fight back from injury, just two nights before UFC 200, dos Anjos was knocked off by Eddie Alvarez. President Dana White’s attempt to spin all of this as thrilling and unpredictable, but poorly conditioned fighters who can’t pass drug tests and may be thrown on to a card at a moment’s notice with minimal preparation (like Silva, who’d just come off a failed drug test last year) don’t exactly help build a brand or convert casual fans into diehards.

UFC is sold for $4 billion to investors (2:01)
Yes, $4 billion is a lot of money, and White (who owns 9% of UFC) is likely very happy with his portion of it. However, in the 32-team National Football League, the Dallas Cowboys alone are valued at $4 billion, according to Forbes. The average National Basketball Association team is worth $1.25 billion, with the largely terrible New York Knicks alone commanding $3 billion. Also, it’s a deal that White vehemently denied earlier this year, instead positing that the company was working on “moving [UFC] to other territories like China, Japan and Korea.”

As big a fight fan as White is and as much as he’s attempted to help the company by putting together the fights that fans want to see, he’s had a much tougher time with the latter in 2016. Now, he doesn’t even have the Fertittas in his corner anymore.

Dana White (@danawhite) on future involvement: Same. President, owner, working my ass off. Just doing it without my best friend and partner.

— Brett Okamoto (@bokamotoESPN) July 11, 2016

White and the Fertittas deserve a lot of credit for bringing UFC out of its “human cockfighting” stage and into nationwide acceptance and worldwide reach. However, with the Fertittas gone, the UFC’s shortcomings are now going to fall firmly on his shoulders. Earlier this year, when reporter Ariel Helwani of Vox-affiliated MMAFighting.com and his team were banned from covering the UFC for life after reporting the impending return of former heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar for UFC 200 and a Conor McGregor/Nate Diaz rematch for UFC 202, Zuffa had White’s back as it always has. It supported White when he banned former Sports Illustrated and Los Angeles Times reporter Loretta Hunt, longtime mixed martial arts reporter Josh Gross, CNN’s Jonathan Snowden and entire sites from Cage Potato to Deadspin. However, with Zuffa clearly in selling mode and UFC’s fight lineups in disarray, Zuffa lifted Helwani’s ban and restored his team’s credentials following media and public scrutiny.

For White, that was as short a leash as he’s ever been given. Even after he speaks at the Republican National Convention, that leash may not get much longer. Exploiting a performance-enhancing-drug loophole to bring Lesnar back probably won’t work again, and McGregor can’t really afford another setback against Diaz in August.

UFC rarely gets more than 1 million pay-per-view buys without McGregor, Rousey or Lesnar, and its bills that haven’t featured them within the past 52 weeks haven’t cracked 300,000. To create bankable personalities, like current WME-ING client Rousey, UFC needs names that fans can depend on and faces that will draw casual fans to pay-per-view events and to “UFC on Fox,” which has seen viewership fall from between 4 million and 5 million per event in 2013 to just above 2 million per event within the past year.

That $4 billion means mixed martial arts and the UFC’s days as a niche sport — albeit a fairly large one — are over. It’s in the star-making business now, and White and company can’t just keep burning through them anymore.

Jason Notte is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post and Esquire. Notte received a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University in 1998. Follow him on Twitter @Notteham.