The ordering process for Ultimate Fighting Championship pay-per-views has changed: UFC 246 is only available on ESPN+ in the U.S.
With 2019 fast receding into the mist (or is that smoke from Australia’s bushfires?), 2020 is already looking like it will be a big year for the sport of mixed martial arts in general and the Ultimate Fighting Championship in particular.
Newly-crowned middleweight champion Israel Adesanya and inaugural BMF titleholder Jorge Masvidal seem primed to carry the torch for the promotion into the new year, emerging as legitimate stars in 2019 and bringing to an end a period defined by a conspicuous absence of brand luminaries. The flyweight division -- on life support since the shock departure of former champion Demetrious Johnson to Singapore -- appears at last to be safe from the guillotine, with Henry Cejudo
With the 2020 season fast approaching, here are four stories to keep an eye on as we venture into the new year.
McGregor and the Ever-Expanding Rap Sheet
Given Conor McGregor’s status as MMA’s most historically transcendent figure, and the fact that his last fight in October 2018 sold a record-setting 2.4 million buys on pay-per-view, his imminent return to competition next weekend should theoretically be a source of celebration. If he can get past the tough-but-beatable Donald Cerrone at UFC 246, fights across both the lightweight and welterweight divisions beckon: a trilogy bout with Nate Diaz, a crack at the BMF’er Masvidal, a grudge match against Justin Gaethje -- the list goes on. At just 31 years old and ostensibly still in his physical prime, with two of the biggest players in all of sports -- ESPN and the UFC -- having gone all-in on promoting “The Notorious” comeback tour, Conor McGregor stands before big money and blue skies…
There’s just one problem with this narrative, which is currently being amplified by the sport’s powerbrokers: McGregor has spent the past 24 months in police stations and courtrooms, being charged with several criminal offences (including an assault charge for punching an old man in a Dublin pub for refusing a shot of whiskey) and -- more alarmingly – reportedly coming under investigation for two separate sexual assault allegations.
Whether or not the native combat sports media feel prepared to grapple with them, those investigations have implications for MMA at large. McGregor is by far the most recognizable figure in the sport and acts as a reference point for a large portion of the unassuming members of the public. In the same way that individual acts of corruption in politics fuels a broader antipathy with electoral democracy and public institutions, the potential conviction and presumable incarceration of the UFC’s most visible star would impact the sport’s wider reputation and likely affect the promotion’s market-value and longer-term prospects -- even if quantifying this impact isn’t an exact science.
At present, these potentially calamitous consequences are merely hypothetical -- McGregor has not been charged in connection with either of the allegations and, through his agent Audi Attar, has vehemently denied any wrongdoing. However, the story of the fighter-turned-potential-rapist is unlikely to induce any more pay-per-view buys come Jan. 18, and, in the wake of the #MeToo movement, could turn off budding fans (both female and male) who will skip the fight, or even switch off from the sport, on principle.
One must also consider the cultural consequences of McGregor’s antics vis-à-vis the droves of (overwhelmingly) young males who look up to him as a role model. In the same way that McGregor’s left-hand and boundless self-confidence inspired a generation on his way up the UFC ranks, his impulsive acts of violence -- both alleged and those caught on video -- act as important markers for what impressionable fans may perceive as acceptable behaviour.
To paraphrase the words of famed boxing historian Thomas Hauser, who repeatedly raised concerns about Floyd Mayweather Jr’s history of domestic violence: somewhere in Ireland or the United States tonight, a young man who thinks that McGregor is a role model will beat up or sexually assault a woman. Maybe she’ll walk away with nothing more than bruises and emotional scars. Maybe he’ll kill her.
Watch this space.
A story that received relatively little attention in the MMA media last year was the Endeavour Group’s 11th hour withdrawal from its initial public offering in September.
After releasing prospectus documents in May, the UFC’s parent company indicated it would offer 19.35 million shares in the IPO at a price of between $30 and $32 a share, which would have raised over $600 million and placed the valuation of the group at nearly $8 billion. The day before the IPO, however, Endeavour revised its offering price, dropping it down to the $23 to $27 range, before abandoning it altogether hours before it was set to trade on the New York Stock Exchange.
A volatile IPO market and subsequent lack of appetite from investors were identified as key factors in Endeavour’s aborted offering, but the company’s sky high debt-to-equity ratio and shrinking profit margins were also important variables, inviting questions about the group’s long-term viability.
The assumption is that Endeavour will make a second run at a public offering some time in 2020 or 2021. As Sherdog’s Patrick Auger has pointed out, this will likely require the company to prove that it is able to pay down its debt to prospective investors and may have implications for the UFC -- whether in the form of further cost-cutting or spinning off the UFC into its own public company.
This will be an important story to keep an eye on in 2020, particularly in light of the preceding McGregor discussion and the spectre of class certification vis-à-vis the ongoing antitrust lawsuit being brought against the UFC. Bloody Elbow reporter John Nash has also theorised that the failure of the IPO may have nixed the promotion’s plans to branch into boxing, telling Kurt Emhoff’s Boxing Esq. Podcast:
[I]t seems to make sense that the failure of the IPO really put a dent in whatever their plan was. Either with PBC or on their own Zuffa Boxing because that was money they needed. They wanted to spend on expanding into boxing and now it’s going to go probably everything […] There was so much talk before that they had these big plans using the Performance Institute and their new studio in Vegas and you know, they’re going to do all these things and now you’re not hearing much.” (transcription by RingTV)
A Jones Odyssey
Ever since Jon Jones made an unlikely return to the Octagon in December 2018 on the heels of a paradigm-shifting United States Anti-Doping Commission arbitration case that saw a four-year suspension for repeatedly testing positive for banned substances whittled down to just 15 months, his fights have come with a feeling of resignation.
His rematch with Alexander Gustafson at UFC 232 came with a modicum of intrigue based on the competitive nature of their first meeting, but the odds had “Bones” as the decisive favorite and he comfortably vanquished the Swede inside the distance to recapture the 205-pound title. Quick turnarounds against fringe-middleweights-turned-light-heavyweight-contenders Anthony Smith and Thiago Santos ended in low-energy decision wins for the champion, with neither adversary doing much to convince the fanbase in the build-up that they were legitimate threats (though Santos was able to win his fight on one of the judges’ scorecards).
Jones is currently slated to face the undefeated Dominick Reyes at UFC 247 in February, and if he can get past “The Devastator” he’ll have beaten four out of the Top 5 205-pounders, with little enthusiasm amongst fans for a squash match against Corey Anderson or Jan Blachowicz, who will duke it out for No. 1 contender status a week a later.
The upshot is that we’ll likely see Jones either finally move up to heavyweight, as he was pondering before signing on to fight Reyes, or welcome middleweight champion Israel Adesanya at 205, where they can settle their long-running social media beef. If he can do that, Jones will likely recapture his place as one of the company’s top draws and -- assuming he can keep his nose clean -- maybe solidify his place as the sport’s greatest of all time.
New Weight Classes, More Hardware
2019 saw the UFC continue to ignore calls for the promotion to split welterweight into two weight classes (a 165-pound and 175-pound division), thumbing its nose at fighters, fans and regulators, ostensibly because of Dana White’s aesthetic preferences. But with the champions at lightweight and welterweight mustering up just three title defenses between them whilst their ranks swelled with under-utilised talent, not to mention the promotion opting to create a new title lineage with the BMF championship in the final quarter to give the Masvidal-Diaz fight the appropriate level of pageantry, more weight classes (and belts) feel like an inevitability in light of the UFC’s promotional philosophy and financial imperatives.
Put simply, there are too many marketable names between the two divisions -- McGregor, Masvidal, Diaz, Kevin Lee and Gaethje just to name a few -- and too few title opportunities to get them competing consistently; 2020 would be as good as time as any to recalibrate the weight divisions and open up new avenues to gold.
One suspects that there may also be movement in the female weight classes, with a number of 115-pounders making low-key efforts to advocate for an atomweight division throughout 2019 -- including the eminently promotable Michelle Waterson and inaugural strawweight champion Carla Esparza.
Jacob Debets is a law graduate and writer from Melbourne, Australia. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.