When Holly Holm knocked out Ronda Rousey this past November at UFC 193, everyone was stunned, calling it the biggest upset in MMA history. Fans and media outlets were going at Dana White, questioning what the UFC would do now that their “Golden Child” had lost in crushing fashion.
Many wanted to see Rousey lose because they felt she was arrogant, while others just wanted to see the underdog get some shine. But when it actually happened, everyone was stunned. Then the questions erupted over what was next and how devastating it was for the UFC and the sport. Many believed that they needed Rousey and McGregor to win in order to thrive and continue their growth.
But not me.
I felt it was the best thing that could have happened for both the UFC and the sport of MMA because of what it brought- attention, parity and competition- and last night UFC 196 proved that we were right in stating that the sport was in a great position and in great hands.
In the first co-main event, the aforementioned Holly Holm attempted to defend her Women’s Bantamweight title against veteran Miesha Tate. After four rounds, many gave a slight edge to Holm and assumed that she would use her longer reach and kicks to keep Tate at bay and win the fight. But after seeing how Tate refused to abandon her ground game, you had a feeling that the challenger was bound to have another major opportunity in the fifth and final round.
Tate was able to take her back, shift her wrist bone, drop her shoulder and rock Holm to sleep with a full rear naked choke. The MGM Grand Garden Arena erupted as Tate sprinted excitedly around the cage and fell to her knees in pure joy as she became the new Women's Bantamweight Champion.
But fans only had a few minutes to absorb what transpired as the second co-main event, featuring Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz, quickly followed.
McGregor, never one to shy away from a challenge, moved up two weight classes and 25 pounds to face Diaz, a replacement for the injured Lightweight Champion, Rafael Dos Anjos. Although McGregor held his own in the first round, the length and size of Diaz took its toll, first in the form of a devastating left cross that was followed by an assortment of blows from the bloodied Diaz, eventually ending in McGregor tapping out after being caught in a rear naked choke.
UFC 196 cemented the fact that the sport of MMA has entered the realm of the elite sports leagues. After last night, one could argue that it has become one of the biggest behind football, basketball and baseball.
It is a sport with a strong global presence in many key markets. Its fighters are fully supported by their respective countries and it's both a PPV and broadcast machine that is learning how to effectively market its stars in a crowded sports marketplace.
The “UFC 2” video game by EA Sports features Rousey and McGregor on the cover and enables fans to compete as fighters such as Mike Tyson and Bruce Lee. DMX narrated an amazing on-air promo for UFC 196, Swizz Beats was in attendance, along with Von Miller, Johnny Manziel, Josh Gordon. Celebrities and athletes from different sports were watching and tweeting their reactions. ESPN sent a broadcast team to the event for pre and post-game coverage, and even the legendary, three-time former welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre, aka GSP, returned to watch the fight in person.
@ufc unreal!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!— Bruno Mars (@BrunoMars) March 6, 2016
And it’s not just the UFC experiencing great success.
Bellator MMA has been making lots of noise ever since Scott Coker took over the reins from Bjorn Rebney two years ago. He has added new faces such as Benson Henderson, re-signed current stars such as Michael Chandler, continued their global expansion (their British invasion promotion was brilliant), have recognized the need to grow their women’s division and has developed a strong promotion which understands how to market their stars and reach various audiences.
Promoting the street grudge match between Kimbo Slice and Dada 5000 and pairing it with a legends match-up between Ken Shamrock and Royce Gracie at Bellator 149 drew an average of over 1.9 million viewers on Spike, which beat their previous record of 1.58 million viewers in the match between Kimbo and Shamrock last June.
Bellator has also recognized the importance of developing shoulder programming, creating specials on Kimbo Slice and Benson Henderson to surround Bellator 149.
Internationally, promotions such as ONE FC have done a masterful job at dominating the Asian MMA market and using streaming offerings as a way to reach audiences outside of the Asian marketplace.
The UFC and Bellator have also recognized the importance of expanding their reach into similar sports. UFC signed Glory kickboxing to their UFC Fight Pass offering and Bellator announced they were forming their own kickboxing effort, Bellator Kickboxing.
While Bellator has proven it can be successful by sticking with a strategy focusing on cable distribution, the UFC continues to generate big numbers both at the gate and through PPV. UFC 193 earned over 1.1 million buys and saw over 56,000 fans in attendance in Melbourne, Australia to see Holm upset Rousey. They also went strong on the grass-roots level, purchasing the LA Boxing franchise three years ago and converting those gyms into UFC Gyms.
But the biggest strength in every MMA promotion is their successful ability to promote their fights, especially their grudge matches. Developing the Rousey brand was one of the smartest, and arguably the most successful, decision the UFC has made, and has continued to benefit from it despite her loss. Gambling on Conor McGregor has taken them to new heights as well, attracting strong support from the Irish community for their new superstar.
UFC 196 extended the success of UFC 193 for their women’s division and they now have names such as Cat Zingano, Rose Namajunas, Paige VanZant and Rousey lined up and ready to go. The soon to be released movie “Fight Valley” starring Holm, Crisy “Cyborg” Justino and the newly crowned champion Tate, will be dropping in July, which gives another boost to women’s MMA and the sport in general.
In addition, Jon “Bones” Jones will be returning to the cage on April 23rd at UFC 197 to face Daniel Cormier and attempt to regain his light heavyweight title belt. Fans will remember the press conference which erupted into a brawl on the podium, which eventually collapsed due to the fight.
I can already see the UFC grinning as they turn their attention to this grudge match.
MMA continues to grow and expand because the sport itself doesn’t appear to be hampered by some of the issues facing other leagues and sports. That's not to say that they don't face similar issues, because they do. But the sport has great diversity in the ranks of their fighters as it pertains to race, ethnicity, gender and culture and fans now have more ways to engage and interact with the sport and its athletes.
The sport doesn’t appear to be losing any momentum regardless of the promotion, as rabid fans demonstrate their loyalty on a consistent basis, and it seems to be attracting new fans due to their highly successful events.
UFC 196 is just another example of the strength of the sport and proves that it has become a force in a competitive marketplace. While it’s not for everybody, it’s definitely for more than just somebody, and MMA is proving that submission can actually equate to victory.