With success comes expectations, and numbers. Lots and lots of them. And with the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) one year into its seven-year deal with Fox, it's obvious that the ramifications of filling the considerable fight cards slots are eroding pay-per-view (PPV) quality.
With the deal, with UFC spawned a string of new cable-programming brands. UFC on Fuel, UFC on FX and UFC on Fox make for regular programming on the partner network, along with the reality show (trudging along on Friday nights, thank you very much) and PPV. But it's obvious that what constituted PPV a couple years ago clearly doesn't resemble today's version.
The quality is far lesser in terms of depth and top-level bouts.
This claim comes with the usual caveats to be kept in mind when assessing the quality of cards. There are so many moving parts -- substitutions, freak/fluke outcomes, drop-outs, Acts of God, etc. -- that you really have to take a step back and assess several months' worth of cards to make a qualitative comparison. But, I think even in doing that, it's pretty obvious that the UFC's PPV brand has dropped off a couple notches in terms of recent quality.
At some point you feel like you are basically paying $50 or so to witness the main event, and hope for any ancillary thrills. UFC 148 felt like that, with Anderson Silva vs. Chael Sonnen, and a garbage under card that included the recycled junk passed off as Tito Ortiz vs. Forrest Griffin 3. Ditto for UFC 145, with Jon Jones vs. Rashad Evans, and an under card with one Top 10 fighter (Rory MacDonald), competing in five under card bouts.
That's pretty much my rule of thumb.
If the supporting bouts don't have at least 25 percent of Top 10 guys in them, it's watered down. This was almost an impossible standard for PPV cards in the pre-Fox era to fail to meet, yet it's becoming the norm. And it is a numbers game, given the endless slots they have to fill.
UFC PPVs in recent months have essentially resembled more of a boxing model instead of the previous UFC incarnation, which was typically one championship fight along with several top contender showdowns. The demise of the boxing PPV -- of which I was a firsthand participant, having purchased virtually every boxing PPV from 1995-2007 -- was when the dollar value of cards become so overly reliant on a top-heavy main event that the event itself became a potential letdown if the main fight didn't satisfy.
And it happened a lot. Fiascos became the norm, and terribly weak undercards, there was no backup plan to satisfy the customer.
For the UFC, its emergence in recent years was a fresh departure from that model. Often, main-event PPVs haven't even been the best fight on the card, and the depth and competitiveness of matches, along with meaningful contender showdowns, proved an operational firewall against a main event letdown. Last night (Nov.17, 2012) at UFC 154 was a reminder of how much the UFC is trending toward the boxing model.
The main event, Georges St. Pierre vs. Carlos Condit was an outstanding bout, but the rest of the card was virtually lifeless. It's to Johny Hendricks' credit that he blitzed out Martin Kampmann in a bout that was basically three meaningful strikes in 46 seconds, but what else was there for the PPV customer to feel they'd gotten their money's worth?
The card had two dreary decision bouts in Rafael dos Anjos vs. Mark Bocek and Francis Carmont vs. Tom Lawlor, with middling-if-not-exciting decision in Pablo Garza vs. Mark Hominick. Not a single one of these winning fighters is remotely close to a title shot, and arguably, only dos Anjos is rated in the Top 10 of his division (and even that's debatable).
Granted, dos Anjos and Bocek bout was moved to the main card after Nick Ring pulled out of his bout with Constantinos Philippou because of illness, but that's part of the game. Imagine if the championship headliner had been a dud? That's pretty much what you have to ask yourself after very UFC PPV main event lately, if you haven't already. There isn't much to fall back on if the main event isn't a hit. Given that that is what went a long way toward damaging the consumer's trust relationship with boxing, I hope the UFC doesn't keep sliding down that path.
Yes, there are thrilling bouts that happen despite rankings, but in lieu of that, the paying fan wants some meaningful context with which to pay their money. I don't get into UFC buy numbers as it's an eminently hazy science, and ultimately the promotion will determine if the business model is adjusted.
But, there are only so many times you can go to the well and come up dry. For PPV prices, especially in a grim economy, it's asking a lot of fans to ante up for what are basically filler undercards reliant on a main event to carry the show.
That is where boxing lost me, and I was as dedicated a fan as there ever was. I hope MMA doesn't follow suit.
Jason Probst can be reached at twitter.com/jasonprobst