2008, A Space Odyssey: Potential Money Fights & Pending Challenges for the UFC

October 29, 2007

It’s never too early to start looking forward in business, even in an industry that changes as rapidly as MMA. Upsets, injuries, new additions, and potential labor disputes not withstanding, here is a very preliminary look at what the top of the UFC’s pay-per-view events might look like in 2008 along with a discussion of looming challenges facing the company. This projection assumes the best case scenario for business and is not necessarily a representation of which fighter would be expected to win.

  • 2/08 – Las Vegas – Tim Sylvia v. Antonio Nogueira for the Heavyweight Title, Sean Sherk v. BJ Penn for the Lightweight Title, Brock Lesnar’s debut.
  • 3/08 – Columbus – Quinton Jackson v. Chuck Liddell for the Light Heavyweight Title, Tito Ortiz v. Wanderlei Silva.
  • 4/08 – Montreal – Matt Hughes v. Georges Saint Pierre for the Welterweight Title, Forrest Griffin v. Rashad Evans.
  • 5/08 – California – Anderson Silva v. Dan Henderson for the Middleweight Title, BJ Penn v. Joe Stevenson for the Lightweight Title.
  • 7/08 – Chicago – Antonio Nogueira v. Andrei Arlovski for the Heavyweight Title (provided Arlovski and the UFC can reach an agreement), Shogun Rua v. Tito Ortiz.
  • 8/08 – Atlanta – Quinton Jackson v. Forrest Griffin for the Light Heavyweight Title.
  • 9/08 – Las Vegas – Anderson Silva v. Matt Hughes for the Middleweight Title.
  • 10/08 – California – BJ Penn v. Diego Sanchez for the Lightweight Title.
  • 11/08 – Boston – Andrei Arlovski v. Brock Lesnar for the Heavyweight Title.
  • 12/08 – Las Vegas – Quinton Jackson v. Tito Ortiz for the Light Heavyweight Title.

There has been some concern about a lack of big fights on the docket for the company heading into 2008, but this projection would setup six shows that have the potential to do big numbers on pay-per-view. Jackson-Liddell III, Jackson-Griffin (or Liddell-Griffin for that matter), Arlovski-Lesnar, and Jackson-Ortiz would all be expected to do strong numbers, assuming Jackson matures into the company’s top star and Lesnar turns out to be the real deal. Hughes-GSP III and Silva-Hughes would also have a chance to do very good business.

The lineup would also set up well for the major market debuts that are planned for next year. Hughes-GSP is perfect for Montreal, Chicago features Arlovski as the hometown hero, Atlanta features Griffin who has ties to the city along with Jackson who is from nearby Memphis, while Arlovski-Lesnar is the kind of big match they need to enter the Boston market with. It should be noted that outside of the Montreal date, these date and venue pairings are all speculation.

Of course the major caveat is that, as this year has demonstrated, this business is all about expecting the unexpected. That is why we’re still waiting to see GSP-Hughes III, and why we’ll probably never see Couture-Cro Cop. With so many ways to win, or lose as the case may be, the odds of the company running the table are slim to none. That said, outside of Hughes over GSP and Ortiz over Rua, the rest of the projections look fairly solid on paper.

The company has a lot riding on Jackson. Stability on top is the key to doing business in individual sports (see Tiger Woods in golf), but particularly so in combat sports. The company will need Jackson to mature into the role that Chuck Liddell is in the process of vacating as the face of the company, at least for 2008. In the long term, whatever that turns out to be in an industry where its hard to stay on top, Griffin or Jackson are good candidates for the top spot.

Looking even further ahead, into 2009, this projection would set them up with either Jackson or Griffin as the face of the company at 205 pounds, a very marketable Heavyweight Champion (either Arlovski or Lesnar), and solid draws in Anderson Silva and BJ Penn. However, looking that far into the future in this business is close to worthless as anything more than an academic exercise. At this point in 2005 who would have predicted any of the current champions, especially Randy Couture and Matt Serra?

Regardless, 2008 is shaping up to be a very important year for the UFC. We are witnessing a changing of the guard in the company as the first generation stars that fueled the current boom (Couture, Liddell, Hughes, and you could argue Ortiz) are on their way out. The company has to build new stars in order to sustain, much less build on, its current success. As the projection above demonstrates, the company is fairly well positioned to make the transition if things go even remotely smoothly.

So despite what some have said in light of recent events (Couture’s resignation, collapse of the HBO negotiations, string of drug test failures, upsets, etc.), the sky isn’t falling, and the odds of a collapse of the UFC in the near future are extremely remote. Should such a collapse happen, it would likely represent an implosion of the entire industry rather than the failure of Zuffa.

The only thing on the horizon that could have such a dramatic effect would likely be an in ring death, but as the number of events continues to rise, and with it the number of less skilled competitors/promoters/referees/etc., the odds of the first death increase as well. If the sport continues to grow and thrive, the sad truth is that someone will die in competition, and the reaction that follows will determine the future of the industry. The good news, or bad news depending on your disposition, is that such an event is largely out of the industry’s control. Even with the best precautions, it’s almost an inevitable occurrence if the sport is here to stay.

Outside of a catastrophe, the advantages Zuffa enjoys cannot be overstated. The company is well funded, supremely positioned in the current market, and generally is brilliantly led by Dana White. The fact that so much has been made of the company’s recent “failures” is testament to just how flawless its execution has been since its purchase of the UFC in 2001. However, that’s not to say that 2008 is looking like smooth sailing. The company seems to be facing several potentially serious challenges, namely increasing labor costs, growing competition, and product oversaturation (see: The Big Picture in Buzz Words & Bullet Points).

Only time will tell how serious these challenges prove to be. The Couture dispute could turn out to be an isolated event that quietly goes away, or it could be the catalyst to a more widespread talent revolt. If the industry is to have any longevity outside out an initial boom and bust, then one of company’s competitors will eventually break through and begin to affect the company’s business model. 2008 may or may not be the year it happens. As the product (both the UFC’s and its competitors) continues to increase its presence on television because of its success, there will eventually come a saturation point at which point the law of diminishing returns will set in, maybe next year, maybe three years from now when the UFC launches its weekly live fight series.

Who knows what exactly the future may hold, but 2008 is shaping up to be an important and interesting year not only for Zuffa, but for the entire industry.

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