The interim lightweight title fight in Las Vegas, on paper, is one of the finest fights of the year, with the all-action Ferguson carrying a nine-bout win streak into the bout and the upstart Lee earning his spot by winning five in a row, the last four via finish.
Even paired on a double bill with UFC flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson’s rescheduled attempt at setting the company record for most successful title defenses in his match against Ray Borg, though, this card is likely to continue a string of events which have done underwhelming pay-per-view buy rates and television ratings.
But maybe the short-term shouldn’t be the focus this time. Maybe Ferguson vs. Lee should be considered a building block for the future, something that will be looked back at in hindsight as a turning point, even if it doesn’t seem so right now.
We’re a full year into the UFC’s new ownership era. WME-IMG purchased the company from previous owners Zuffa for an eye-popping $4.2 billion in the summer of 2016.
The year since the purchase featured the sort of turbulence that inevitably comes with a change of ownership of a large company, regardless of the particular industry. Harsh cutbacks left familiar faces like announcer Mike Goldberg and popular retired fighters Chuck Liddell and Matt Hughes without jobs, as new ownership sought to cut costs. Front-office types with deep institutional knowledge, from longtime matchmaker Joe Silva to ace PR man Dave Sholler left of their own choosing. Former co-owner Lorenzo Fertitta, who initially retained a minority share in the company, recently divested entirely.
Then there were the industry-specific issues. Old ownership got out when the time was right. Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey fueled the UFC to its highest peak in 2015-16. But the new group came in just in time for the tail end of the hot run.
WME mishandled the promotion of Rousey’s UFC 207 fight with Amanda Nunes; by focusing all the attention on WME client Rousey and none on Nunes, they were unable to make a star out of Nunes when it should have been easy after Nunes waxed Rousey in under a minute. McGregor, meanwhile, boxed Floyd Mayweather. And problem child Jon Jones returned for one big fight with Daniel Cormier, then got flagged by USADA for an anti-doping violation that could put him out of action as long as four years.
For nearly all of this, you can give WME-IMG a mulligan. This was their first year in the business. No matter what consultants who don’t know an armbar from an armchair might be telling them, mixed martial arts is a highly specialized business and there’s quite a learning curve. This isn’t just another factory making widgets.
But now they’ve had some time to figure it out. Now they have their people in place. Now’s the time to show that this vaunted Hollywood agency is the entity to carry this sport into the next era.
And that brings us back to Ferguson, Lee and Saturday night’s fight.
Both of these fighters are the sort of competitors who should be able to break through and become stars, albeit in entirely different manners.
Ferguson, the A-side of the bill due to his long winning streak, is more the sort of competitor who builds up a following due to a hard-charging style that makes for exciting fights. The Ventura, California, native doesn’t necessarily have superstar charisma – he plainly marches to the beat of his own drum and doesn’t seem to care whether the fans love him – but he’s got the sort of fearlessness that true fight fans dig.
Just this week, Ferguson got into a near-skirmish at a press event in Los Angeles with former UFC heavyweight champion Fabricio Werdum. Ferguson, a lightweight, didn’t back down from someone who outweighs him by about 80 pounds. That’s the same sort of crazy that endeared fans to B.J. Penn, a former lightweight champ who once fought former UFC light heavyweight titleholder Lyoto Machida.
Ferguson (22-3), who has six finishes in his current win streak, has earned postfight bonuses in each of his past five fights. He might not be the next McGregor, but there’s no reason he shouldn’t have the drawing power of, say, a prime Frankie Edgar.
Then there’s Lee (16-2), who is the B-side of the fight, but seems to have the highest ceiling as a potential breakthrough star. The 25-year-old from Detroit has likewise proven he can get the job done in the cage, having won nine of his past 10 and earning postfight bonuses in two of his past three.
But Lee is also the sort of brash persona who cuts through the clutter and grabs attention. Lee’s a natural on the mic, a flashy dresser, and he’s not afraid to mix it up on social media.
Or at news conferences, for that matter. Lee got into an altercation at an event building up to a UFC Fight Night main event with Michael Chiesa after Lee made a comment that Chiesa perceived as being disrespectful of his mother.
That led to their bout in Oklahoma City, which Lee won via first-round submission, garnering 905,000 viewers for an otherwise run-of-the-mill event on a Sunday night in late June, a solid number for a night and time that’s hardly prime time for fight watching.
So maybe that’s why we shouldn’t be too concerned with where the PPV number lands for UFC 216. Circumstances have made it such that it’s not going to be a blockbuster, regardless. Rather, let’s see what WME can do with the winner of the main event. Will the UFC develop one of these two undeniable talents into a real drawing card three fights down the road? Whether they can should be as clear of an indication as any whether WME-IMG will be able to figure out this whole mixed martial arts thing.
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