Editorial: On interim titles and the UFC’s inflexible business machine
Dana White with the UFC lightweight belt at UFC 262. | Photo by Cooper Neill/Zuffa LLC
Jordan Breen reacts to the UFC’s decision to book Derrick Lewis vs. Ciryl Gane and what it says about the promotion’s business.
Interim championships have long been a constant source of irritation for MMA fans and understandably so. At best, they are a necessary evil, which usually suggests that a reigning champion has either been injured with an uncertain timetable for recovery or that they’re embroiled in a contractual dispute. At worst, they are wholly unnecessary and come off as a trivial promotional ploy that cheapens the value of a title in favor of smoke and mirror marketing. This week, fans’ distaste for interim titles reared its head again in potent fashion, as the interim imperative met headlong with the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s uncompromising business rigidity.
On Monday, the UFC announced that UFC 265 on Aug. 7 will be headlined by an interim heavyweight title bout between Derrick Lewis and unbeaten Ciryl Gane. The announcement was a surprise to some extent, being announced less than 48 hours after Gane defeated Alexander Volkov in a five-round unanimous decision. The bigger head-turning detail, however, was that the interim title bout was made official barely three months after a healthy Francis Ngannou knocked Stipe Miocic to win the title.
By now, you’ve likely seen the increasingly hostile back-and-forth between UFC President Dana White and Ngannou’s manager Marquel Martin. Martin claims that he and his fighter were blindsided and confused by the announcement as the UFC was well-aware that Ngannou and his camp felt Aug. 7 was simply too soon, as he had just recently returned to the United States to resume training and that Ngannou was agreeable to fighting at UFC 266 on Sept. 25. Naturally, this led to White taking to Instagram, where he would claim Martin was “full of shit” and said that he hoped the UFC heavyweight champion would seek new management, calling Martin “incompetent.” Just like that, here we go again.
Even if the MMA world has and will never fully embrace the concept of interim titles, the Gane-Lewis fight is not the norm. In recent years, especially under the ownership of Endeavor and new UFC management, we’ve seen an increased willingness to use interim titles as promotional tools and more importantly, bargaining chips, to keep its business running the way it wants while exerting pressure and control over its roster. However, at least in recent instances – Tony Ferguson’s pair of interim lightweight title fights or the absurd Colby Covington-Rafael dos Anjos ersatz welterweight championship bout, for instance – they were largely situations predicated on a series of injuries. What makes the Ngannou situation unique and has left so many fans annoyed or outright aggravated, is that “The Predator” is healthy and what’s at stake here is simply a difference of seven weeks. Is a difference between Aug. 7 and Sept. 25 worth airing out your champion and his management, inciting yet another public business squabble and whatever negative feedback and animus that comes with it?
This is a more particular question that requires knowledge of how dogmatic the current UFC is about its business practices. The promotion was especially keen to have Ngannou-Lewis 2 for UFC 265 for several reasons. First of all, the UFC is headed to the Toyota Center in Houston where they’re free to have full capacity crowds; UFC 262 in May, headlined by the Charles Oliveira and Michael Chandler lightweight title fight, was held at the same venue and drew over 16,000 fans for an estimated $4.1 million gate. They also just struck a multi-event partnership with the Toyota Center. As it relates to Houston, having Lewis – the city’s most notable prizefighter other than boxing twins Jermall and Jermell Charlo – on the card is of a considerable financial and promotional priority.
Without being able to produce an attention-grabbing main event, the company will be forced to headline UFC 265 with a women’s bantamweight title fight between Amanda Nunes and Julianna Pena. While Nunes may be the best woman in the sport and a two-division champion, the UFC has always done its darnedest to pair her bouts alongside a stronger main event and with good reason. Since taking the 135-pound crown from Ronda Rousey in December 2016, Nunes has fought seven times and only three of the bouts featured “The Lioness” headlining solo; all three of those bouts – the Valentina Shevchenko rematch in September 2017, the Raquel Pennington defense in May 2018 and Felicia Spencer fight in June of last year – did less than 100,000 reported pay-per-view buys.
Could the UFC simply make Gane-Lewis the headliner, even if it would come off as a slight to Nunes, knowing that it would do little to change its competitive landscape? Absolutely, but this comes down to the aforementioned rigidity of how the UFC has conducted its business going back to the Zuffa era and now intensifying under Endeavor’s oversight. Title belts, even at the risk of conceptual dilution, are always viewed as valuable trinkets and accoutrements that make it easier for the company to promote and sell fights, even if wiser fans know the existence of said titles is duplicitous bullshit.
It’s entirely possible that if the promotion simply bit the bullet on UFC 265 and suffered whatever reduced gate and paltry buyrate went with it, that it might all come out in the wash if they put on the promised Ngannou-Lewis 2 bout for UFC 266, a card also expected to feature featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski’s title defense against Brian Ortega to cap the latest season of “The Ultimate Fighter.” It’s simply not a risk the UFC want to take; the company firmly believes in its machine and want to keep it rolling in the most controlled way possible, especially when it still has several weeks to bolster UFC 266.
I truly don’t believe this is a situation unique to Ngannou himself or even his management. Yes, it warrants mentioning – especially because it quietly crops up in the back-and-forth between White and Martin – Martin spent years working for the UFC in its’ sales department before moving on the Creative Artists Agency, a long-time rival of UFC parent company Endeavor. That being said, regardless of the particular nature of White and Martin’s past professional dealings, White’s public hostility toward managers in the sport is nothing new or revolutionary.
White’s open contempt for managers – especially competent ones – is well-established, as he has long attempted to paint them as parasitic entities leeching off of fighters. Certainly, this is unfortunately true in many cases in MMA, but White’s interest in painting this distorted picture has always been about trying to influence and control both UFC athletes as well as public perception. I do believe that even if Martin wasn’t a former UFC employee now working for a rival talent agency, this predicament would be be fairly similar if not identical. The ugly situation we have right now with the Gane-Lewis fight, is that while there is undeniably a power dynamic in play – if there wasn’t, the UFC would’ve kowtowed and just greenlit Ngannou-Lewis 2 for Sept. 25 – the primary force in this fiasco is the bureaucratic stringency of the modern UFC. It’s an ethos that often results in these sorts of tone deaf impasses that, plain and simple, piss of fans and fighters alike.
Ultimately, even if a seven-week delay seems foolish to sacrifice Ngannou-Lewis 2 over, at least for the time being, I think most fans could live with Gane-Lewis in its stead, even if less than ideal. As usual here, the real failing of the UFC is not attempting to act in its own best financial interest, but the philosophically uneven, opaque and hostile way in which its plan is executed and how the message delivered. If the UFC is going to strictly adhere to ironclad business concepts that govern its product and talent negotiations, then it should at least be shrewd enough to do so in such a way that doesn’t actively, corrosively create enmity among its own fighters and fans.