Sunday 4 December 2016

MMA: How the sport of fighting became a TV sensation

Conor McGregor's stunning win last weekend raises the profile of UFC even higher. But is this sport really a knockout, or just a brutal circus

Published 20/12/2015 | 02:30

Knockout: Conor McGregor leaves the arena after his victory against José Aldo during UFC 194 in Vegas. Photo: Gary A Vasquez.
Knockout: Conor McGregor leaves the arena after his victory against José Aldo during UFC 194 in Vegas. Photo: Gary A Vasquez.
Ronda Rousey (right) and Holly Holm battle it out in UFC 193 in Australia. Photo: Quinn Rooney

One month before Conor 'The Notorious' McGregor delivered a punch that reverberated around the world, two of the planet's best mixed martial arts fighters met to settle their differences in a Melbourne stadium. More than 56,000 people paid in to watch an absorbing contest between Ronda Rousey and Holly Holm.

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Rousey was the reigning champion and favourite to win, but Holm attacked from the off and her well-placed punches appeared to have disorientated her bloodied opponent. Then, a minute into round two, Holm saw her opportunity and pounced. She landed a perfect kick on the side of Rousey's face, knocking her out, and while 'Rowdy' Ronda was prone on the ground, Holm - nicknamed 'The Preacher's Daughter' - twice punched her hard on the face before the referee called a halt to proceedings.

Holm, a softly spoken 34-year-old from Albuquerque, New Mexico, with long blonde hair out of a shampoo commercial, was crowned UFC Bantamweight Champion. Rousey, for her trouble, spent the night in a Melbourne hospital having plastic surgery to graft her torn lip together, and has been told not to eat hard foods for six months such is the dental trauma she experienced.

Ticket sales alone amounted to more than $6m and the fight - UFC 193 - was shown live in 150 countries on a pay-per-view basis. They are figures to make anyone who doubts the huge global appeal of UFC to think again.

Almost by stealth UFC - or the Ultimate Fighting Championship, to spell it out - has become a phenomenon, arguably the fastest-growing sport in the world. When Conor McGregor won his fight in the early hours of Sunday morning, Irish time, he was the number one worldwide trending topic on Twitter.

McGregor's rags-to-riches story has been the stuff of Hollywood fantasy. Just three years ago he was an unemployed plumber trying to make a name for himself in the lower reaches of mixed martial arts. Now, he's a superstar - and not just in his own imagination - who is already making the sort of money that Ireland's long-established rugby hierarchy, for instance, can only dream about. The UFC has been transformed too. Established in 1993, it struggled for years to connect with audiences torn between traditional boxing, the cartoonish antics of WWE wrestling and the savagery of cage fighting. Then, in 2001, a brash Irish-American entrepreneur, Dana White, came along and spearheaded a consortium that bought the rights to UFC from its parent company Semaphore Entertainment Group (SEG). The fledgling brand was on the ropes and White and his partners acquired it for the knockdown price of $2m. White was 32 at the time and set about transforming it from a sport with no rules to one that was heavily regulated. He identified early on that there was a huge untapped market for combat sport, despite the jaded feeling many felt towards boxing which had splintered into several associations, and the perception that wrestling matches were fixed.

"I'm still f***ing in love with this thing like it was the first day," White told the US marketing bible, Adweek, last year. "It's all about the fights. I always believed that this thing could be a global brand, because I don't care what colour you are, I don't care what country you come from, I don't care what language you speak: fighting is in our DNA. It doesn't have to be explained to us."

Within seven years, White had transformed UFC into a business valued by Forbes at $1bn. He did it by making the sport palatable to brands and to pay-per-view TV networks. He harnessed the power of social networks when most brands had yet to work out the full potential of Facebook.

White realised that for the sport to build quickly, he needed highly charismatic fighters. He found them in Quentin Jackson, Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor. He has long believed that fighters - "badasses" is his preferred term - have a more significant global reach than other famous athletes. "Ask people all around the world who Muhammad Ali is, who Mike Tyson is, who Bruce Lee is and they will know," he once said.

UFC's move to the big time happened in 2011 when White inked a deal with the giant Fox Sports Media Group, which not only legitimised the sport in the eyes of big brands but also brought high production values to the fights themselves. Even those repelled by the action in the Octagon - as the 'caged ring' is trademarked - would have to acknowledge that few sports are broadcast quite as dynamically.

Fox Sports boss Eric Shanks has insisted that White is the mastermind of every conceivable aspect of the UFC experience. Recalling an early discussion he had with White about the 'walkouts', the two-and-a-half-minute journey a fighter takes from locker room to ring, he suggested cutting to an ad break. "Dana practically fell on the floor and had a heart attack," Shanks said. "He said, 'You absolutely cannot do that. That's part of the anticipation'."

It was just as well that such an ad break did not happen for Conor McGregor's fight with José Aldo at the weekend, considering the bout was over in a UFC record of 13 seconds. And yet, few of the thousands of Irish who made the expensive journey to Vegas's MGM Grand appeared to feel short-changed. The UFC circus ensures there is no shortage of fan experience events in the 48 hours leading up to the fight.

John Trainor, who runs the sports sponsorship agency, Onside, has looked on with interest at McGregor's rapidly growing popularity. "We do a survey to find the 10 most popular Irish sports people every year," he says. "In 2014, Conor wasn't in the top 10. This year he was sixth, just behind Rory McIlroy and ahead of Robbie Keane. Of the 18 to 24 age group, he was neck and neck with Roy Keane, and he also polled very strongly in the 25 to 34 demographic." Intriguingly, McGregor's popularity tails off considerably among the older the age categories get.

McGregor has attracted substantial interest from brands already and Trainor says the fighter's marketing appeal will continue to grow strongly. "Emerging brands, challenger brands -they'd be very interested in him and his story. You can see that with some of the brands who've aligned themselves with him to date. A brand keen to reach young consumers would be very interested in him."

According to Trainor, the numbers polled who selected McGregor as their number one choice equates to 140,000 people in Ireland. That's more supporters here, he points out, than several long-established Premier League clubs.

Brand specialist Tony Frawley, co-founder of the Limerick-based agency 2020BMV, says McGregor - and UFC itself - offers "a perfect fit with Millennials" [those born from the early 1980s on]. "They love his attitude," he says, "his talk of 'When I go to war, we all go to war. He's very proud of his Irishness too - you always see him with the flag - and he's got a strong, clear message, which he delivers on time and again. Brands love that."

Frawley says some conservative brands may be reluctant to touch him because of his brash demeanour and the sense that UFC is dangerous, but argues that if they want to connect to younger consumers, such a stance is misguided. "The stats show that the injuries from UFC are not as severe as some people imagine, certainly compared to a sport like rugby where there are so many concussions. The UFC could do more to promote this - and to convey that it is highly regulated."

But there have been voices of dissent amid all the adulation, including that of award-winning sports writer Paul Kimmage who said he was "repulsed" by the sport in the wake of McGregor's June victory over challenger Chad Mendes. "It's barbaric," he said on The Sean O'Rourke Show. "I've watched it and I'm repulsed by it. And I'm thinking, 'Should the mainstream media engage with this?'"

And there are reservations elsewhere too. McGregor has made no secret of his desire to fight at Croke Park, but local resident Pat Gates possibly spoke for many when he told a newspaper this week that "I don't think it would be something that we would be very keen to see coming to Croke Park. Personally speaking, I think the fights are very brutal and violent. I'd be surprised if the GAA would endorse that sport."

But Tony Frawley is in no doubt that the sponsorship world will embrace McGregor, provided he can keep up his run of impressive results. "He's an Irish sportsman - and be under no illusions, this is a sport - with global appeal. Very, very few of his contemporaries can say that - even the household names here. In brand terms, the sky's the limit for him."

Meanwhile, Holly Holm and Ronda Rousey look certain to resume hostilities next summer in what is being billed as UFC 200. The prize-money for the winner? A rumoured $7m.

John Kavanagh: the man behind 'notorious'

It was a visit to a Dublin video shop in 1996 that would ultimately make Ireland a force in UFC. John Kavanagh spotted a video on this fledgling sport and was bowled over when he watched it that night. He tried mixed martial arts for himself: and never looked back.

Fitness fanatic Kavanagh runs the Straight Blast Gym on the Naas Road in Dublin, a facility that's essentially the nerve centre of UFC in Ireland. Conor McGregor is its most famous graduate but other fighters from there are making a name for themselves, including Iceland's Gunnar Nelson and the Russian Artem Lobov, who fights under the Irish flag.

'Coach Kavanagh' was pivotal in helping to market McGregor early on and it was largely thanks to him that RTÉ's popular fly-on-the-wall series, Notorious, came about. Now, he's keen to see if ordinary members of the public have what it takes to cut it in the world of MMA: He's looking to make a reality TV series called Wimp 2 Warrior.

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