If Helen’s was the face that launched a thousand ships then Carlos Condit’s was the fist that lost thousands more potential British mixed martial arts fans. Condit’s felling of the UK MMA standard bearer, Dan Hardy, is a metaphor for the failure of the UFC to take root in the UK and explode as it has done in America, in Brazil. The slumping of Hardy’s back to the canvas, still bearing the pose of the punch he had thrown milliseconds too late, symbolised the collapse of the shared hope of a nation. Hardy has suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, he has taken up arms against them, but if his mission as assigned by the UFC brass was to capture the hearts and minds of a nation then, arguably, he has failed.
But the success of a sport is rarely so clear cut.
In the UK, the sport of mixed martial arts has not lived up to its early promise. There has been a purposeful and strategic shift in the UK by mixed martial arts away from its early moniker of cage-fighting, towards presenting itself as something more legitimate, a sport steeped in Olympic tradition. But such a shift could only achieve so much in terms of increasing the sport’s popularity. The mainstream media has gone from chastising the “brutal” and “barbarous” sport to ignoring it almost entirely. The legendary “superteams” of a few years ago have faded like the sun in its brilliance, rising and burning towards its own extinction.
The UFC’s success in the United Kingdom, or lack of it, can be gauged on a number of levels: the success of its fighters, the popularity of its live events, and television viewing figures, being but three key tangibles. The first of these—the success of British fighters—arguably reached a peak on March 27, 2010, at UFC 111. The young and hungry Hardy fought the UFC’s poster boy, Georges St. Pierre, for the 170lbs title. Following a three- fight win-streak in his first three fights in the Octagon, the UFC fast-tracked Hardy to a number one contender bout against Mike Swick. Swick had established his own winning streak of four fights since dropping down from 185lbs to 170lbs. Hardy shocked many, outstruck Swick, and left the MEN Arena in Manchester with a title shot.
But success in mixed martial arts teeters on a precipice straddling belief and disappointment. The UFC marketing powers-that-be constructed a narrative for Hardy. They suggested that he was the next big thing, or the first big thing for UK mixed martial arts, which had not yet seen a champion at the highest tier of the spot. They created hype, belief. They gambled on Hardy when the payoff would be great if successful, but the failure would be dire. The potential of this risk was manifested in 2010, when the UFC’s UK viewing figures reached an all-time high. UFC 111, which featured Hardy vs. GSP for the 170lbs title, drew 66,000 viewers live on the night and an additional 33,000 viewers the following day when the fight was shown on repeat. UFC 120, which featured Hardy vs. Condit and Michael Bisping vs. Yoshihiro Akiyama, drew 125,000 viewers. Such figures have not since been matched.
Ultimately, Hardy and Bisping have carried the flag for the UK in the UFC, at times literally (as was the case on the Fighter’s Only collector’s edition magazine covers featuring the two fighters holding the union flag). And when these two fighters have fallen short, the fickle fans have lost hope and stopped waiting to see if some old-fashioned British patriotism could be stirred in the UFC yet.
A man at the beating heart of the British mixed martial arts scene is the head coach of Leicester Shootfighters, Nathan Leverton, who has coached numerous UFC stars, including Hardy, Andre Winner, and Paul Daley. Leverton agrees that the UK scene has flagged in the last couple of years:
“As someone said to me recently, the MMA bubble seems to have burst here. The UK superteams of a few years ago (Kaobon, Rough House, London Shootfighters, Wolfslair etc.) certainly don’t have the profile in MMA they used to and the atmosphere around the sport has taken a decided shift. The reasons for this are many. Firstly, we adopted MMA pretty early on so the novelty aspect which is a part of rapid growth in other territories has perhaps started to fade here. Also, the UK’s superstars rising quickly but falling just short of titles, with few prospects on the horizon, have dampened spirits of a homegrown champion which is an important feature in a sports popularity. In addition, being a relatively small country and it getting harder and harder to hold a spot in the growing UFC roster has seen the company burn through most of our top fighters already and much of the UK talent left in the big show have moved to the US, leaving few fighters for the public to identify with. Lastly, with so many people jumping on the MMA bandwagon gyms are finding that a city won’t support five or more ‘MMA’ gyms. The gyms and teams who produced the first crop of UK UFC fighters are moving away from simply coaching potential UFC athletes and moving more towards BJJ, Kickboxing, fitness and kids classes to be able to keep the doors open.”
This bias towards America displayed by certain British fighters is in parallel to the UFC’s own bias to its home country, and to North American more generally. With the introduction of more events on Fuel TV, effectively replacing the UFC Fight Nights, cards taking place in the UK have tended to be relegated to Fuel TV. This is to avoid risking PPV buys in America with an awkward broadcasting hour, or a tape delay. A presentiment to the relegation of UK cards from PPV to Fuel was seen in the UK PPV events leading up to the inaugural UK Fuel card, UFC on Fuel TV: Struve vs. Miocic. Cards such as UFC 138, which featured Mark Munoz vs. Chris Leben as the headliner, were considered “watered-down” by many fans, especially those who paid to attend the event in person. These shifts have led to the UFC effectively providing a lesser product to the UK fans than to those fans in the USA and Canada.
In an interview conducted by Rebellion Media, Bisping suggested that the primary cause for the lesser popularity of the UFC in the UK is the time difference between the UK and America:
“The events that they had in the UK sold out, they did very well, but the time difference is the hard thing. Most of the [American] UFC events that take place, when they air in the UK its 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning, so it’s only the hardcore fan-base that watch them, or watch them live.”
This sentiment is reflected in the viewing figures for UFC events broadcasted in the UK on ESPN UK. As previously mentioned, the event that has drawn the most viewers in the UK in UFC history was UFC 120. This event took place in the UK and subsequently was shown live on ESPN UK in the evening, rather than in the middle of the night. In the sporting world the primary aim is to provide a spectacle for the viewing public. UFC president Dana White has commented more than once that he wants entertaining fighters and fights, he wants the viewer to be satisfied. But no matter how exciting the fights are, if the viewer is not awake to watch it then the sport is limited in who it can reach. The growth of such a sport will inevitably be stunted.
Additionally, unlike Brazil, the very roots of the UFC cannot be found in the UK. The Gracies founded the Ultimate Fighting Championship in 1993 to demonstrate the superiority of their art, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, an art which is now at the cornerstone of the mixed martial arts game. Subsequently, Brazil as a nation is part of the history of the UFC and BJJ and mixed martial arts are treated as something close to national sports – the Gracies, Royalty of sorts – whereas the combat sport adopted by schools in the UK has traditionally been boxing. Although the sport was dropped by many schools in the 80s and 90s, there has been a recent resurgence of boxing in schools. The national school sports survey reports that between 2005 and 2009 there was an increase in UK government funding for boxing from £50,000 to £4.7million. Such statistics display the enduring nature of boxing in a nation where the likes of Frank Bruno and Lennox Lewis are household names, while Hardy and Bisping are known only to a relative few.
The gambles taken on Hardy and Bisping, only to see them falter. The UK MMA bubble bursting. Awkward event times. The lack of deep roots for the sport to take hold in the United Kingdom. The UFC has tried mightily to crack the nut “across the pond”, but for these reasons, they have only succeeded in falling short.
About the author: Jake Jones is a writer based out of the United Kingdom.