As a fight fan, I wish Demetrious Johnson would have embraced the opportunity to fight T.J. Dillashaw. Imagine the UFC flyweight champion, widely regarded as not only the best active fighter in the world but among the best of all time, going for the record for most consecutive title defenses against the ex-bantamweight champion, who himself is one of the world’s elite fighters.
It would have been MMA at its highest level and the drama would have been off the charts.
Johnson, for reasons he eloquently explained this week, chose not to do so, publicly airing his issues with the UFC.
He’s correct in just about every point he makes, and it’s right for the MMA community to rally around him.
In a statement he posted on Imgur.com on Monday, Johnson wrote that the “UFC has failed to market and promote me appropriately.”
I can tell you from first-hand experience, the UFC employs some of the finest public-relations and marketing personnel in the world. If Johnson isn’t being marketed and promoted properly, there are deeper issues at work here than their abilities to do their jobs.
While Johnson is the UFC’s greatest fighter, he’s far from its biggest star. His pay-per-view sales are puny and his television ratings aren’t much better, even though he’s in the midst of an epic run of victories.
His lack of appeal goes against one of the most basic concepts in sports marketing, which states that the best players are almost always the biggest stars.
Don’t believe that?
Well, consider this: In 2017, the best-selling jersey in each of the four major team sports belongs to, in order, Steph Curry of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors; Tom Brady of the NFL’s New England Patriots; Kris Bryant of Major League Baseball’s Chicago Cubs; and Sidney Crosby of the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins.
Notice anything about that group? All have won the Most Valuable Player award in their respective leagues. All have played on championship teams in the past three years, and Brady, Bryant and Crosby are on the defending champions. Curry and Crosby are two team wins away from another title.
Brady and Crosby are considered the best players in their respective sports. Curry and Bryant are high on that list.
Johnson is the Tom Brady or the Sidney Crosby of the UFC. He’s as classy as they come, without a hint of scandal, and despite being the best in the world for a while, he continues to improve.
There’s a sad irony in the fact that many of the fans who are rushing to Johnson’s defense are the same ones who aren’t tuning in to watch arguably the greatest fighter ever at his peak facing the best flyweights in the world.
In the four major team sports, the players are rewarded by performance on the field. That’s not the case in combat sports, where the ability to sell tickets and pay-per-views is just as important as success in competition.
If you surveyed 1,000 fight fans and asked which was more important, a great fight between two guys who are quiet and humble or an average fight between the two best trash talkers in the business, an overwhelming majority would probably say they’d prefer the former.
But in real life, it hasn’t worked that way. The fans gravitate toward the fighters who talk, who create drama, who are always in the middle of controversy and who understand how to use all forms of media to their advantage.
Those who love this sport want to see it continue to thrive and that means attracting the best athletes. But to do it, the best athletes are going to have to believe they have a chance to become a superstar if they’re successful.
There is an easy solution to this dilemma.
The UFC and its fighters need to get together and reach a collective bargaining agreement. How it is done doesn’t matter; whether there is a union or an association or whatever they want to call it, the UFC needs to come to terms with its fighters on some sort of deal that provides them with the basic elements that athletes in all major team sports have:
• Improved pay
• Health care benefits
• Retirement benefits
• A grievance process
Having a negotiated CBA would benefit both the UFC as well as the fighters.
This is not to defend White, whose alleged threat to Johnson to shut down the entire flyweight division is simply flat-out bullying. We only have Johnson’s side of the story on that, but if Johnson is correct that White made that threat, it was clearly a situation where White allowed his temper to overcome his good sense and he should apologize.
A collective bargaining agreement would take the pressure off White and the UFC to try to guess which fighters are going to be stars and popular with the public, and which are not.
I believe a major reason for Johnson’s lack of popularity is his size. He’s smaller than the average male in this country and he doesn’t look physically threatening or dangerous. There are probably a lot of males who are UFC fans who look at him and think they could thrash him, which 99.9999999999999999 percent of them could not come close to doing.
But the UFC, which has a sizable monthly debt service related to its $4.2 billion purchase last year by WME/IMG, only has a finite amount of money and bandwidth to spend on marketing. And so they pump it into those fighters they believe are going to produce results. Often, those are the best talkers who have an instinctive understanding of how to use the media.
A CBA would help turn the UFC into a performance-based league. Wins, and length of service, would reward fighters, even while incentives could be negotiated for pay-per-view sales and television ratings.
Johnson is a legitimately great fighter, and he’s also a legitimately great man. He deserves to be revered, both by his bosses at the UFC and the fans who pay to see him fight. That he is not speaks volumes about the issues related to the system in place.
A CBA that gives fighters the basic benefits that most employees in the U.S. rely upon would prevent Johnson, and those like him, from having to become media experts or marketing whizzes. It would allow them to focus on being the best fighter possible.
At the end of the day, that is not only their job, but it is also what would benefit the fans, as well.