Since its inception, mixed martial arts has always had a frayed relationship with mainstream America. The late John McCain initially referred to it as “human cockfighting” in letters to the athletic commissions of all 50 states imploring them to ban the sport entirely. Over the last twenty years, the sport has gradually become more acceptable as its premier organization, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, was able to secure television deals with FOX and now ESPN.
However, more than ever before, mixed martial arts and primarily its largest promotion, the UFC, have struggled to capture the attention of minority communities, especially the black community.
Combat sports have famously been staples of minority communities in North America. Fighters such as Julio Cesar Chavez became national icons in Latin American countries throughout the 1980s and 90s, while Muhammed Ali had over a billion people watch his fights before becoming a civil rights icon. The biggest stars in combat sports have routinely been minority fighters supported by minority communities.
Today however, the UFC has gone out of its way to cut the legs out underneath black fighters. Demetrius Johnson, the former flyweight champion who is tied for the most consecutive title defenses in UFC history, routinely complained about the lack of promotion the company provided.
While die hard fans were awed by his technical skills, fight finishing ability and overall dominance, Johnson was never able to break into the same stratosphere as fighters such as George St. Pierre or Anderson Silva, who were both able to generate pay-per-view buyrates in the high six figures on a regular basis.
Johnson has had to actively campaign to be promoted through the UFC’s social media platforms, and even stated, “With me, the UFC chooses not to market the best fighter in the world and arguably the greatest fighter of all time.”
Current Welterweight Champion Tyron Woodley’s problems with the UFC have been even worse than Johnson’s. Despite being one of the best pound-for-pound fighters one the planet, Woodley has consistently been unfairly criticized by UFC President Dana White which has hindered Woodley from attracting a fan base within the black community. White has taken every opportunity to bash Woodley, even saying at one point, “Who wants to pay to see Tyron Woodley fight again?”
While it is easy to sit back and pick apart flaws in the UFC marketing plan in hindsight, the issue isn’t whether the UFC knows how to promote black athletes, it is if they even want to. When Woodley emphatically defended his Welterweight Title against Darren Till, Dana White was conspicuously missing from the press conference.
Suspiciously, White has gone out of his way to promote Woodley’s greatest rival in Colby Covington, a controversial welterweight who after trolling fans unsuccessfully for years with tactics such as spoiling the plot twists in movies such as Star Wars: The Last Jedi and saying “My haters are all virgins who have no life,” has taken on the gimmick of supporting Donald Trump and pandering to his supporters.
Most positive responses I've seen to one of his tweets in a long time. https://t.co/WhGTkV5OAo
— Luke Thomas (@lthomasnews) June 10, 2018
Not only did White grant Covington an interim title opportunity that had no reason for occurring, after Covington won, he also organized a trip to the White House to try to help Covington reach a larger audience. At the same time, Woodley has gone out of his way to promote himself with his own podcast, television show and song, but has gotten very little in return.
In addition, while Woodley has had to consistently market himself, the UFC has helped Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson, who recently drew and lost to Woodley in championship fights, land a starring role in a commercial for Van Heusen.
President Dana White has constantly belittled the black stars and champions that could make headway into the black market which has deflated the market for the fledgling sport. By continuing to make this same mistake over and over again the UFC has proven that they do not care about the minority audience.
Meanwhile, boxing is riding the coattails of minority fighters to help the sport return to the forefront. Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, Mexico’s biggest boxing star, have participated in events that not only garnered critical acclaim but financial success as one of his previous bouts reportedly had over 1.3 million pay-per-view buys.
Matchroom Boxing, one of the premier boxing promotions, recently signed a $1 billion dollar television contract to broadcast 16 fights per year with DAZN, a combat sports streaming platform, while the UFC’s own platform would make a shade over $50,000,000 based on the amount of subscribers their service currently has. Matchroom’s biggest star is Anthony Joshua, a black British fighter who has been instrumental in bringing heavyweight boxing back to the forefront of the combat sports world.
While boxing promotions are promoting fighters mostly due to merit, the UFC has taken an entirely different approach. In recent years, the promotion has prioritized fighters such as Sage Northcutt and Paige VanZant, who despite their skill levels are being paid handsome amounts compared to fighter of the similar or even higher ilk, and are given marketing priority due the aesthetic they exude.
By heavily promoting fighters such as Northcutt and VanZant, while continuing to under-promote and disrespect their black stars, the UFC is showing how racially biased they are toward their own roster. This trend is not only alienating the black market but is perpetuating the same ideology that has dogged the United States since its inception, that black people simply do not matter.