The UFC's Showmanship and the Pound-for-Pound List
Big Men and the Illusion of Greatness
In the "sport" of mixed martial arts, there is a constant debate over who deserves to be on the UFC's pound-for-pound list. It's a ranking system that's designed to identify the best MMA fighters in the world, regardless of weight class. Of course, this is tacitly also saying the best MMA fighters belong to the UFC, but the UFC's showmanship doesn't end there.
The UFC marketing machine argues that the biggest, most powerful fighters are the best fighters. However, there's an argument to be made that fighters above middleweight (possibly even above lightweight) don't belong on the pound-for-pound list. This argument is rooted in political economy. Big athletic men go to higher-paying sports, reducing the depth of those divisions.
This sorting process begins in childhood: wrestling, boxing, and kickboxing all lose the best big athletes to other sports. So even when the UFC signs big fighters from other combat sports, it's still not resolving the issue of depth unless it can compete with football, basketball, and even boxing in pay. Since the UFC pay is not competitive, the heavier divisions are not competitive.
Despite what the UFC says, it is not, in fact, competing with major sports since its pay is equivalent to the minor leagues. But even still, since there is a chance to move up for a big payday in the minor leagues, it's still more appealing than the UFC.
In addition to the potential salary loss, the impact on endorsements is even worse. UFC fighters routinely rely on other gigs to make ends meet. Even the UFC superstars rely on content creation for additional income.
Major sports are more popular with richer histories, which attracts not only bigger and better advertisers but also other financial opportunities. More kids grow up wanting to be major sports stars rather than MMA fighters, which not only further thins the talent pool, but it also means more fans for major sports, which means even more earnings from endorsements.
As a result, the heavier weight classes in MMA are not as deep as the lighter ones. There are fewer big world-class athletes available for MMA. In addition, the competition from other MMA promotions makes already thin divisions even thinner. This is why it is common to find UFC-ranked heavyweights who started training in their 20s and 30s and why the average of heavyweights is the oldest. You won't find this at lightweight and below, not to mention fighters in their late 30s and above, because of the stiffness of competition.
On the other hand, lighter fighters don't have the same sports opportunities as bigger athletes, which leads to a deeper talent pool in the lighter weight classes and higher skill levels among those fighters. They've had a tougher strength of schedule to get to where they are, making them more experienced, technically sound, and well-rounded.
In the MMA community and even among promoters, there is consensus that the most important skill in MMA is wrestling. Everyone in the UFC's lightweight division and below can wrestle, but the same can't be said for welterweight and above. So how can fighters from divisions that lack the most essential MMA skill be considered the "best" in MMA?
Nevertheless, despite the obvious differences in talent depth between the weight classes, the UFC still insists on promoting the heavier divisions as the best divisions. A heavyweight is the UFC's greatest of all time. This marketing campaign helps the UFC compete with other sports that feature big men. By promoting the heavier divisions, the UFC can make it seem like its athletes are just as athletic and skilled as the big men in major sports rather than inferior to them.
This first serves to distract from the pay gap between UFC fighters and major sports athletes. Second, the UFC actively appeals to toxic masculinity, so the UFC needs to appear equal to or superior to its competition. Finally, by doing this, the UFC also hopes for crossover fans from other sports who are already conditioned to watching big men on the weekends.
This strategy also borrows from pro wrestling, where the biggest athletes are used to create the illusion that the "sport" is larger than life. For a casual fan or potential viewer, it's hard to understand skill, but it's easy to understand size. This is why pro wrestling uses big men, the circus uses big animals, and why big, tentpole movies capture the most attention.
They're spectacles and attractions, and spectacles are about capturing the imagination. Hulk Hogan was not the best wrestler, but most fans think he is because he captured their imagination. Likewise, the biggest UFC fighters may not necessarily be the most skilled, but their size and power make for an absurd and captivating visual impact.
The UFC is not a sport, it's a show, and what the UFC does is showmanship. In fact, the UFC and the WWE are so alike they've merged into one company. The UFC combines the pro wrestling appeal of big men taking big bumps with the pro wrestling gimmick: big means best. The UFC wants the best of both worlds when, ultimately, it's a pro wrestling work designed to fool UFC marks and casuals.
The pound-for-pound list, along with the rest of the UFC rankings, was created as a marketing tool for the UFC's TV deal with Fox Sports. The rankings were a way to bring over fans from other sports who were used to rankings and statistics. However, the rankings have always been subjective and at the whim of the UFC, much like pro wrestling rankings. This is also why the UFC brought in fight stats, even though the stats have no bearing on actual judging and are not based on judging criteria. It's part of the same marketing strategy.
The sport of MMA has weight divisions so that size doesn't matter and it's all about skill. But the UFC is not a sport but one branch of a monopolistic sports entertainment company run by Hollywood moguls, and it benefits from promoting the biggest, most powerful fighters, even if they aren't the most athletic or skilled. It's part of the show. It's kayfabe: a suspension of disbelief.
The UFC, like the WWE, is more about entertainment than it is about competition, and the spectacle of big men falling over is more appealing to its circus than the technical prowess of lighter fighters. (Enter Power Slap.) But if we view it as informed sports fans, big dudes beating other big dudes isn't all that impressive. This is why the UFC doesn't want informed sports fans but marks who think the UFC is a legitimate sport. Much like when pro wrestling was the most popular "sport" in the world when fans believed a staged sport was a legitimate one.
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