Both our families are self isolating this week, which causes a number of challenges for the CME podcast. Still, here we discuss Charles Oliveira’s win over Kevin Lee at UFC Brasilia, the UFC’s weird declaration it will carry on in the face of the coronavirus pandemic and what will ultimately befall UFC London?
We talk about Colby Covington’s suffocating victory over Robbie Lawler and how important Covington’s odious schtick has been to getting him where he is today. Plus, Cris Cyborg’s “production team” undercuts our goodwill for her and the UFC heads to Uruguay.
Ryan Bader becomes the Bellator champ champ with his quick and easy victory over Fedor Emelianenko in the heavyweight grand prix final. Did Scotty Cokes and Co. just hit a towering home run? Plus, what to look for at UFC on ESPN+ 2.
By now, you’ve probably heard the news that starting next week, the CME will roll out a brand new T-shirt design for sale over at the Cotton Bureau dot com. This time around, we’ll be spotlighting Cowboy Astronaut Cigarettes, the official smoke of World’s Leading Theatricalist, Sir Nigel Longstock, and a brand of tobacco product that is DEFINITELY not for kids.
The CME partnered with Portland, Oregon designer Johny Ashcroft (who designed another T-shirt you might already be familiar with) and artist Landon Armstrong to make this happen. They did a pretty kick ass job, if we do say so ourselves. Here, feast yours eyes:
This gives everyone the chance to really get their jingoistic grooves on Monday, drink too many cheap American lagers, blow some shit up and brave the most dangerous day of the year on America’s highways. Besides, it also gives Brock Lesnar 24 more hours to pull out of UFC 200 with some sort of lower intestinal disorder nobody has ever heard of before.
The podcast will return on Tuesday to continue its wall-to-wall UFC 200 coverage. On that day, the CME will drop at the normal time, at some point in the early evening as soon as it’s all done. We’d appreciate you not asking. Thanks in advance!
By now, the cat is probably well out of the bag that there is no new CME this week, after Ben decided to go on vacation with his family to some mountain lake. Just picture him, swinging comfortably in his hammock sipping Jameson, not a care in the world as his bedraggled wife chases their two children around the cabin, trying to keep them from eating rat poison or tumbling down a set of stairs. Meanwhile, Old Man Fowlkes sways in the breeze, oblivious.
But look, Ben and Chad didn’t want to leave you high and dry this week with no CME-related entertainment at all. For that reason, they’ve planned a special announcement regarding NEXT week’s podcast, as well as a chance for you to revisit one of the more unique and popular single episodes in the show’s history.
What’s the announcement, you ask? Wouldn’t you like to know, you grubby little orphans. To find out, you’ll have to experience it in audio format …
Direct downloaders are asking for it right here.
You’ve got to be optimistic to be single. Stupid. You have to be stupid. Because that’s what optimism means, y’know. — Louis C.K.
So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high water mark — the place where the wave finally broke, and rolled back. — Hunter Thompson
If they could enter a time machine and travel to the mid- to late-80s, younger listeners of the Co-Main Event podcast arriving in suburban Seattle would witness a shocking phenomenon: Kids wearing the t-shirts and trading the stickers of surf brands. Although the drizzly Northwest is at a great remove from Mavericks and Diamond Head, kids of various ages proudly festooned themselves in neon wear from T&C, Gotcha, Ocean Pacific, and more. Our hypothetical time travelers would rightfully scratch their head in wonder: What the hell are all these soon-to-be-grunge fanatics doing in all this surf gear? The answer, of course, was that it was a fad. For some reason, some say because of “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” surfing and surfing culture captured the imagination of the entire country for a couple years, even far-flung corners of the nation that had no real access to it or experience with it. I was reminded frequently of that time in my youth when I would pick up my nephews from school circa 2009 or 2010. There, elementary-age kids (and their fathers, to admit a harsh truth) proudly displayed their TapouT apparel for all to see. Likely none of the wearers trained, and many were far too young to invest the kind of attention it takes to intelligently follow a sprawling, disorganized, individual sport, but there they were. It was a fad. Now, about five years after, those t-shirts are not as readily found. Surf has given way to grunge. The single most perilous hazard currently afflicting MMA is the misguided notion that it will continue to grow, when in fact it has already peaked, and MMA promotions and affiliated companies would do well to focus on a sensible retrenchment rather than cancer-like expansion for its own sake.
Not persuaded by the anecdotal evidence? To indulge in a bit of picture-within-a picture citing, last year Greg Doyel cited CME-approved PPV-buyrates-svengali Dave Meltzer in saying that “UFC buys rose from 2007-10, then dropped by nearly 33% in 2011, then hovered in that same range for 2012.” TUF ratings continue their free fall; the show likely only remains on the air due to FOX’s desperation for original programming for its two recently launched sports networks. UFC Fight Night ratings on those networks are trending at about half of what they did on Spike. MMA media are fond of speculating on what the cause might be (dilution of the product quality, frequent PR blunders by fighters, Dana F’n White), yet often miss the forest for the trees: It’s two people. In a cage. Trying to hurt each other. The idea that such a concept would one day overtake the popularity of the NFL, let alone soccer globally, wasn’t just misguided from the start. Frankly, it was preposterous.
Never ones to let facts get in the way of a good narrative, White and the Fertittas continue to try to expand. Rather than cancel TUF or work to freshen it, we get new iterations based around the globe. Likewise, events seem to proliferate like a cloud of locusts, ensuring dilution of product, no matter what anyone contends. By definition, if more events are held and the number of quality fighters remain stagnant, the company has to employ less talented fighters. (See: Reinhardt, Jason.) And I’ve yet to see anyone contend that there’s been a boom in people wanting to become professional MMA fighters. Given what we hear from fighters about their quality of life as they now begin to retire from the still-young sport, I wouldn’t expect a mad rush of interested parties in the future, either.
So what’s the answer? Much as the word makes White gag, it’s the hardcores. When the WWE included PPVs on its online WWE Network, it was making a calculated risk. It infuriated the cable companies; some declined to carry its PPVs anymore. It stood to make significantly less money per viewer. But the WWE understands that wistfully gazing backward at the halcyon days of business models gone by isn’t laying a solid foundation for the future. Streaming content to micro-targeted audiences is where all video is eventually headed. Will there be fits and starts along the way to discovering how to make it profitable? Yes. But those who begin that process sooner rather than later are at an advantage versus dinosaurs who refuse to evolve. UFC 100 is not walking through that door, MMA fans.
Like it or not, the UFC has its fanbase. Might a growing female roster interest more women? Possibly. Could entering new markets like Mexico interest a few more fans? Maybe. But UFC Fight Pass drew a higher percentage of international subscribers than was initially expected, and that reveals an inconvenient truth about the internet: it already allowed anyone who had any interest in discovering MMA to discover it. Regardless of sex. Regardless of nationality. The awareness is there. The market is what it is. The time to work on introducing MMA to new fans is over. The focus now needs to be on not antagonizing existing fans to the extent that, despite their interest, they decide it’s not worth their time to follow the sport anymore. Finding a profitable, convenient, consumer-friendly way to deliver content to current fans will ensure the sport’s survival. Foolhardy quests to sell bare-knuckle, no-holds-barred fighting to viewers with no interest in the spectacle is both quixotic and suicidal, and could well relegate MMA’s relevance to future episodes of “I Love the ’10s!”
Doyel, Greg. “UFC won’t tap out in fight for major sports status, but it has peaked.” CBS Sports. 07 March 2013. Web. 09 May 2014.
Meltzer, Dave. “Much to learn from and about UFC Fight Pass and future of streaming channels.” MMA Fighting. 09 May 2014. Web. 09 May 2014.
Cruz, Jason. “TUF 19 Episode 4: 438,000 viewers.” 08 May 2014. Web. 09 May 2014.
Saccaro, Matt. “Are events like UFC Fight Night 32 why the UFC’s popularity is suffering?” Cage Potato. 10 Nov. 2013. Web. 09 May 2014.
Martin, Brian. “UFC President Dana White has NFL, weather and more on his mind.” Los Angeles Daily News. 27 Jan. 2014. Web. 09 May 2014.
This essay, by Corey Whichard, won first place in the Co-Main Event Podcast’s second annual White Elephant Essay Contest, in the persuasive essay category.
“The UFC always has the fallback to where if some really bad shit happens, it can just have Dana White yell at us about it … Bellator doesn’t really have that. … It doesn’t have that figurehead who is endowed with the confidence to think that he can just make us believe whatever.”
— Chad Dundas, 5/12/14, Episode 103
“But, you know, there’s a lot of weird stuff going on with those rankings … It seems like if the UFC wanted to make those rankings into a thing that we could all take seriously, they would have to have some rules …”
— Ben Fowlkes, 5/12/14, Episode 103
In today’s MMA landscape, the UFC’s capricious abuse of its own ranking system is symptomatic of a much more serious threat to the overall health of MMA. That is, the UFC has too much control over how the sport is presented, and it often uses this control to benefit its own financial agenda at the expense of the sport’s integrity. If MMA is ever going to attain the kind of “sport for sport’s sake” legitimacy that attends football (or even tennis), an important first step is to develop a meaningful ranking system based on objective standards of athletic accomplishment. In this essay, I describe a method for creating such a system and demonstrate its validity.
One way to generate a standardized MMA ranking system involves drawing on techniques used in a sub-field of sociology called “social network analysis.” The basic idea is to model the structure of a social group by mapping out the relationships between individual group members (Borgatti, Everett, and Johnson 2013). It helps to think about this visually. For instance, picture all of the fighters in the UFC’s Welterweight division as large dots drawn on a piece of paper. Now imagine that there are lines linking certain dots together, where each line represents a fight, and each linked pair of dots represents fighters who have competed against each other. Using information from Sherdog.com to construct a win-loss matrix for all Welterweights employed by the UFC circa September 2013, I actually diagrammed the 170-pound division with a program called UCINet. [See Figure 1; Georges St. Pierre is the red dot.]
Once the network structure has been mapped out, it is possible to rank the fighters by calculating each fighter’s “Beta-centrality.” Beta-centrality functions by assigning each fighter a score based on the number of opponents in the network that he has beaten; it then adjusts that score based on the position of those opponents in the network, which itself is based on the position of the opponents that they have beaten, and so on. The process counts all opponents that are directly tied to the fighter, and all opponents that are indirectly tied to the fighter within 10 fights, though opponents that are “farther” away contribute less and less to the fighter’s score. Thus, when Jake Shields beat Martin Kampmann, his “Beta-centrality” score got a bump for this direct victory, but it also got a smaller bump for Kampmann’s win over Paulo Thiago, and an even smaller bump for Thiago’s win over Mike Swick, etc. This kind of recursive calculation is impossibly difficult to perform by hand, though relatively simple with the right computer program.
In plain English, a ranking system based on Beta-centrality means that the “best” fighter in the division does not simply have the most UFC victories, but he has the most victories over the most accomplished fighters in his division. Unlike the current ranking system, where the criteria for evaluating a fighter’s accomplishments largely rest on human opinion, a system based on Beta-centrality has the advantage of standardization. The relevant concept here is prestige, or the notion that a person’s prominence in a group only exists as an emergent quality of their relation to other group members. If you can empirically measure a person’s relationship to others in a group—using, say, a win/loss record—then you can empirically measure their relative position in that group. I used these techniques to generate a top-ten list of the Welterweights described above [see Table 1]. Keeping in mind that this ranking technique does not (yet) account for wins against fighters who were not employed by the UFC during September 2013, that it does not account for periods of inactivity (as long as the fighter was employed, their record was counted), and that it does not assign “style” points for impressive wins, it is notable that 50% of the same names appear (in different order) on my top-ten list that appear on Bloody Elbow’s September 2013 Welterweight meta-rankings (Wade 2013). This overlap provides suggestive evidence that the Beta-centrality rank is at least somewhat accurate. However, I ran one more test to verify this ranking technique’s validity.
Beta-Centrality Ranking for UFC Welterweights
Rank Fighter Name Prestige Score
1 Georges St. Pierre 5.43
2 Matt Hughes 3.16
3 BJ Penn 2.39
4 Martin Kampmann 2.22
5 Johny Hendricks 2.02
6 Carlos Condit 2.00
7 Thiago Alves 1.87
8 Jake Ellenberger 1.80
9 Matt Serra 1.79
10 Rick Story 1.63
Highly ranked fighters are highly successful fighters. If this ranking system is valid, then a fighter’s rank should be strongly related to other factors associated with professional success, such as financial compensation. It is reasonable to assume that the amount of show money that a fighter receives is a decent approximation of how much the UFC values that fighter. There are aberrations—Nate Diaz received 15K show money for UFC on Fox 7 (mixedmartialarts.com 2013)—but the overall pattern holds true. For the group of Welterweights described above, I recorded the amount of show money (in thousands) that they received for their most recent fight. I also recorded each fighter’s Beta-centrality (“prestige”) score. Because the amount of show money each fighter makes will be influenced by other factors, I also gathered data on how long each fighter had been employed by the UFC, their number of UFC victories, and the number of performance-based bonuses they had received. [Descriptive statistics for these variables can be found in Table 2.]
I then entered all of this information into Stata 11 (StataCorp 2009), a computer program designed to model statistical relationships between multiple variables. I used a statistical technique known as “Ordinary Least Squares” (OLS) regression to examine the correlation between Beta-centrality and show money, while simultaneously accounting for the influence of UFC wins, tenure, and bonuses. [See Table 3 for results.] Here’s how to read the table of results: the “b-coefficient” value estimates the correlation between the variable and “show money,” the “standard error” value represents the degree of imprecision, and the asterisks indicate the probability that the estimated correlation may be due to random chance. For instance, a “p-value” of 0.05 means that you can be 95% certain that the observed effect is real. To interpret the correlation, you read the b-coefficient as “a one-unit change in the predictor variable produces an X-unit change in the outcome variable.” Alright, so here’s what all this complicated shit really means: after accounting for the number of years a Welterweight has been employed by the UFC, how many wins they have, and how many bonuses they’ve won, each 1-point increase in the Welterweight’s prestige score translates to an additional $25K in show money, give or take about $4K. The model is more than 99.9% certain that the correlation is not due to random chance. In other words, Beta-centrality is powerfully correlated with financial success. The highest-rank fighters make the most show money, and the lowest-ranked fighters make the least show money. This confirms that the ranking metric is highly correlated with fighter success, which supports the notion that “Beta-centrality” is a legitimate way to go about ranking fighters.
With enough manpower, it is theoretically possible to use every professional fighter’s win/loss record from Sherdog.com to create one enormous MMA combat network. When fighters change promotions, it would be possible to treat them as “bridges” (Granovetter 1983) between the ranking structures of different organizations—a prospect that is increasingly plausible, given the UFC’s recent habit of releasing fairly high-profile fighters. In brief, using fancy mathematical techniques, it is totally possible to create an objective ranking system for MMA fighters. I propose that the implementation of such a system would go a long way toward elevating MMA’s status as a legitimate sport, and would wrest a core piece of the greater MMA narrative out from between Mr. White’s teeth.
Borgatti, Stephen P., Martin G. Everett, and Jeffrey C. Johnson. Analyzing Social Networks. Los Angeles: Sage, 2013. Print.
Dundas, Chad, and Ben Fowlkes. CoMainEvent.com. “Co-Main Event Podcast Episode 103.” 12 May 2014. Web. Accessed on 17 May 2014.
Granovetter, Mark. 1983. “The Strength of Weak Ties: A Network Theory Revisited” Sociological Theory 1: 201–233.
MixedMartialArts.com. “UFC on FOX 7 salaries + bonuses to Brown, Mein, Romero, Thomson.” 21 April 2013. <http://www.mixedmartialarts.com/news/436808/UFC-on-FOX-7-salaries–bonuses-to-Brown-Mein-Romero-Thomson/>. Accessed on 17 May 2014.
StataCorp. 2009. Stata Statistical Software: Release 11. College Station, Tx: StataCorp LP.
Wade, Richard. BloodyElbow.com. “Bloody Elbow September 2013 Meta-Rankings: Welterweight.” SB Nation. 4 October 2013. Web. Accessed on 17 May 2014.
Despite clothing adorned with rhinestones and seemingly impulsive mohawk haircuts being associated with mixed martial arts, there are more serious concerns that currently affect the overall health of the sport. In a time when performance enhancing drugs and inconsistent officiating still plague MMA, those issues are relatively insignificant. It might actually be the case that these issues are due to the sport’s relatively short existence. But as the sport continues to grow, regulation and uniformity will follow; there is reason to believe that MMA organizations like the UFC will aim to remedy some of these issues. The biggest threat to the overall health of mixed martial arts is one that MMA organizations currently have no incentive to address: collectively, fighters are not protected against the arbitrary decisions of fight promoters and are therefore susceptible to the kind of exploitation against which other professional athletes are protected.
Now, before Vitor Belfort critics and Diaz Bros. supporters advocate for stricter drug testing and a revamped scoring system, let’s acknowledge that these are issues that are more likely to be addressed by MMA promotions. Leading up to Jon Jones’ April 26 title defense against Glover Texeira at UFC 172 in Baltimore, UFC chairman and CEO Lorenzo Fertitta stated that “[enhanced drug testing is] going to be something that continues to happen on a pretty regular basis going forward” (Jeff Wagenheim, ‘UFC’s Lorenzo Fertitta discusses new random drug testing efforts’). While it’s too early to commend or criticize the organization’s renewed stance, it’s certainly a step in the right direction, and one with overwhelming public support. Most notably, this happened after former UFC welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre publicly decried the UFC’s reluctance to pursue stricter drug testing. And while there are still questionable decisions that make the MMA community reconsider the current scoring system altogether, poor officiating is largely an internal problem that has been addressed as the sport has grown. Perhaps the ten-point must system should be reevaluated, but does the current scoring system necessarily jeopardize the overall health of the sport? Not quite. While a flawed scoring system certainly delays, and sometimes even deprives, a fighter from fighting for the title, a fighter’s union would better protect fighters’ interests.
The only times the idea of a fighter’s union has been mentioned is when fighters have expressed their dissatisfaction with reported salaries. The biggest reported payday for a single fight, according to Fertitta and UFC President Dana White, is $5 million (Damon Martin, ‘Dana White Reveals Biggest Single Payday for a Fighter in UFC History’). But what if the payday, whether disclosed or not, is not the problem itself? Though White proposes that the reason the UFC does not disclose fighter salaries is the fighters’ well being, keeping salaries private also decreases a fighter’s bargaining power. In previous cases where the UFC has been criticized for what it pays its fighters, fighters have ultimately been silenced. In the case of Randy Couture, the UFC claimed it had been publicly misrepresented and threatened to take him to court for punitive damages instead (LA Times, ‘UFC details Couture’s salary’). After Tim Kennedy alleged that he could make more money as a garbage man, he publicly retracted his statement and was coincidentally also scheduled to headline a UFC Fight for the Troops event. These instances only further prove that the UFC understands that it must suppress anything that might translate to public criticism.
While the UFC has done a remarkable job of growing the sport and establishing mainstream credibility, it is necessary for mixed martial arts fighters to have the ability to collectively bargain. The current MMA landscape resembles an antiquated version of other professional sports. In the NFL, it used to be the case that league executives who, much like MMA promoters, exercised exclusive rights over their athletes used to blacklist participants who did not acquiesce to their demands. It wasn’t until Bill Radovich decided to take the league to court that players eventually obtained the right to seek representation and negotiate in good faith (William Rhoden, ‘Sports of the Times; NFLs Labor Pioneer Remains Unknown’). In boxing, it wasn’t until Congress passed the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act in 2000 that fighters were protected, at least in theory. However, due to lax oversight, the provisions of the act have been eviscerated (Thomas Hauser, ‘No one is enforcing the federal boxing laws’). If an independent governing body were to exist, in the form of a fighter’s union, fighters would be able to better negotiate their contracts and not have to worry about promoters gutting legislation or negotiating lucrative contracts that might jeopardize their ability to enjoy their winnings the same way other professional athletes do (Ben Fowlkes, How Team Takedown is changing the approach to building MMA champions).
Hoping for independent oversight that protects fighters’ interests is optimistic, but there exists precedent that allows for such hope. After UFC lightweight Gilbert Melendez reportedly negotiated a deal with Bellator MMA, the UFC decided to match the terms of the contract in order to keep him on its roster. This example, though isolated, proves that fighters who are willing to publicly disclose their income are more likely to benefit from contract negotiations. Also, as the sport seeks public acceptance, competing organizations vie for public recognition. So while MMA continues to grow as a sport largely dependent on individual performance, the overall health of the sport is a shared responsibility.
Fowlkes, Ben. “How Team Takedown is changing the approach to building MMA champions.” MMAjunkie. MMA Junkie, 5 Apr. 2014. Web. 16 May 2014. <http://mmajunkie.com/2014/04/how-team-takedown-is-changing-the-approach-to-training-and-managing-mma-champions>.
Hauser, Thomas. “Hauser: Federal boxing laws go unenforced.” ESPN.com. ESPN.com, 25 Sept. 2007. Web. 19 May 2014. <http://sports.espn.go.com/sports/boxing/news/story?id=3032059>.
Martin, Damon. “Dana White Reveals Biggest Single Payday for a Fighter in UFC History.” Bleacher Report. Bleacher Report, 12 Sept. 2013. Web. 19 May 2014. <http://bleacherreport.com/articles/1772159-dana-white-reveals-biggest-single-payday-for-a-fighter-in-ufc-history>.
Pugmire, Lance. “UFC details Couture’s salary.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 31 Oct. 2007. Web. 20 May 2014. <http://articles.latimes.com/2007/oct/31/sports/sp-ufc31>.
Razak, Bobby. “History of MMA: Big John McCarthy.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 11 Feb. 2012. Web. 20 May 2014.
Rhoden, William. “Sports of The Times; N.F.L.’s Labor Pioneer Remains Unknown.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 2 Oct. 1994. Web. 18 May 2014. <http://www.nytimes.com/1994/10/02/sports/sports-of-the-times-nfl-s-labor-pioneer-remains-unknown.html?src=pm>.
Wagenheim, Jeff. “UFC’s Lorenzo Fertitta discusses new random drug testing efforts | SI.com.” SI.com. Sports Illustrated, 8 Apr. 2014. Web. 18 May 2014. <http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/mma/news/20140408/ufc-randon-drug-testing-jon-jones-lorenzo-fertitta/>.
If we’re being honest, there’s just too much stuff to talk about during this week’s Co-Main Event podcast. Saturday night’s UFC Fight Night 36 produced dueling middleweight contenders in Lyoto Machda and Jacare Souza, but there isn’t much time to dwell on it, with UFC 170 coming up this weekend. In the main event of that pay-per-view, Ronda Rousey will defend her women’s bantamweight championship against Sara McMann, while in the co-main Daniel Cormier fights random dude Patrick Cummins. Not only that, but with Dana White’s unhinged PEDs tirade, Gilbert Melendez agreeing to terms with Bellator and Chris Leben tiptoeing right up to the brink of a Twitter meltdown, Ben and Chad have quite enough to discuss, thank you very much.
All that, plus MasterTweet Theatre, AYFKM and Just Sayin’ Stuff.
Direct downloaders can play Michael Knight in the Knight Rider remake right here.