LAS VEGAS – Imagine if, as Muhammad Ali returned to the ring following his well-publicized suspension, his promoter, Bob Arum, started questioning whether Ali wanted to fight anymore.
Or if, on the eve of the industry-changing WrestleMania 3, Vince McMahon started publicly trashing headliners Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant.
Or, hell, if P.T. Barnum was taking his 19th-century circus on tour, and he telegraphed the local newspaper in the next city to wonder aloud whether his trapeze artists were really up to the task.
All these scenarios are unthinkable, because promoters are supposed to promote, and at the very least, aren’t supposed to harm the attractions they want the public to pay to see.
But UFC president Dana White’s curious knack for denigrating his own product came to the fore again this weekend, when UFC women’s bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes pulled out of her UFC 213 title fight against Valentina Shevchenko, citing chronic sinusitis.
“I asked the doctors what’s wrong with her,” White said at the post-fight news conference, which Nunes did not attend. “She was medically cleared. She was physically OK, they found nothing wrong with her, but she didn’t feel right.”
If these words seem to strike a familiar tone, they should. White’s been quick to attack his drawing cards in public when he feels aggrieved, most famously after the cancelation of UFC 151, in which White called Jon Jones’ coach, Greg Jackson, a “sport killer” for not accepting a fight with Chael Sonnen on nine days’ notice after his original opponent, Dan Henderson, fell out.
Then there was the painfully awkward scene after UFC 167, in which White went on a tirade against one of his most beloved champions, Georges St-Pierre, and claimed he was at the hospital following a brutal match with Johny Hendricks, only to have a battered and bruised St-Pierre show up at the podium, holding an ice pack to his face.
St-Pierre hasn’t fought in the three-and-a-half years since, and a Canadian market once so hot it sold out the 54,000-seat Rogers Centre in Toronto fizzled in UFC 167’s aftermath.
White’s verbal sparring with his charges are largely glossed over when business is booming. After all, the UFC survived the loss of both Jones and St-Pierre for long stretches and had the golden age of Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor emerge.
But things aren’t looking so rosy in 2017. Rousey appears done. McGregor is about to box Floyd Mayweather, with no guarantee he’s ever returning to MMA.
If ever there’s been an impetus for White to hype his fighters as stars worthy of your attention, it is now, when new UFC owners WME-IMG have to defray a $4 billion bill for their purchase.
But White seems to have doubled down on his penchant for ripping into his champions. The Nunes controversy comes after he got into it with his longest-reigning current titleholder, flyweight champ Demetrious Johnson.
Johnson is on the verge of breaking what might be the UFC’s most hallowed record, former middleweight champion Anderson Silva’s 10 successful title defenses. Johnson is also considered by many to be the sport’s top pound-for-pound fighter.
He and White got into a public clash over Johnson’s next opponent. White wanted him to fight former bantamweight champ T.J. Dillashaw, who has never fought at flyweight. Johnson, among other concerns, questioned if Dillashaw could make weight, and instead asked to fight Ray Borg, one of the few contenders at 125 pounds he hasn’t already beat.
White sounded like a teenager in a snit when he responded, via MMAJunkie.com: “You want Ray Borg, we’ll give you Ray Borg. I’m sure the fans will be clamoring, and ticket sales will be through the roof and pay-per-views will be off the charts.”
Really makes you want to rush out and buy a ticket, doesn’t it?
Nunes, meanwhile, was coming off high-profile, dominant wins over the two biggest stars in women’s mixed martial arts, Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate, and did so on two of the highest-profile events in recent years.
That alone should be enough to turn Nunes into a star. But the UFC has completely dropped the ball in the promotion of Nunes – she was all but invisible in the buildup to the UFC 207 fight with Rousey – and White’s reaction to Nunes’ UFC 213 situation certainly won’t help.
Back in the day, White had a knack for getting the fans to side with him in public disputes with fighters. And, indeed, in the Nunes case, a certain portion of the fan base wants to believe Nunes backed out of a fight against someone she already beat over a case of the sniffles.
But this approach has reached the point of diminishing returns. The scenarios in front of White with Johnson and Nunes – the guy about to break Silva’s record; the fighter who finished Rousey and Tate in short order – are the promotional equivalents of being fed perfect alley-oops.
White can get away with clanging one layup after another off the rim when stars like Rousey and McGregor are at their peak. But UFC 213 drew an announced crowd 12,834, which wouldn’t have been enough to fill their old Vegas home at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, much less the cavernous, 20,000-capacity T-Mobile Arena.
The promoter has run his fighters down one time too many. The fans are apparently getting the message.
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