UFC Belt (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Return on Investment: The WME-IMG Era of the UFC

The question in the headline of this column is asked with all sincerity. We’re approaching a full calendar year since the UFC was bought by WME-IMG for over $4 billion, and it’s fair to wonder if the Hollywood agency has received a fair return on its investment. Sure, the UFC probably had its biggest event ever under WME-IMG’s watch with UFC 205 at Madison Square Garden last year. But let’s look at what’s happened since then, shall we?

One of the UFC’s biggest stars, Ronda Rousey, was pummeled into oblivion in under a minute at UFC 207 in December and, for all intents and purposes, has retired. The organization’s other big star, Conor McGregor, followed up his double-title win at UFC 205 by taking time off to be a dad and to pursue a boxing match with Floyd Mayweather, Jr., which inexplicably looks close to actually happening.

The UFC began 2017 with three consecutive mediocre pay-per-views, which included seemingly inventing a title out of thin air just so one of those shows would have a championship bout as its main event. The UFC then held a big press conference to announce a fight between the returning Georges St-Pierre and UFC middleweight champion Michael Bisping.


Only now that fight isn’t happening and Bisping has apparently come down with a “knee injury” that will keep him from facing top contender Yoel Romero. Instead, Romero will face Robert Whittaker for another one of UFC’s favorite crutches, an interim title belt. The two men meet at UFC 213 in July for the interim middleweight title. These interim belts are something the UFC strangely depends on way too much in lieu of good ol’ fashioned No. 1 contender fights.

Cancelled bouts like St-Pierre/Bisping serve as an example for why fighters like Luke Rockhold, Al Iaquinta and Nate Diaz continue to express their dissatisfaction with the way the UFC conducts its business. Its recent annual press conference to hype its summer slate of fights also disintegrated into an embarrassing display of fighters trying to do their best McGregor impression and scuffles resulting from insulting each other’s mothers.

Then, to top it all off, the UFC held its annual Fighters Retreat in Las Vegas last weekend, and it quickly turned into an episode of Jersey Shore, complete with speeches by drunk guest speakers, fighters again railing against the UFC’s awful deal with Reebok and a scuffle between Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino and Angela Magana that resulted in Cyborg punching Magana in the face. Simply put, the UFC is a circus right now.

That circus is being led — or not being led, depending on your perspective — by UFC President Dana White. When he’s not continuing to belittle fighters for raising legitimate questions or bending over backwards to accommodate a big payday for McGregor’s planned boxing match with Mayweather, he’s displaying leadership that’s inconsistent at best and his usual nonexistent at worst.

Besides announcing fights that can be admittedly intriguing, it’s hard to see what White brings to the table, besides engaging in Twitter beefs with fighters:

Mixed martial arts is a very young sport, and the UFC is a very young organization. But it’s still seen as a sport by many, and White has a long way to go before he can compare himself to the likes of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, as much as I personally despise that man, or NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. Despite Goodell’s numerous flaws, he’s still an adequate representation of the NFL for corporate America. Silver has helped take the NBA’s popularity to new heights. Meanwhile, White is known for going on expletive-filled, homophobic and misogynistic rants.

Following her confrontation with Magana at the UFC Athletes Retreat last weekend, Cyborg published a very poignant post about the culture, or lack thereof, in the UFC. It raises many valid points and spotlights some of the hypocrisy within the UFC, when its president joins in with others in making transphobic jokes about Cyborg while simultaneously claiming to support the LGBTQ community (remember those rainbow shirts that the fighters wore?).

If there’s anything that WME-IMG knows, it’s public relations and optics. Their biggest recent acquisition is drifting aimlessly with no rhyme or reason behind its day-to-day operations and dealing with events that can cast the UFC in a negative light. It all reflects poorly on the company.

I’m not naïve; I don’t expect the UFC to suffer any great financial loss from its current flaws. Fans will still buy tickets and watch pay-per-views, and it’s likely that it will just continue to be business as usual for Dana White and company. However, every misstep slowly backs the UFC away from mainstream legitimacy and inches it closer to the sideshow that U.S. Sen. John McCain once described MMA as being: Human cockfighting.