Zack Peñalva, Sports Editor
To trace the rise of the current Ultimate Fighting Championship, you have to understand exactly where it started. The early UFC was pure bloodsport. There were few set rules and not a lot of real organization. When some of the earliest UFC events were held in the late 1990’s, Senator John McCain was so disgusted by what he called “human cockfighting” that he lead a campaign that got the events banned in 36 states.
From there, the UFC changed their focus from spectacle to sport and has created a brand that Forbes values at over 1.6 billion dollars. Gone are the days of hair pulling and groin punches and in its place has come the standard for mixed martial arts fighting. But while the rule changes played a part in finding an audience, the real popularity comes from the fighters. And now more than ever we’re seeing the UFC’s fighters take a more prominent space in the public eye.
The most obvious example is Ronda Rousey. Rousey went from virtual unknown to a common media fixture appearing on over 40 different television shows (“SNL,” “Tonight Show,” “Good Morning America”), two blockbusters (“The Expendables 3” and “Furious 7) and on the covers of major magazines like “Sports Illustrated” and “ESPN.” Even after losing to Holly Holm in her last fight, Rousey still has over 2.2 million twitter followers and 7.5 million on Instagram. Not to mention the fact that Forbes estimates that earnings from endorsements are greater than what she’s earned from fights.
On the men’s side of the equation is the UFC’s newest golden boy Connor McGregor. After winning over and over in explosive fashion, the swaggering Irishman has become the face of the UFC. His Instagram, which boasts over 3.5 million followers, is a showcase of hard training and the ridiculous amount of wealth he’s earned through fights and promotions. Already, UFC chairman and CEO Lorenzo Fertitta has said the McGregor will be the first UFC fighter to break $100 million in earnings if he continues at his current pace. That’s a number that doesn’t include the money he would get from outside sponsorships like those he already has with Monster.
And while McGregor hasn’t had the same type of media exposure as Ronda, the pay-per-view numbers generated by the two have shown that they have the draw to make people want to watch. SB Nation’s Michael Hutchinson reported that the PPV numbers for UFC in 2015 were the highest they’ve been in the past five years, mostly due to Rousey and McGregor’s fights.
Ultimately, the real star power comes down to results. Rousey saw her stock drop quite a bit when she was knocked out, but has kept herself relevant as she works towards her next fight. McGregor was set to fight for the welterweight title tomorrow night before his opponent backed out due to injury. If McGregor would happen to lose tomorrow night in a fight against a “worse” opponent one can only imagine it really hurting his personal stock. Win and be loved, lose and be forgotten; as with most things in life, it all comes down to results.