Roundtable: How much does the quality of a UFC card matter to fans?


This past weekend, two of the best light heavyweights in the world squared off with $1,000,000 on the line. The winner would have a strong case to be the best in the world at 205 pounds.

The fight did not take place in the UFC Octagon.

Vadim Nemkov defended his Bellator title against Corey Anderson in the finals of light heavyweight world grand prix at Bellator 277, and while the event certainly generated more interest than your average Bellator card — helped by a controversial non-finish and the A.J. It was a rematch between McKee and Patricio Freeze in the headliner, but it seems like it was second in line to the UFC Fight Night.

In terms of star power, UFC Vegas 51 was just a shade above a Contender Series lineup outside of the main event. The co-main was fought by two debutants of the ESPN+ prospect show. Several other fights were also featured.

This upcoming weekend, Bellator hosts two events in Hawaii featuring names like Cris Cyborg, Juliana Velasquez, Kyoji Horiguchi, plus the return of Ilima-Lei Macfarlane. UFC Vegas 52, meanwhile, has a strong headliner in Amanda Lemos vs. Jessica Andrade, but is otherwise light on contender implications. This isn’t the first Fight Night event that has had fans questioning the overall quality of the product, either.

The question is how much does that matter given the power of the UFC brand and its working relationship with ESPN that requires it to churn out hours of valuable programming? Quality over quantity is the motto of the UFC, but will the fans continue to tolerate it for so long?

The MMA Fighting crew of Alexander K. Lee, Damon Martin, Steven Marrocco, and Jed Meshew discuss whether the UFC risks alienating fans with watered down events and how long its audience is going to put up with it.

Join the conversation below as we’d love to hear your thoughts.

Lee: I have a confession to make: When it comes to the UFC schedule, I’ve always been in favor of the more cards the merrier.

As someone who jumped in with both feet onto the MMA bandwagon during the 2000s glory days of Georges St-Pierre, Anderson Silva, and Brock Lesnar and then stayed hitched on as it barreled into the Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor eras, I can appreciate that there was a time when scarcity of product helped to keep fans salivating from card to card.

But I also read the tea leaves and could see that the UFC’s plan for world domination wasn’t just lip service. With demand rising steadily, it was easy to predict that UFC events could go from special occasions that you’d plan gatherings around to throw-away Saturday afternoon affairs that you’d catch while flipping channels. And once networks like FOX and ESPN entered the picture, the UFC realized it could have its cake and eat it too with pay-per-view revenue on top of lucrative TV deals.

Guess what? It’s fine.

It might seem like defeatism, as we see more UFC cards that are not very descriptive. But I view it more as accepting what is and being hopeful for the future. Fight Night events aren’t meant to be killer from top to bottom, there’s going to be lots of filler in there and the average fan has the luxury of ignoring it if they choose to do so. Dana White has been saying for years that if you don’t like what his promotion is selling then don’t watch it (this seems like the opposite of promotion to me, but that’s a whole other discussion) and that statement has never had more utility.

See some interesting names in the preliminaries? By all means, tune in early. Stacked ESPN main card? Find your nearest listings, and mark your calendar. A one-fight event is something that every hardcore fan will recognize. Relish that one fight and enjoy the rest of your weekend. Traditionalists may scoff at the influx of Contender Series signings and regional prospects that have flooded the UFC APEX, but the truth is that the viewer has as much power as ever and choosing to skip one or two cards isn’t going to diminish their fealty to the UFC.

Think about how many fans echo the sentiment of “It’s always the cards no one is talking about that deliver,” a theory that’s patently untrue and only survives because 1) people keep saying it and 2) people flat-out don’t remember the cards that don’t deliver, so there’s an unassailable confirmation bias at work. Add in how easy it is to digest highlights in bite-size viral portions and you can see why there hasn’t exactly been a mass exodus of UFC loyalists.

I understand that it can be difficult to see the good in low-stakes events. Fans and media both decry who is who and who ???). These are becoming more common, and they are not an exception. However, as long as there is food on the plate there will always be fight-hungry maniacs who are willing to eat it all. You can at most have a bite. It will be difficult to get people out of the restaurant, based on what we have seen.

Marrocco: The fan inside me who stayed up late on weekdays to watch early 2000s Shooto DVDs is long dead, so I’m not the best judge of the tolerance for thin fight cards. I do this for a living, and these days, the never-ending carousel of UFC fighters and UFC events is numbing, to say nothing of all the promotional competitors crammed into other nights of the week.

Actually, come to think of it, maybe I’m the perfect judge of whether anemic cards matter. It didn’t matter to me back in the mid-aughts if I was at the main event on a live or archived card from Japan. I feel fairly confident Mamoru Yamaguchi was not driving subscriptions for the MMA Vault service I belonged to long before Fight Pass was a thing, but I was totally there for it. It was the passion that I felt for the sport. I was obsessed.

Whether Yamaguchi or Conor McGregor is the gateway drug, MMA is extremely addicting for a certain segment of the population. These folks don’t necessarily need context with violence; they watch the sport for its technical aspects as much as its drama and gore. These are the hardcores who have been arguing on Twitter and posting to message boards since the beginning. It’s their passion and enthusiasm that has kept UFC alive, as well as provided the platform for the UFC’s mainstream entry.

The UFC trades on this. It expects that, more or less, around 800,000 viewers will tune in week in and week out to whatever they put on. They can deliver to ESPN a consistent audience, and on a platform like ESPN+, in a highly fractured and competitive market for live sports content, that’s a valuable commodity. They can also sell advertising and then repackage content later on, reaping the benefits (or at most a portion) of the pay-per view.

But passion fades eventually. Most of the hardcores that I started watching fights with (and more than a few journalists) have long since tuned out of the week-to-week machinations of the UFC, jumping back in only for the fights that move the needle. Many have given up. Time after time, the explanation I hear is, “I just can’t keep track of all the fighters.” It reminds me of another “sport” I used to obsess over in the mid-aughts: poker.

*]Back in those days, ESPN did an admirable job of spotlighting the top players of the game. Even though they were all veterans, their personalities felt somewhat like that of The Ultimate Fighter .. They brought unique personalities to a high-stakes game, and you bonded with them. Two or three years later and there were a lot of poker events. It was difficult to form the same connection with online players. Then I closed my eyes and hopped in briefly to see if there was a response.

The point is that fandom has a lifecycle, regardless of whether it’s hardcore or casual. Sustainability is determined by how many customers stay around and before they move on to the next thing. Lately, it feels like the UFC is really testing the bounds of its most loyal customers’ attention spans (to say nothing of their bank accounts), and it’s been lazy about creating a bond between them and the athletes (no thanks to a relentless schedule and churn of its roster). The new status quo will not change unless there are fewer events and a redistribution to lower-level talent. The UFC is at the point where it has squeezed all its profits as close as possible. A few hundred thousand viewers now and then won’t make a difference in the long-term.

Martin: These days, it really seems like quantity has taken over quality when it comes to the UFC Fight Night cards on ESPN and ESPN+, and eventually fans are going to learn to just tune it out.

With quotas to fill under a lucrative contract with the Disney-owned sports network, the UFC has been promoting more and more cards lately with less and less attractive names at the top of the show while largely saving the bigger fights for pay-per-view. Now, that’s not exactly a new phenomenon — the UFC’s money making bread and butter has always been pay-per-view, but that doesn’t negate the $1. 5 billion deal the promotion made with ESPN that included all of these smaller events that make up the other three weeks out of any given month.

Now to be fair, the UFC hasn’t really been forced to make any dramatic changes because the audience has largely still continued to show up for whatever card happens to be on television, even if the event is lackluster at best. The problem is that inconsistency has to be a concern with ratings oftentimes rising or falling based only on the lead-in the UFC receives on ESPN, or the competition the fights are facing on other networks.

A prime example is UFC Vegas 51 this past weekend, which averaged 914,000 viewers, an astonishing number considering the card was littered with little-known names including a co-main event between two fighters who had never even competed in the promotion before. The deceiving part about those viewership figures is that the UFC enjoyed a robust audience sticking around from the NBA Playoff games that preceded the fights. On the flipside, the UFC Columbus card, with a much stronger main card, dipped down to 677,000 average viewers while going up against the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.

Names sell fights, and lately, the UFC hasn’t really seemed to care all that much about putting a lot of name value into the Fight Night cards. The UFC’s ongoing attitude of not caring enough about main event fighters makes it difficult to build future champions.

Let’s just look at the next couple of cards set to air on either ESPN or ESPN+ to understand how far the product has fallen. UFC Vegas 52 boasts an ex-champion at the top of the card in Jessica Andrade, but her opponent, Amanda Lemos, has only ever competed on one main card in her entire career with the UFC. The UFC may be betting on Andrade’s fame to sell the card.

Out of the other 12 fights on the card, there is only one fighter in MMA Fighting’s Global Rankings competing on Saturday night, and that’s No. 11 Manel Kape. Otherwise, the most prominent name at UFC Vegas 52 is likely Clay Guida, who fights Claudio Puelles.

The following week, at UFC Vegas 53, No. 6-ranked Rob Font takes on No. 11-ranked Marlon ‘Chito’ Vera in the main event. The UFC website only lists four confirmed fights for the whole card. There are four fights. Total.

Although there is a lot of fights taking place, it doesn’t seem to be a problem that these matchups were announced less than a week before the event. Out of the fighters who were previously confirmed to compete next Saturday night, No. 15 strawweight Jessica Penne appears to be the only other ranked athlete on the entire card.

Rankings might not matter to everybody, but that’s at least a good gauge in terms of recognizable names from a storytelling narrative that can help sell an event. This is what makes these UFC Fight Night cards so terrible.

At some point, people are going to start turning the channel even if there’s still going to be a percentage of the fanbase watching whatever is happening so long as the UFC’s name is attached to the event. The UFC currently requires that a Fight Night promotion be promoted. This is not sufficient in the long-term.

The UFC has certainly put on bad events in the past but these days it appears that the promotion is all but daring the audience to tune out and find something else to watch on Saturday nights.

Meshew: You’re asking if UFC fans will get tired of being fed fight cards that are tantamount to a regional MMA show being branded like a UFC hot dog? This is the same core group that regularly trashes actual good fighters for asking the UFC for silly things like “to be compensated fairly” and is still holding onto the timeless aesthetic of Affliction in the year 2022. They are loyal and nothing but the best. And honestly, I can respect that, especially because fans don’t really have a choice. Sure, maybe the fights suck that night, but what else am I gonna do, watch baseball? I’d rather roll around in mouse traps.

The reality of the UFC is MMA for a large, huge majority. It’s like the NFL. There are many professional leagues of football, however, no one is aware of them, and most of them are a joke. And even if an Arena game is functionally the same as watching the Lions play the Jaguars in Week 9, you’ve got to be a full-blown degenerate to watch Arena Football. Same with the UFC. No one is going to watch Bellator on a Saturday night when it’s on Showtime (dead serious, I am the only person I know with a Showtime subscription, and I only have that because I work in MMA and thus have to), and it’s friggin’ Bellator.

Speaking of Bellator: Let me explain why UFC is spoon-feeding midwesterners disguised as rising competitors.

*] I am a fervent MMA fan. But others, perhaps a majority of the people who regularly watch MMA, are simply people who like to watch fights. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. And you know what the UFC does well? Produce fights. Damn near every Saturday night, on ESPN+ (a channel that, you know, every person in the target demographic actually owns), somebody is getting into a fistfight with somebody else, and I can be reasonably sure that the overall production values will be competent or better, and that my ears won’t be perpetually accosted by the tenors of “Big” John McCarthy and Josh Thomson. These fighters may not be “important”, but to me as someone who does not care much about who or why one fight is almost the same. It’s a way to pass the time on Saturday night while I cook dinner. It’s even better than playing baseball.

It is just what it is. ESPN needs X amount of cards a year to fill up their time slots, the UFC wants that sweet guaranteed money so they’re going to oblige, and viewers want something to do on Saturday night, so they are going to watch, which in turn will make ESPN want more content. It’s a vicious cycle of mediocrity but you know, there are worse things in the world than having fights exceedingly available every weekend. Not that long ago, I was having to bootleg MMA videos off The Underground, if video existed at all. So, in the words of Marlo Stanfield, this is one of them good problems.