Disconnected: How Can UFC Reach Its UK Fanbase?

So MMA is now officially the fastest growing sport on the planet owing much to the rise of the UFC and of course, sport’s darling Conor McGregor.

The Irishman is everywhere, every poster, every magazine and every billboard has his image plastered across it. A sporting icon that Ireland will never forget. A few hundred miles to the east in the United Kingdom, fans of the UFC are few and far between. Perplexing that a sport can be on such a tilted upward curve and the UK still hasn’t jumped on board the band wagon yet.

You need to get yourself a wealth belly, kid. It's the new six pack.

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History and violence

The UFC could not be bigger in the current sporting climate with Conor McGregor hysteria ripping through the media at a rate of knots. So why on earth is there such little buzz in the United Kingdom? The first reason is history. Look back at British combat sports history, which names come to mind? Lennox Lewis, Henry Cooper, perhaps more recently, Joe Calzaghe or Amir Khan. However, you would be hard pushed to find an MMA fighter who has transcended the sport and broken into mainstream media.

Why? Well, as boxing has somehow managed to maintain its image as the noble man’s sport, MMA has been relegated to the role of disgraced younger brother. People have become accustomed to boxing’s place in British sporting history and there’s little space for a new, disruptive sport. For the old fashioned and unversed in the art of MMA, the UFC is smearing the good name of boxing; boxing’s shadow looms large.

This brings us nicely onto the topic of violence. Punching someone in the face with a barrage of uppercuts, jabs and shots to the body is apparently acceptable. But a knee or a kick? That’s too far. This is the position a lot of sports fans like to take in the UK with regards to a MMA; it’s just too dangerous.

There’s no denying some of the head kick knockouts or ground and pound finishes are brutal in the UFC, but how is this any different to someone repeatedly punching an opponent into submission in boxing? It’s the visceral nature of UFC that disturbs people. Naturally, it is linked to street fighting which gives it a sort of ugly, dirty feel to it.

This could not be further from the truth. Every diehard fan can wax lyrical about the art of submitting someone via a kimura or a guillotine. Just watch Jiu-Jitsu extraordinaire Damian Maia go about his business in the welterweight division of the UFC. He will make people tap without landing a single shot to the face. It is clear that whilst violence is integral to the sport, it’s not all blood, guts and gore. Perception without knowledge of the sport harms the UFC’s image beyond repair.

Logistics and marketing

If only the British public could watch this first hand? Well, unfortunately, the time difference between the US and the UK means that the majority of the main fight cards kick off at roughly 2 or 3 in the morning. Fans are left desperately downing mugs of coffee in an attempt to beat the inevitable drowsiness.

Furthermore, a lot of the hype built through press conferences and weigh ins tend to be overlooked in the UK (unless of course, Conor McGregor is fighting.) This means us as fans miss the trash talk, rivalries and we are left to watch the fight without knowing the bad blood shared inside the Octagon. The story is what compels the viewer and the British fans are generally ignorant of the history and drama.

Essentially the UFC still provides for the local US market and unlike say football which has top leagues all over Europe, there is only one league that is worth watching in MMA. Competing with football, rugby and boxing also poses a problem. Who has the time to follow their boyhood club in the Premier League, sneak in England v France in the Six Nations and then stay up until 4am to watch fighters they’ve never heard of fight? No one realistically.

The UFC is on the peripheries of people’s interest. If you look at most sports media outlets, you never receive updates on MMA, unless of course, McGregor is fighting. How are people supposed to know UFC 217 has three championship bouts on the card? Where’s the marketing push that all the other sports receive? Non existant. We need a marketable British star…

Lack of Superstars

Luckily, we already have one! Except, no one has ever heard of him. Does the casual UFC fan realise that here in England we have the UFC Middleweight champion of the world in Michael Bisping? Probably not. This is a crying shame because the Mancunian is actually highly entertaining, incredibly skilled and easily marketable. Bisping has fought the fourth most times in UFC history. Just let that soak in. He’s competed 25 times in the Octagon and yet if you were to mention his name to most sports fans you would be met with a blank stare and a shrug.

Outside of Bisping, the depth in talent is thin on the ground. Light Heavyweight Jimi Manuwa is a great striker and his fights never go the distance, but in the fighting game fans want characters. McGregor has reinvented the wheel. Today, if you can’t talk up a fight, predict the round you’re going to win in and make millions then you’re just not worth watching.

If the UK is going to get pulled into the UFC market they need a genuine star like Anthony Joshua. Someone with charisma, charm or conversely a controversial figure like Tyson Fury to capture the attention of the public. The one man who could do it is Michael Venom Page, currently fighting in the Bellator organisation. Not only does he fight with such an unorthodox style originating from his karate and kick boxing back ground, but he also uses his social media wisely.

Still unbeaten, if MVP can win a Bellator title and then switch allegiances to the UFC we could have a fighter with sincere star and staying power. McGregor’s influence is unshakable unfortunately. We need a British version, a replica, an imitation, anything, but it has to be a fighter that is believable and someone the fans will want to stay up until the early hours of the morning supporting.