Discover how Nate Diaz’s epic payday and the changing landscape of MMA and boxing are reshaping the combat sports industry. Read more on Bloody Elbow.
Nate Diaz and Cory Sandhagen again proved that winning isn’t everything. The MMA-fighter-to-boxing spectacle became a staple after two pivotal changes in the entertainment landscape. First, Conor McGregor and Floyd Mayweather proved the spectacle’s ability to gain mainstream attention and dollars, and then a generation of YouTubers who gained fame through vlogging and pranking needed to pivot along with their aging fanbase.
Mayweather himself has been credited as being ahead of the pack in recognizing the enthusiasm for a crossover fight through social media attention from the trifecta of MMA, boxing, and casual fans. The combined power of both McGregor and Mayweather’s cultural pull was too much for even the UFC’s restrictive contractual bondage. McGregor secured a payday so large it may be the thing that ultimately derailed his MMA career, and once that Pandora’s box was opened, every fighter wanted to find out what was inside.
Since social media was the spark that set off the boxing / MMA explosion, it’s only logical that a generation raised on the internet would be the one to see this as the future and not a one-off experiment. The first major wave of YouTuber boxing was spearheaded by the Paul brothers who possess a Floyd Mayweather-esque ability to capture the attention of two different viewers: fans will pay to watch their hero beat up (hand picked, shopworn) MMA professionals, and haters will pay to see the Pauls fight in the hopes that they’ll finally get knocked out.
It seems like these MMA fighter vs YouTube in boxing events are of declining relevance and fanfare but they keep happening. I suspect that there’s an algorithm that gauges just how much interest is necessary to turn a profit and until it dips below a certain level we’re stuck with these people.
The Nate Diaz Effect
Most fighters spend their prime in the UFC with a level of income that did not reflect their skill or popularity. The UFC is extremely good at moving the goalposts when it comes to fighter pay. For most of the roster, it’s sufficient to dangle the prospect of bigger paydays once you win a belt. When you think about it, that’s a devilishly simple trick. There are over 500 fighters in the UFC and only eleven champions. Aside from the occasional interim champ, everyone in a weight class is fighting for the same slice of the pie.
People want to see Nate Diaz fight, flex, and mad dog his opponent. Winning is a bonus, but not the reason they buy the tickets. Nate Diaz learned that during his tenure with the UFC, and it took an iron will to escape the promotion’s gravitational pull. The end result is a single payday that may have dwarfed his total earnings with the world’s premiere combat promotion.
Cory Sandhagen’s Struggle
This all leads us to Saturday night’s UFC main event. While listening to the 6th Round post-fight podcast I learned that Dana White, UFC president and domestic abuser, left his cageside seat in disgust before the fifth round commenced. We can infer from Sandhagen’s performance that the martial arts were mixed in a way that did not suit White’s preference.
The UFC figurehead is quite open in his desire for striking heavy performances in which excitement and entertainment is more often rewarded than a thoughtful game plan. Sandhagen afterwards said he injured his arm early in the fight and was forced to adapt. This is the kind of thing we admire when the title is on the line, for example, Robert Whittaker’s first title defense against Yoel Romero. But for a Fight Night in front of thousands of fans who want violence (as the booth acknowledged multiple times), this was an egregious error on Sandhagen’s part.
The UFC live experience strives to be something in between the Super Bowl and a Rolling Stones concert. It’s the best fighting the best where anything can happen, but it’s also gotta have all the familiar beats, sights, and sounds to really satisfy. Someone has got to get knocked out, Bruce Buffer has got to scream, and we’ve got to hear Face the Pain for it to be real. All these things are in service to the fans, so any personal aspirations that a fighter might entertain that run the risk of upsetting those expectations also upset the boss.
On paper, Cory Sandhagen did everything necessary to take one step closer to a title shot which could finally lead him to bigger paydays. In reality, Cory Sandhagen hurt his arm, did a bunch of lay and pray, and had better hope that the ESPN schedule syncs up nicely with his recovery. The fight game is brutally unfair, and not everyone can be a star.
The Future of MMA and Boxing
It’s foolish to write off a fighter’s future prospects because of one dull main event and I would love to see Sandhagen square off with the winner of Sterling vs O’Malley. But it’s a fickle sport that’s becoming more of a soap opera than meritocracy at the upper echelons. At least if you want people to pay attention, so let’s just keep an eye on who’s sitting cageside in two weeks in Boston, at UFC 292. Take care of yourself and I’ll be back at the substack with some interesting art news on Thursday.
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