I recently spoke to Wrestling Observer Newsletter (wrestlingobserver.com) editor Dave Meltzer. In the final part of my three-part interview below, our conversation turned to the UFC, their rise, their recent struggles and more.
WrestlingINC: Do you think it would help guys like Vince [McMahon] and Triple H to see what the UFC is doing and pay closer attention to it? In regards to marketing fights and making finishes mean something, wins mean something and titles getting importance?
Meltzer: You can always learn from everything. They can learn from boxing, football. The more you know, the more you learn and you can figure out what applies to you.
I learned from watching football things that would work in wrestling and MMA. You can watch a freaking movie and come up with wrestling story lines out of movies. Not the way [Vince] Russo did, but you can. Or a soap opera. You can do it if you understand how to apply it and put it in the framework where it can make money. You can learn from anything in life.
Yes, you can learn a lot. Look; what they did that was successful in '06, the Shamrock-Tito feud, the Rashad Evans-Quinton Jackson feud? You don't think wrestling can't learn from that? Come on.
Can they learn what not to do? Joe Silva used to tell me, 'I learned what not to do by watching what WWF did to kill their business.' Yes! Dana [White] loves to say, 'I learned what not to do by watching boxing.'
You can learn from what UFC has done as far as bad, what not to do and what to do. Of course. There are people who have but no one has really been able to apply it. It's a weird thing because you have Eric [Bischoff] who just didn't completely get it at all. Vince who can't get it because he can't learn from anyone else. So, you actually had people in charge who couldn't learn from it so they didn't.
Nobody else had the power and the TV, no matter what. One of my friends is an independent booker and he learned from it. There are a lot of independent bookers who tried to learn from it. You can be the world's greatest booker on the independent scene and not turn business around. That doesn't mean that if you went to WWF with all that TV and you had those ideas that it wouldn't help. It probably would. That's one of the things that people don't get. If you don't have weekly TV with production and stars, it doens't matter what you do. You're not going to click with the public because the public's going to see it's second rate. They barely support first rate wrestling, they're not going to support second rate.
That's one of the things with TNA, also. If wrestling was super, super over like it was 11 years ago, TNA would actually be pretty popular right now. Just because wrestling would be over and they would be the alternative.
If you remember back in 1999-2000, if you look back in those days, there were indie shows that could draw several thousand people. You know what I'm saying? Wrestling was over. It wasn't just WWF that was over, pro wrestling that was over in that era and people jsut wanted to go see pro wrestling. now, pro wrestling's not over. WWE is sort of over, but it's the WWE brand. Pro wrestling's not over and because of that, everybody struggles.
WrestlingINC: With the UFC, you saw the big rise. They were using WWE's pay-per-view and a lot of their business model. It was shooting up to where it seemed like the sky was the limit. Now, the last couple of years, it seems like it's dropping a bit. I know you've written about this a lot. What do you think are the biggest factors as far as it's growth and what's slowing it down and causing it to decline?
Meltzer: It's a star-driven business. Right now, we really don't have those stars out there. Jon Jones is like the guy but he's not quite there. Anderson [Silva] never really clicked big. He's a star, but he's not a really big mega-guy unless he's got the right guy. A lot of guys with the right opponent can draw. Rashad Evans, with the right opponent, can draw but with the wrong opponent, no one cares. I think Anderson is the same way.
[Georges] St. Pierre has been out for a long time. Brock [Lesnar] was a great, great draw but he's left. They've been plagued by injury and that's hurt. TV situation is kind of weird right now. There are just a lot of factors with the injuries and the number of shows has caused less depth in the shows.
Also, they did what WWF, WCW and they all did; they kept doing pay-per-views. Once they got to a point where pay-per-views became skippable because they weren't creative enough or they didn't have the right match on top -- once you get people to start skipping pay-per-views, it's much easier for people to start skipping pay-per-views.
There was a period, I'm sure, with all of us where it was, 'If there's a pay-per-view this month, I'm watching.' Because it's the pay-per-view, you watch it. Now, I still do because it's my job. But the point is that there became a point in every one of these companies when they were on their way down that it was like, 'You know what? This pay-per-view doesn't look good. I'm going to skip it.' You don't skip one, you start skipping all of them.
Then, you maybe watch one -- the WrestleMania, the Starrcade. You know what I mean? I'll watch the big ones, but I'm not going to watch the small ones anymore. So, you go from 12 to 2 or 3 a year and that's when the thing happens. I think that's what has happened with UFC.
You have this audience that couldn't miss a pay-per-view. You get your buddies together and all that and can't miss a show. Now, you've got this situation. I know with my friends, UFC night is no big deal. Before, UFC night was something that you looked forward to for two weeks. Now, there is UFC every weekend and it's just Saturday and it's UFC. 'Hey, I got out on Saturdays. I don't even know who's fighting on UFC.'
3 or 4 years ago, 2 or 3 weeks out from a pay-per-view, you could probably tell me the top five matches without blinking an eye, right? Today, if I told you, 'Hey, what's the card for September 1st when it was not cancelled?' I can tell you, because I had discussions with someone in UFC, and we were talking about September 1st. I go, 'You know what? I can name you two fights on that card.'
I knew the main event and I knew Jay Hieron and Jake Ellenberger as the semi because it had changed. I didn't really care about the fight in the least but I did know it. I didn't even know the rest of the fights on the card. If I don't know, the average fan doesn't know. That's the kiss of death. You're not going to buy a pay-per-view when you don't know the whole line-up.
WrestlingINC: Do you think that's something they are starting to understand as far as too many shows with having to cancel UFC 151 because there was no sellable co-main event? You think this might be some kind of wake up call to kind of change just how many shows they're doing and the lack of depth on the cards outside the main event?
Meltzer: I don't know. They've always been so adament that over-exposure doesn't exist and that they need to do more shows. For a while, the demand from cities for shows exceeded the number of shows they could do. They had all these places like England and those people wanted more shows. Australia -- even cities in the United States. There was more of a demand for shows than a supply of shows.
So, they kept thinking, 'Hey, we can do more shows.' I don't know if we're at that now. Now, it's a struggle. It's already happened. We can all say, 'shoulda, coulda, whatever.' But, it's here now. When they were out there and they didn't sell tickets in Denver for that show and when they came to San Jose and they didn't sell tickets. They're struggling.
A year ago, I remember I never worried about the ticket sales. Some cities were better than others... UFC guaranteed a million and a half dollar gate and that's great. I remember people would go, 'Oh, it didn't sell out.' It's like, the million and a half gate -- OK, it's a few thousand shy of a sell out. It's successful as hell.
Now, we're not doing a million and a half dollar gates. [Laughs.] You know what I mean? Now, it's a fight, it's going to be a struggle. I'm not saying they're going to lose mnoney. They got that built in cushion with that FOX deal, which is good and it's a lot of leverage. They can expand it in new markets.
The one thing about UFC is that it's difficult to sustain. Pro wrestling is easier to sustain because you get The Rock and he can come back and do some movies and at 40, he's bigger than ever. John Cena's charismatic, CM Punk can talk. He may not look the part but the guy can talk. Daniel Bryan is awesome and I can keep those guys on top as long as I want.
With UFC, Chael Sonnen is the perfect example. Chael Sonnen can talk but if he doesn't win his fights, he's not going to draw. To get that perfect guy in wrestling, you get The Rock -- he's a perfect guy. Great look, great this, great that. Steve Austin. Hulk Hogan. You know what I'm saying? They're icons that are there forever. In fighting, your shelf life is short and you don't have the guys with the perfect this and that because those guys don't exist.
Chael can talk as good as any wrestler, but he's never won a world championship. Georges St. Pierre? Georges is close. I'll say that, George is close. Brock was awesome, but Brock wasn't the best fighter either. You've got Cain [Velasquez] and Junior Dor Santos. They're great heavyweights but it's not like they're big draws on their own. The belt can draw, but they're not the draws on their own.
WrestlingINC: Yeah. I saw you report that UFC 141 [Lesnar vs. Alistair Overeem] came back at something like 535,000 buys?
WrestlingINC: That surprised me. When I was thinking of the low point for what that event would do, I was thinking it would be like 750,000 at the lowest...
Meltzer: Again, there are so many factors. You don't know if people just lost interest in Brock or was it just a Friday night during the holidays. I thought Friday night would hurt, I was surprised when the first numbers came in and they were high. I thought Friday night would hurt more. Then, I go, 'Well, it's Brock and Overeem and it's a great match up with those two big guys. I can see why it would draw.' But in the end, it didn't draw as well as we thought.
WrestlingINC: You mentioned making stars and star-power. Dana White wears his heart on his sleeve. Do you think it was a mistake for him to bury Jon Jones [after the UFC 151 cancellation] like he did? Obviously, he's pissed and they lost tons of money, but burying the guy that's kind of their top star going forward as far as someone they can build the future on... Do you think that was a mistake or do you think people will forget about it? Or, like with pro wrestling turns, does it make him a bankable heel like Tito Ortiz?
Meltzer: We'll find out. I wouldn't have done it but it's Dana. You know what I mean? It's Dana. [Laughs.] If it was me, I would feel exactly like Dana did in a sense but I would have put all the heat on Greg Jackson and I would have protected Jon Jones. Just because, I would have gone, 'You know what? I need to draw money with this guy. I need to keep his rep.'
But then again, maybe the idea is -- and believe me, there are people that think this -- that Jones Jones will never fully connect as a babyface -- using a wrestling term. He'll never fully connect and that maybe as a heel and people paying to see this arrogant, self-centered guy get beat, you'll make nmore money that way.
There's a very good argument to that, I think that's actually a pretty damn good argument. Maybe Dana turning him heel is the best thing for him because, even before, people were not warming up to him. Then, the DWI didn't help, this doesn't help. Maybe the idea is we'll go all the way this way with it. So, maybe that's Dana's thought. I don't know
I don't believe that that's Dana's thought, but I haven't discussed it with him in that regard and he wouldn't tell me anyway. I believe it's what it looks like, which is that he was really, really mad and he told people he was really, really mad because that's just how he is. He was really mad, he had to cancel a show because one guy wouldn't fight when they gift-wrapped him an opponent.
I don't understand their decision-making at all. From their stand point, they had all the odds in their favor, everything in their favor and they pull out. He's trained for ten weeks.
How many times in the last two weeks before a UFC show do you hear, 'So and so is injured. So and so has been called that has won two in a row on small shows that you've never heard of and is replacing him and debuting in UFC,'? Every single show. You would never hear two weeks before the show, 'So and so opponent is injured and so and so who was supposed to fight says he's pulling out of the show.' Never happens. Never happens.
And you could if you're a prelim and who cares. It's a prelim fight. This guy, with everything riding said, 'I'm not going to fight Chael Sonnen.' Who's got everything against him. He's lucky that they found Chael Sonnen who would say yes. They could have found somebody who trained for ten weeks and moved a guy who was in the semi-main like when Georges St. Pierre got hurt before the match with [Carlos] Condit. They could move [Nick] Diaz up.
WrestlingINC: It blew my mind. The pro wrestling booker in me kicked in and I had said that if he wins, he's takes out a guy [Sonnen] that he doesn't like pretty much for good. He would've lost at light-heavyweight and at middleweight. If he [Jones] lost, then a rematch with Sonnen for the title would probably one of the biggest fights of all time.
Meltzer: Exactly. The other reason it was a no-lose situation is that if he lost, he has an excuse. They're going to give him another rematch for doing them the favor and the rematch is going to be gigantic. Another thing: For a short-notice, one week fight, who would you want to fight more than Chael? I'm not even talking about because Chael is beatable but because Chael in the last week is going to spend his time talking this fight up.
They would do more business with Chael than they would have done with Henderson. A lot more, a lot more. The whole idea of, 'Well, [Lyoto] Machida's more deserving.' Absolutely! But I will tell you that there is no way that they're going to do the business with Machida that they would with Chael. Or Vitor Belfort for that matter.
Number one, Chael is just out of the spotlight. Yes, he lost and all that. But the point is that Chael knows how to promote a fight. ESPN loves Chael and the media loves Chael. Whether they should or not is another issue, but they do. He's a colorful guy and the word would get out. 'Hey, there's UFC this Saturday,' that wasn't going to get out with Dan Henderson.
I mean, he was gift-wrapped. He was gift-wrapped a buyrate. I'm not saying that with a week's build, it would have done giant numbers. It wouldn't have done giant numbers but it would have done bigger numbers than it was going to do. It would have done bigger numbers than with any other person on a week's notice.
The gave him the only guy he could draw on a week's notice with and the guy wasn't in shape! How are you going to lose? Plus, Chael, stylistically, is not a tough match for Jon Jones. Chael was a smaller version of Ryan Bader without the hard right. Look what Jon Jones did to Ryan Bader and Ryan Bader was in shape! And Ryan Bader was bigger and stronger.
Let's just say lightning struck and Chael won: it's not a loss either. 'Oh, my God. He's risking so much.' You're risking a helluva lot more going against Machida. Machida's a hard guy to fight even though he beat him the first time. Machida's difficult. And if Chael wins? Great! You're going to make millions of dollars. You're going to make millions of dollars in the rematch. What punishment!
He's undefeated, anyway. He should be undefeated, but that's another issue. He's not undefeated anyway. What? One loss in MMA is killing your career. We can't afford to lose? It's like, get out of MMA if you can't afford to lose. Everyone's going to lose and one loss won't hurt Jon Jones.
Georges St. Pierre was in this exact situation with Matt Serra. A total undeserving guy who had no prayer of beating him. Guess what? Matt Serra won that fight. Boy, that was the end of Georges St. Pierre, wasn't it? You know what I mean?
Worst case scenario is that Chael Sonnen becomes Matt Serra. Guess what? Georges was a bigger sgar because of Matt Serra. Greatest thing to happen to Georges was going to Montreal as the challenger to Matt Serra. Can you imagine Jon Jones going to Madison Square Garden as the challenger to Chael Sonnen. I mean, he's not going to lose to him twice.
Maybe he does but then Chael deserves to be champion anyway. [Laughs.] The whole this is that the worst case scenario, you make millions of dollars. The best case scenario is that you make a million dollars. You know what I mean?
People go, 'He had so much to lose.' He had nothing to lose except by turning it down. Now, he's got something to lose. He has a Nike sponsorship, Nike's got this guy under contract-- are people going to go buy Jon Jones merchandise? The guy who ducked a fight with a smaller guy on no notice? Maybe they will, maybe Jon Jones will sell merchandise anyway. But, to me, Jon Jones was never a guaranteed merchadise-seller anyway.
It's not like Chuck Liddell or someone like that, where I would go, 'Ahh, Chuck's going to sell merchandise. He's cool.' Nobody thinks Jon Jones is cool. If he sells merchandise, that's good. If he doesn't, what's going to happen? If, because of this, people don't buy Jon Jones merchandise, what's that Nike deal worth?
It's worth nothing other than the fact that Nike's going to go, 'Well, we tried an MMA guy and we sold no merchandise.' That word gets out that MMA guys don't sell merchandise. They may do pay-per-view numbers but people don't buy their merchandise.
Do they get that? That's what really bothers me. Jon Jones, look at your big picture. You're trying to get over as a merchandise seller. You cut your own throat because you don't get it. It's not even Jon, I'm not mad at Jon. It's just people who should have ben smarter. They gift-wrapped you an opponent in a no-lose situation. 'What if he lost?' That's wonderful! Don't you get it? There's no lose because -- OK, he lost so he's not Superman.'
You know what? It's sometimes better not to be Superman. Sometimes, people get mad at Superman. You know what I mean? Look at John Cena. People are mad at him for being Superman. Jon Jones, normal guy, having to work his way back up. It's probably going to make him more popular. I'm not telling him to throw a fight but Jon Jones losing a fight is not the end of the world for Jon Jones and it's not necessarily bad for him, either.
WrestlingINC: It seems like an issue with Greg Jackson's camp about not fully getting business. I remember Rashad Evans turned down a fight awhile back with Randy Couture to face Thiago Silva.
Meltzer: Same thing. It was a great pay day. Yeah, he could have lost his title shot, but it wouldn't have been the end of Rashad's career losing to Randy Couture. People thought Randy was better than he probably was at the time anyway.
Here's the thing with the Rashad-Couture thing. I don't know if you know this, but you may. When he was offered Randy Couture, he didn't want to take the fight because [of what] Randy Couture was rated -- he would have taken the fight with somebody else but nobody else was available. But he thought Randy Couture is coming back in the division and he's not ranked high enough. It's like, you idiot!
To the public, Randy Couture is a living legend. He means more than like guy like Thiago Silva who you may think is ranked higher because he's won matches at this weight and Randy hasn't won in this weight. Whatever your story is. You have a chance to beat a legend. If you lose, you lost to a legend as opposed to some unknown guy who's in somebody rankings a bit higher. Rankings that mean absolutely nothing in the real world.
Rashad's thing was that he's not ranked high enough and he's too much of a risk. If you think he's too much of a risk, that's fine. But the ranking? To the public, he's a legend.
WrestlingINC: Do you think that they wouldn't have lost as much money just going ahead with the event with [Jay] Hieron and [Jake] Ellenberger as the main event, or do you think that it wasn't worthy...
Meltzer: You just spelled it out. That wasn't worthy. You get in that situation where you do a pay-per-view that all of a sudden doesn't do 100,000 buys. Do you really want to lower your bottom to that level?
I would have a tough time going to Ellenberger and Hieron. If Josh Koscheck [Ellenberger's original opponent] hadn't gotten hurt? I probably would have given it a go and taken my lumps. But nobody knows who Hieron is. It's too weak. That's anbother thing that peopel talked about, the Koscheck thing. If he was still involved? Granted Koscheck-Ellenberger is an FX main event. But at least, it's weak but I can go with it. But Hieron? Couldn't.
I thought they would just give him a new opponent. When I heard they weren't going to get another opponent and it was canceled, I didn't sit there and go, 'Man, you should have just bit the bullet and done the show.' I did not think that at all. I was just mad.
Again, not even at Jones. It was at Jackson. You're looking out for this guy's best interest... God! Especially when a couple of days earlier, Jones was like, 'I don't want to fight Machida because he won't draw a Big Enough buy rate.' Well, if that's what you're talking about is buy rate... Granted, on one week's build, it's tough.
But you're under contract to this day. Sh-t happened. It's unfortunate, OK? But, you're not going to get a better scenario to save it. They gave him the best scenario possible on every level. Best guy at hyping the fight, not in shape. [Laughs.] You know what I mean? Big name but from the weight class under. He hasn't even fought the big guys.
So, it's like they gave him every advantage. Yes, he could lose. But, even if he lost, he's got the built in excuse. They're going to save, 'OK, you did us this favor. You saved our show.' Again, you want to be in their good graces, they're your bosses. I'm not saying that you give up your dignity for it, but this wasn't the one.
If he'd come in and Machida won the fight and Machida goes, 'I'll fight him with no training on no notice.' Then, Greg Jackson says, 'No, we're not going to do it.' You know what? I would have 100% understood it. 100%. Lyoto Machida is difficult and you want a game plan with Lyoto Machida. You don't want to go in cold with that guy.
You know what Chael is going to do. You don't have freaking genius to device a game plan for Chael.
WrestlingINC: We're getting close to a year after the UFC on FOX deal. When it was first announced, I think a lot of people thought that this was going to be the next level for the UFC. The first event did good numbers. It was built perfectly. I think people were expecting that kind of promotion similar to the first event, maybe not necessarily at that level. But trying to get casual fans and people that don't watch MMA into it.
Now, it kind of seems like the shows lately are geared more towards people that watch the product anyway. I don't see much of a reason for someone that doesn't watch MMA to watch those shows. I know Dana White criticized you over your article over the UFC on FOX ratings. But, I think anyone beforehand could have told you those shows weren't going to do all that well. They are putting bigger fights and a title fight on the next one. But do you think it's going the way that it should?
Meltzer: It didn't go the way that I expected, I'll say that. I thought that things were starting to decline. Then, when they made the FOX deal, I thought, 'Wow, they staved off the decline.' Not only that, but now it's better television exposure. You're probably going to get some growth with new fans. You know what I mean? I thought all that and it didn't happen that way.
The first show was good and bad. It was good in the sense that the promotion was there. The feeling on that night was that this was a freaking big event. Obviously, the one minute fight was what it was, the rating was what was it was. The rating was a big success.
If Cain and Junior would have gone three rounds, that rating would have been -- I think I tallied it up -- it would have been a 3.9 rating. For a Saturday night primetime, it would have been a giant success. Giant success. It was a success but should have been a giant success. That's how I kind of viewed it. One minute fight -- that's the stuff with MMA, it's unpredictable. But, the audience was there.
The second show did fine and then the third show was hurt a lot worse. I knew the third show was going to be down but it was way down. Once you had that third show number, you kind of figured that fourth show with the Olympics -- I don't think anyone was surprised by that number.
But they're not great numbers. The next one's going to be very interesting. It is a good show and it's during football season so you've got great audiences to promote towards. Hopefully, for them, it does well.