It has been just over one week since Endeavor, the parent company of UFC, merged its premier MMA brand with that of newly acquired WWE to officially launch the publicly traded media conglomerate TKO Group Holdings to a much ballyhooed valuation of $21.4 billion.
The move was a giant one, particularly in light of the uncertain future regarding sports broadcasting rights amid an industry transition to streaming. The fallout, meanwhile, has produced obvious questions from both fan bases regarding exactly what this unlikely merger means to both the short and long-term future.
Although it isn’t exactly easy to predict how much crossover between brands will take place in the coming months and years, as a long-time fan and journalist of both the scripted and non-fiction realms of sports entertainment, there’s little question that too much would be a very bad thing. The only development since last week’s public launch has been a round of layoffs, mostly on the WWE side, focusing on executives and some on-air talent.
So from the standpoint of UFC and how it might benefit from the potential cross pollination of resources from its union with WWE, without compromising the integrity of what it built to get here, the following is a cheat sheet of dos and don’ts for TKO to consider moving forward.
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DO: Protect the legitimacy of the sport at all costs
This, one would think, should go without saying. But considering UFC just dodged a major bullet with the fallout of the James Krause gambling scandal, and the financial threat of how the image of impropriety might affect deals with gambling providers like DraftKings, maintaining the integrity of his non-scripted sport needs to be paramount when aligning it with WWE. This concern is largely what makes a partnership like TKO seem so surreal to those who have followed both sides of the sports entertainment world. Once the toothpaste comes out of the container in these areas, there’s nothing to guarantee it ever goes back in.
DON’T: Ever insult UFC fans by playing into kayfabe
The old carny word for the presentation of staged performances as authentic needs to kept in mind for UFC when entertaining the inevitable crossover that will come from WWE promos and talent interviews showing up on UFC television. This is 2023, which means no one, especially WWE, expects even its own loyal fanbase to actually believe the scripted combat they watch is real. This is an area UFC needs to avoid blurring the lines on at all costs. If Seth Rollins gets prime seating at a UFC show, merely to promote the WWE pay-per-view happening the next night, that’s fine. But avoid the type of playing up of fake storylines that might make the audience question whether UFC is doing the same. Hall of Famer Daniel Cormier might be the type of personality who can float between brands as an announcer or referee but any trash talk of his scripted WWE adversaries needs to be kept off of UFC broadcasts. There are already enough disputed decisions in MMA or surprise knockout finishes that leave fans ignorantly questioning whether the fix was in. Adding interactions, even among UFC fighters, which feels staged or set up — similar to Lesnar pushing Cormier and cutting a promo inside the cage after UFC 226 in 2018 — is the quickest way to alienate your existing fanbase.
DO: Create roster crossover ahead of select big events
For as much as newly branded CEO Dana White likes to proclaim (just ask Francis Ngannou), how much UFC isn’t the place for gimmick fights, that simply isn’t always the case. A quick search of James Toney, CM Punk and even White’s recent lust for a hybrid Fury-Jon Jones fight seems to suggest the opposite. When done right, there is still a place, even within elite combat sports promotions, for celebrity crossover. The recent Jake and Logan Paul boxing extravaganzas seems to confirm this. If it was contained to a once-per-year type schedule tied to big events, it’s not impossible to imagine a WWE superstar like Roman Reigns, Ronda Rousey or Brock Lesnar taking one-off UFC fights against appropriately matched competition. The same could be said for vibrant UFC stars, like a Conor McGregor or Sean O’Malley, finding a home in scripted, cross promotional segments on WWE television ahead of major PPVs, or even a scripted crossover similar to the Lesnar-Cain Velasquez storyline in 2019.
DON’T: Create a mockery by making it a shameless habit
Celebrity crossovers work when the timing is right and there’s enough “can’t-turn-away” intrigue. But it can’t become a sustainable strategy, especially for UFC, without compromising the overall integrity of the product. A touch of WWE flavor in UFC circles could provide a shot in the arm of cross pollination between fan bases, but abusing such privileges would be the quickest way for hard-core MMA fans to slowly lose faith in the integrity of the UFC product. The CM Punk experiment within the UFC in 2016 worked once, but the second time was a bridge too far. The same can even be said for short UFC stints from the likes of backyard brawling legend Kimbo Slice and much-maligned former NFL star Greg Hardy. UFC should be mindful to save the gimmicks for when it matters most without ever compromising its hold as the true major leagues of MMA.
DO: Step up storytelling efforts and video packages
Let’s face it, WWE is the very best in all of sports and entertainment at creating the kind of pre-fight sizzle packages that leave you jumping out of your seat in excitement for the action to come. UFC has softly copied their scripted brethren’s strength ahead of huge events in recent years, often enlisting actor Ron Perlman’s voiceover skills. But there’s little question UFC could be doing a better job, overall, at telling the stories of their athletes in ways WWE has already cornered the market on.
DON’T: Allow paying off WWE debt to affect UFC matchmaking
One could argue, based upon the type of year UFC has had in 2023, that this is already taking place. While the UFC has still done a great job delivering at the highest level with strong PPV main and co-main events, the overall matchmaking across the board has taken a huge hit, coinciding with the dramatic rise in ticket prices and an unsavory mix of public scandals involving fighter pay, antitrust lawsuits, domestic violence (involving White) and the bad taste left in the mouths of many from White’s shameless push of his Power Slap promotion. The UFC that fans are watching this year just isn’t as strong as in previous ones as the promotion continues to rely on the fighter factory of “Dana White’s Contender Series” to constantly populate its own roster with finish-hungry fighters who will accept bargain basement contracts to fulfill their dream. How will this super company, and Endeavor’s need to pay off the debt caused by the $9.3 billion purchase of WWE, filter down to affect the day-to-day bottom line of UFC? That’s the main area, especially when talking about how underpaid UFC athletes are compared to other combat or team sports, that Endeavor needs to be careful.
DO: Step up the look and feel of UFC entrances
With the exception of former middleweight champion Israel Adesanya, the world’s MMA leader doesn’t typically go all-out from a creative standpoint on fighter entrances. Even after UFC purchased what was left of Pride in 2007, it still hasn’t taken the baton from the now defunct Japanese promotion’s ability to make the tense final moments before a big fight feel larger than life. Boxing has done a great job in finding the right balance in recent years, particularly for its heavyweight stars like Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua, of allowing a fighter to tailor the walkout to his or her own personality without producing the kind of spectacle that overshadows the actual fight that follows. Considering so much of the modern fight game is built around hype, UFC could take a page from WWE in playing up that hype in a way that further connects its top athletes with the fans in attendance.
DON’T: Just copy and paste what WWE has already done
Was it cool when Adesanya dressed up like The Undertaker for his UFC 276 entrance last summer while wearing a similar black hat to the WWE Hall of Famer (not to mention, holding his signature urn)? If you’re a major WWE mark, it probably was. Unfortunately, the entrance had nothing to do with Adesanya and felt like a stunt just for the sake of it rather than something personal, similar to what Adesanya did at UFC 243 in 2019, when he entered Marvel Stadium in Melbourne, Australia, with a local dance troupe to perform a choreographed routine. The fact that WWE executives, including Vince McMahon, were in attendance for Adesanya’s Undertaker walk, less than one year before the companies merged, speaks to how inorganic the experience felt.