The Jake Shields Backlash & Marketability in MMA

Posted on July 21, 2010

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When Jake Shields’ potential jump to the UFC meant making Strikeforce look foolish, fans and journalists were abuzz with the news. Losing Shields was going to be a huge blow for Strikeforce, as he’s a legitimate top 10 at 185 and 170 and proved in his fight with Dan Henderson that he’s nearly unstoppable on the ground.

Now he’s signed with the UFC, and he’s a boring fighter who’s not going to make them any money and is going to be a huge bust.

How’d the tide turn so quickly?

Well, for one, it’s the internet. The internet has no shortage of contrarians, whose opinions always seem the loudest and overwhelming even in a sea of logical objections. The same people that wanted to see Strikeforce fail for comedy also want to see the UFC fail for spite.

The other reason is because of journalists like Dave Meltzer, who may have unintentionally fueled the fire when he suggested that the UFC has to be careful not to expose Shields as a boring and unmarketable fighter.

Meltzer suggested the UFC might keep Shields off live cards, and noted in a recent interview with Steve Cofield that the UFC did it with Jon Fitch and Yushin Okami. But neither of those fighters is at the level of exposure of Jake Shields (maybe Fitch but certainly not since his title shot against St. Pierre over a year ago). Also, Okami was put on the prelims after a very bad loss to Chael Sonnen, and I can’t even remember the last time Fitch was relegated to the prelims.

I like Dave, but his specialty was primarily professional wrestling and he cannot, no matter how hard he tries, escape that mentality. Listen to him talk about the business end of it long enough and he’ll eventually fall into the trap of fantasy booking and suggests plotting out future title fights by hand-picking opponents to highlight the strengths of contenders and hide their weaknesses.

That’s now pro wrestling works, not sports.

That’s not a knock on Meltzer, who is still in my mind one of the best sources out there for MMA coverage. There is, admittedly, a significant amount of overlap between professional wrestling and Mixed Martial Arts. There’s a reason for it, in that the end game is to ultimately get people to pay money to see a single fight while also providing an entire evening’s worth of entertainment.

However, that’s where the similarities end. Pro Wrestling and MMA may both be in the same family, but they’re two completely different animals. Particularly when it comes to matchmaking. This isn’t because people like UFC matchmaker Joe Silva are staunch sportsmen in defiance of marketing conventions and monetary concerns. It’s because Silva’s a realist.

MMA is an unpredictable sport. Injuries happen and, more importantly, guys get caught. Strikeforce knows this better than anyone. Correction, they should know it better than anyone, because they’ve fallen into the pro wrestling traps on every major fight card in the past six months: Cung Le was knocked out by hand-picked opponent Scott Smith in December (a loss Le “avenged” although it still didn’t restore the credibility he lost), Dan Henderson was manhandled by Jake Shields, and Fedor climbed right into Fabricio Werdum’s triangle choke. In each instance, Strikeforce hand-picked opponents for the guys they wanted to build as their flagship stars (Le, Henderson and Fedor) only to see their plans unfold in spectacular and dramatic fashion. And each time, Scott Coker was left asking “now what?”

This is where the UFC is smart. They have personalities, to be sure, but they have learned two important lessons that Strikeforce hasn’t. One is that you can’t plot the course of your promotion. The other, and more important, is that you can’t build a division on just one star. You can plant seeds if you see the talent and potential for marketability, but it has to happen organically. There are too many variables to lay the hopes of an entire weight class on one or two fighters.

Rather than building stars, you have to build entire divisions. The value in Jake Shields isn’t in his personal charm or marketability, it’s in what he contributes to the entire division. With Shields, the UFC has literally the entire MMA world at 170 pounds locked down. More importantly, they have a fighter who can provide a real challenge for the upper echelon of the division and, perhaps, for its champion Georges St. Pierre.

Are some of his fights boring? Perhaps he is to those who can’t appreciate his style. But he’s adding a challenge, and that’s what fans want to see more than anything.

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