As long as MMA remains a spectator sport, there will be an ongoing argument between those who consider themselves purists and those who are more entertainment-minded.

For purists, the only fights that should be put together are ones that have significant ramifications in one of the sport’s weight classes. Whether it’s a title fight featuring a champion and a truly deserving No. 1 contender or a mid-card bout where the winner makes a clear advancement in his division, purists demand fights that “matter” and like to be able to trace each participant’s professional history in such a way that it leads logically to their next opponent.

Those other fans—the ones for whom a Saturday night watching MMA is more about entertainment than it is about academia—don’t necessarily care if the two guys in any given fight are closely ranked nor if its result will have any serious repercussions on the division in which it was contested.

The UFC (and all MMA promotions) must take care to balance the expectations of each group of fans as it books its cards. After all, it’s the purists who latched onto the sport first and most feverishly, trading bootlegged tapes of old UFC events and tuning into grainy online streams during the internet’s slow-speed infancy. Those fans are the ones who preached the gospel of MMA to their friends and helped make the sport the burgeoning mainstream success it is today, but they’re not the only ones who watch it anymore. More and more casual sports fans have drawn their attention to the fighters inside the fabled UFC Octagon, and it has been those viewers less concerned with the statistical ins and outs that have helped MMA sustain the boost in popularity it has experienced in the last few years.

While the majority of UFC cards in 2013 (fortunately) satisfy both groups of fans, providing purist fans with their division-situating affairs while also entertaining the more casual fans with explosive fights, with the two factors often present in the same contest, occasionally the promotion will market a bout that might make the more statistically minded fans scratch their heads.

Most recent on this list of fights was last Saturday’s UFC welterweight title contest between champion Georges St-Pierre and challenger Nick Diaz. While GSP’s role in the fight was unquestioned, many people questioned whether Diaz was deserving of the title shot from a statistical standpoint. After all, there are a handful of UFC fighters listed above him in the majority of welterweight rankings, not to mention the fact that Diaz came into the bout with St-Pierre after losing to Carlos Condit. Nevertheless, the UFC decided to book the GSP/Diaz bout for UFC 158, knowing that the entertainment potential due to the fighters’ ongoing rivalry would be high (and preliminary pay-per-view purchase estimates indicate the company was correct).

Diaz isn’t the only fighter in recent years who got a higher billing on a UFC card than some thought he might deserve, though. At the height of his rapid ascent in popular culture, Kevin Ferguson—better known as Kimbo Slice—was not only given a spot on a season of The Ultimate Fighter, but was then featured in two subsequent UFC main-card fights even after he was easily eliminated in the season’s first round. Other heavyweights of Ferguson’s middling caliber would never have been provided the repeated exposure the UFC gave him, but the Kimbo Slice name and the strange drawing power that briefly accompanied it meant ratings, and the UFC acted accordingly. The organization did the same when former multi-division boxing champion James Toney decided to dip his toes into MMA’s dangerous waters, giving “Lights Out” a co-main event slot at UFC 118 against Randy Couture, despite the fact that it was Toney’s first-ever MMA contest. Toney was submitted by Couture in the first round and hasn’t been seen near an MMA cage since.

These one-off fights featuring athletes whose primary utility to the UFC is their ability to draw in casual sports fans are pretty few and far between, especially as the promotion continues to add more divisions full of fighters to satisfy the sport’s more hardcore fans, but they do have value when it comes to attracting viewers to the UFC’s product. After all, the UFC could put together a card featuring Benson Henderson, Jose Aldo and Demetrious Johnson all defending their titles, but the viewership on that card would likely be limited to more seasoned fans due to the lack of name recognition outside of the MMA world for those three champions, talented as they are. Once in a great while, therefore, it might actually be worth it to include a fight that involves people outside the usual cast of characters.

Perhaps no fighter in 2013 embodies this debate better than Herschel Walker. The Heisman Trophy winner and former NFL All-Pro is 2-0 as a professional mixed martial artist, with both wins coming under the now-extinct Strikeforce banner. Perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of Walker’s MMA career is that his wins were achieved at ages 47 and 48, respectively. Walker’s most recent fight was in January 2011 against Scott Carson, but many have wondered whether they’d see him in the cage once again, given his success and freakish middle-aged athleticism. Walker himself recently said he’d like one more professional fight, and he’d like that fight to be in the UFC. Assuming Walker is in adequate shape to pass his physicals, would it be a wise move for the UFC to bring him in for one more go?

On one hand, the fight wouldn’t carry with it much meaning. At 51, Walker is certainly not about to dive head-first into a multi-year campaign to capture the UFC heavyweight title. In fact, his fight in the UFC would likely be the last of his brief MMA career. With that in mind, who would the UFC select to face him? It certainly couldn’t select anyone in the top 10 (or even the top 20) and expect a competitive contest, but it’d also likely need to select a fighter that is not completely unknown to MMA fans so as to give the bout a little extra pathos. Good luck selling that lose-lose prospect to many of the UFC’s big men. If they win against Walker, then they’ve defeated a man in his 50s in his third pro fight. If they lose, well, they’ve lost to a man in his 50s in his third pro fight. Unless the money is right, the UFC would probably have to look pretty far down its list of heavyweights to find the right opponent for Walker.

Even if the UFC were to put together a bout featuring Walker and another fighter, it’d inevitably have to bump a more “important” fight from the main card even to accommodate Walker’s. Since Walker’s role would be to attract more viewers to whatever card includes his fight, placing him outside the main-card portion of the event would defeat the entire purpose of having him there in the first place. Thus, two other fighters for whom MMA is an actual career, and not a post-retirement experiment, would be relegated to outside the main card.

But are any of these reasons to not have Herschel Walker come back for one last curtain call in the Octagon?

Sure, the UFC would have to reach down into the lower portions of its heavyweight rankings to find a suitable opponent, but—win or lose—the fight would provide that opponent with more exposure than they would have previously received. Remember how Seth Petruzelli went from a TUF castoff to a minor sports celebrity when he defeated Kimbo Slice? The winner of a fight against Walker could probably expect a similar boost in attention. Although a victory over a 51-year-old man might not elevate a fighter directly into title contention, a UFC win is a UFC win, and a fighter’s willingness to step up and face Walker would not likely be forgotten by the promotion’s executives.

As for bumping more “deserving” fighters off a main card, one could argue that there is typically at least one fight on the pay-per-view portions of UFC events that could probably have been included in the preliminary portion, so replacing a fight between two lightweights ranked in the middle of the division with one featuring a 51-year-old elite multi-sport athlete guaranteed to boost viewership based on people’s curiosity alone seems like an improvement. It’s this factor that could be the decider as the UFC contemplates whether to invite Walker to the Octagon. The UFC is, after all, a fight promotion. If the UFC is not able to continually add fans willing to spend the money to keep it going, the UFC would die. By including the occasional bout featuring a well-known athlete like Walker (and including it on a card featuring other fan-friendly contests), the UFC could increase its fan base without having to do a whole lot. They’d come for Walker (and pay their money to see him), but they’d stay for the other four fights and, with any luck, begin ordering future UFC pay-per-view events as a result.

The UFC wants to put on the best fights it can, but only because the best fights bring in the most viewers. Typically, this involves calculated (and often-criticized) matchmaking decisions to best sort out its weight classes and set up appropriate title fights. In other words, the UFC primarily looks to satisfy its existing fan base (comprised mainly of MMA purists) through the creation of relevant and logical fights. If, however, the promotion can circumvent the process by including a bout with Walker, one that is virtually guaranteed to increase an event’s ratings by a noticeable percentage, it should. The purists might not like it, but they’re not the only people whose money the UFC is after.

Photo: Herschel Walker (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

About The Author

Eric Reinert
Staff Writer

Eric Reinert has been writing about mixed martial arts since 2010. Outside the world of caged combat, Eric has spent time as a news reporter, speechwriter, campaign strategist, tech support manager, landscaper and janitor. He lives in Madison, Wis.

  • Robby Collins

    I see your points Eric, but I’m not sure the existing fan base is mainly purists. I’ve only met about a handful of purists in this sport, though definitions may vary of course.