mma / Columns

The Golden Boy MMA Card is Dreadful, But Do They Have the Right Idea?

October 22, 2018 | Posted by Dan Plunkett
Chuck Liddell Tito Ortiz Liddell vs. Ortiz

In May, TMZ published a video of Golden Boy Promotions CEO Oscar De La Hoya with long-retired former UFC superstar Chuck Liddell. De La Hoya made his intentions of entering MMA clear, and that he wanted Liddell involved. Then in July, Liddell and old rival Tito Ortiz agreed to fight for a third time, this time under the Golden Boy Promotions banner. The fight takes place on November 24 and will air on pay-per-view.

After that, it was months before any other fights of the card were discussed. With surprisingly little word of other possible bouts or featured fighters reported for the show, Golden Boy finally tipped their hand by submitting a proposed bout sheet to the California State Athletic Commission last week (and then a few days later, they submitted a revised bout sheet). It’s not a pretty card.

Here is the proposed main card:

Chuck Liddell vs. Tito Ortiz
Kenneth Bergh vs. Jorge Gonzalez
Gleison Tibau vs. Efrain Escudero
Walel Watson vs. Ricardo Palacios
Deron Winn vs. Tom Lawlor
Jay Silva vs. Oscar Cota

Is you read through that card and kept asking yourself “Who?” you are not alone. The only interesting fight on the entire card is Deron Winn, a member of the U.S. National Wrestling Team that trains out of American Kickboxing Academy, against UFC veteran Tom Lawlor. Although Lawlor hasn’t fought in more than two years, he’s easily the stiffest test to date for the 29-year-old Winn, who has a 4-0 MMA record.

Artistically, the card is an eye sore, mainly consisting of filler matches surrounding a notable main event, which is a bad fight in its own right. But Golden Boy might be on the right path if they hope to make any money on the show.

Compared to a UFC or Bellator PPV show, it appears that Golden Boy is keeping its costs down. They’re running the show from The Forum in Inglewood, California, not the Staples Center in nearby Los Angeles, or the prohibitively expensive Madison Square Garden in New York City. According to Tito Ortiz, who admittedly doesn’t have a strong track record as a source of information, he’ll receive no base pay for the fight, in favor of a cut of the pay-per-view and ticket sales. If Liddell signed on for a similar deal and neither fighter has a minimum guarantee, that means relatively little up-front risk for Golden Boy. With an undercard full of no-names, by the standard of past major MMA pay-per-view card, Golden Boy is doing this on the cheap.

Ten years ago, clothing company Affliction got into the promoting business with the opposite mentality: spend a shit ton of money and hope for the best. They spent $3.3 million in disclosed salaries by gathering a loaded undercard of name fighters, and then paying them much higher than market value. It was great for the fighters in the short-term, but it was an unsustainable business that went belly up after only two shows.

The question now becomes what Liddell vs. Ortiz means in 2018 in terms of pay-per-view sales. When they battled for the first time, in 2004, it meant about 100,000 buys. Two years later, after the sport had exploded in popularity in North America, their rivalry meant almost 900,000 buys. But this time the circumstances are vastly different.

There is no UFC machine behind the fight, and no MMA event has ever gone far past 100,000 buys in North America without any UFC branding. On the other hand, no star like Chuck Liddell has ever left the UFC and headlined a pay-per-view in a fight like this.

For a brief time—from the night he stopped Ortiz for the second time in December 2006 to the night his downhill slide began when he was knocked out by Quinton “Rampage” Jackson—Liddell was unquestionably the face of the sport in North America. Even when he was on his way out, he was still headlining pay-per-views and drawing strong numbers. But that was eight years ago, and we can only guess what kind of audience his return against his most heated adversary will attract.

In MMA, the closest comparison would be Quinton Jackson, but even that doesn’t fit all that well. After beating Liddell, Jackson became a big star, and while he wasn’t quite the face of the sport, he was one of the names everyone knew and drew a big number for a grudge match against Rashad Evans. Jackson was the first big pay-per-view star to willingly jump ship from the UFC post-2006, when he signed with Bellator in 2013. The initial direction was to pit him in a pay-per-view fight against Ortiz, but the fight was cancelled due to an Ortiz injury. He later fought in a pay-per-view headliner against Mo Lawal on a show that did about 100,000 buys.

Again, the Jackson comparison also isn’t perfect because he never went on anything close to the hiatus that Liddell is returning from. Long absences, like in the cases of Georges St-Pierre and Brock Lesnar, typically make for a big return fight, but those fighters didn’t have the stigma of being washed up. People watched those shows genuinely thinking or hoping to see the same fighter come back. With Liddell, I can’t imagine anyone thinks that at almost 49, he’ll be anything but a shadow of his former self.

MMA fans have certainly shown interest in watching the senior circuit on cable television—Kimbo Slice, Ken Shamrock, and Royce Gracie all drew big ratings for Bellator a few years ago—but pay-per-view is a different animal.

Ultimately, Golden Boy is betting that people will still pay to see Liddell fight Ortiz in 2018. It doesn’t appear that they’re risking too much in that bet, and it’s not completely outside the realm of possibility that the rivalry and names will attract buyers, and we’ll be looking at a show that beats most of this year’s UFC pay-per-view numbers. After all, you can’t discount the value of familiar names: in 2001, Laila Ali vs. Jacqui Frazier-Lyde, the daughters of Mohammad Ali and Joe Frazier respectively, drew 125,000 buys based on their fathers’ names.

I don’t have any doubt that Golden Boy knows what it’s doing here: putting together what looks to be a terrible show around a bad main event with big names. They aren’t going to take over the MMA space, but they may do well for one night, or they may chalk up a relatively small loss and move on.

Dan Plunkett has covered MMA for 411Mania since 2008. You can reach him by email at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @Dan_Plunkett.