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Millions of Pounds for Half of One

‘Scale-gate’ and the Rise of UFC

Fighting and contact sports are no strangers to scandal. One need only look at boxing, the world’s premier and most profitable fighting sport for decades, to find a litany of cheating, fixing, corruption and doping controversies dating right back to its inception. Often, scandal comes hand in hand with the defining moments of a sport. The second fight between Sonny Liston and Muhammad Ali in 1965, both of whom were enveloped in controversy throughout their infamous boxing careers, was marred by the legendary ‘phantom punch’. Liston, one of the most dominant heavyweights in history, was knocked out in Round 1 of the fight from a punch which didn’t even seem to connect.

It is easy to forget, with how quickly the UFC has embedded itself in the landscape of fighting sports, that the sport only became popular worldwide in the 21st century. Already, it is the second most popular fighting sport in the world, second only to the aforementioned and eternally popular boxing. Though the UFC held its first fight thirty years ago, in 1993, it was only a decade later, when ownership of the UFC was bought for two million dollars by casino-owners the Fertitta brothers and Dan White, that the sport began its rise. Buoyed by effective marketing including a reality TV show called the Ultimate Fighting, and financial incentives for fighters to grow their profile on social media, the UFC has turned 2 million into an estimated 10 billion, according to a report by FanSided.

With this meteoric rise in popularity, there has also been a meteoric rise in scandal. Perhaps the strangest yet, suitably, featured one of the burgeoning UFC’s most popular and romanticised figures: former lightweight champion Charles Oliveira. In many ways, his story is a familiar one; fighting sports have always found its base of athletes in impoverished areas. Just as boxing draws readily from the poorest districts of Philadelphia or New York City, UFC drew readily from the favelas of Brazil to uncover Charles Oliveira, a black-belt and notable practitioner of Brazilian jiu-jitsu. His martial art background makes him particularly compatible in the UFC, where BJJ is considered one of the most crucial fighting disciplines, and the ground game is integral.

The scandal was noteworthy enough to be afforded the blessing of a ‘gate’ suffix by the media: ‘scale-gate’, to be precise. Charles Oliveira was about to defend his UFC lightweight championship against another former champion, Justin Gaethje, when at the pre-fight weigh-in, the champion registered half a pound over the limit of 155.5 pounds. Before a single punch was thrown, or takedown attempted, Charles Oliveira was stripped of a belt worth millions of pounds for half of one. It was, unsurprisingly, the first time in UFC’s history that a title belt was lost at the weigh-ins rather than the cage.

One would think that the scandal was disastrous for the UFC’s lightweight division, but scandal does not operate by the same rules in fighting sports as it does in, for example, politics. The UFC has separated itself from boxing, the perennial favourite, with the regularity of championship fights between its top competitors and with far shrewder marketing tactics. There is arguably no surer way of drumming up interest in a fight than a scandal. Some claimed that the scales had been tampered with. Others questioned why a billion dollar industry was not using digital scales by now, far less subject to human error, or possibly interference.

Ironically, Charles Oliveira would win the eventual fight against Justin Gaethje without walking away with the belt. Even more ironically, he would lose a later fight against Islam Makhachev, the closest other competitor for the lightweight belt, via dominant submission in the second round. This may have nullified the scandal from a competitive perspective, but the damage had already been done- or rather, the profit had already been made- from a commercial one.

Just as people will only remember Sonny Liston vs Muhammad Ali II for the ‘phantom punch’, people will only remember Charles Oliveira vs Justin Gaethje for ‘scale-gate’. In fighting sports, the rules of scandal and controversy are turned upside down, to the effect of billions of pounds.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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