The Big Picture: An Ode to the Undercard
Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.
The ordering process for Ultimate Fighting Championship pay-per-views has changed: UFC 246 is only available on ESPN+ in the U.S.
Ever since the first Ultimate Fighting Championship event in 1993, part of the inherent allure of mixed martial arts has been rooting for the underdog. This is not endemic to MMA—it goes back at least a few thousand years to David flinging pebbles at Goliath—but it is built into it in ways that are prevalent. Thanks to Royce Gracie’s scrawny feats of badassery, no other sport is as organically defined by smaller competitors defeating bigger ones.
However, cheering for the underdog is not solely a matter of betting odds, though that is its most obvious manifestation. To my mind, cheering for the underdog means cheering for the fighters of whom less is expected, the fighters who elicit less fanfare and attention in the run-up to the fight. The underdog-house, so to speak, is more commonly known as the undercard. The further down on the card you go, the bigger the underdog.
This expanded definition is not just a result of my affinity for the term “underdog-house,” fun as it is. There is also a demonstrable justification for it. Not only do the low-rung fighters typically make a literal fraction of what the headliners make, but they also get a lot less performance bonus love. For the Average Joes on the rise, that extra $50,000 is both a substantial multiplication of their fight purse and a perpetually unreachable achievement.
The rationale is understandable: The fighters in the opening slots are not the economic drivers. Nobody tuned in to UFC Fight Night 165 to see Heili Alateng take on Ryan Benoit, just as few people will be forking out their hard-earned cash to see if Ode Osbourne—aptly named for this column—will submit the oft-submitted Brian Kelleher at UFC 246 on Saturday. Those who bring in the buys deserve the big bucks, while the rest are merely placeholders.
Yet those placeholders are vital pieces of the UFC machinery. As the promotion pushes for more fights and more cards throughout the year, it depends on more fighters filling the necessary spots. Plus, who knows which of those nobodies will become a valuable somebody; the more opportunities the UFC provides per card, the more likely it will find the next future star and the less likely a competitor will.
Beyond the basic calculations of finding future contenders first, there are other reasons to show some love for the gatekeepers, prospects, jobbers and journeymen. It’s a badge of hardcore fandom, for starters, which is a meaningful indicator of authenticity in a sport that thrives on just-bleed sincerity. More importantly, the undercard can often be a hidden world of epic violence waiting to be unearthed.
This is not to suggest that fighters who have more to prove will be more likely to fight recklessly and put on more exciting fights; if anything, there is a good chance the opposite will happen, and fighters will be more cautious to secure a safe win for an additional roster spot down the road. However, there is a greater chance that undercard matchups will have greater talent disparities. Mismatches mean more crazy moments, of either one fighter sensationally steamrolling his or her opponent, or the opposite: more upsets. This is the dynamic that leads myself and others to prefer college football to the NFL. Clearly professional teams are better across the board, but such parity results in fewer big, breakout plays. It’s nearly impossible to tell which fight will yield such action, but statistically speaking, at least some will, if for no other reason than there being more undercard fights than main events. Headliners are coinflips: Sometimes they’re incredible, and sometimes you’re left wondering why you waited so long for this.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not pushing UFC President Dana White’s line that actually bad fight cards are good because maybe they turn out to be exciting. By all means, if you have better things to do with your time than hunker down for 10-12 undercard fights with questionable name value, live your best life. There is indeed liberation to be found in watching fights later. Yet the fighters clawing their way up the food chain are every bit as dedicated and tough and deserving of recognition as the stars of the sport; they at least deserve the same chance to earn your appreciation. Of course, it’s impossible to give every fighter on every card the same avid attention as the big names, but every now and then, it’s good to give them a chance to wow us. When there’s a fight card virtually every week of the year, surely not every single Saturday is booked with better things to do.
The fighters who have fought or talked their way into main events deserve the epic walkouts, roaring applause, bigger paydays and brighter spotlights, but let’s not forget the working men and women clenching their teeth and putting one foot in front of the other every day. These are the stories with which most of us can relate: the struggle of being on the way with no promise of touching the rewards of arrival, the frustration of construction without the assurance of completion. Most of us are not special, which is why watching the anomalously talented is so captivating. Yet we are more likely to connect on a human level with those who are, relative to their peers, just as unspecial as the rest of us.
Eric Stinton is a writer from Kailua, Hawaii. His fiction, nonfiction and journalism have appeared in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat, Medium and Vice Sports, among others. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint, or find his work at ericstinton.com.