When Polish fighter Joanna Jedrzejczyk went to war (and lost) with China’s Weili Zhang in the Octagon, it wasn’t long before the images of her bloody, distorted head were shared all over social media.
The UFC Instagram was quick to react, too. In a post attracting the likes of more than half a million people, it declared the battle “Arguably the GREATEST fight in women’s mixed martial arts history.” Many agreed.
While it may be brutal, there is no denying the visual drama of mixed martial arts. “The bright lights against a dark background, with the fighters under the spotlight – it looks the business,” Joe Weston, director of sport at We Are Social, tells The Sportsman.
Perhaps that is why it lends itself so well to the medium of Instagram. At 19.4 million followers, the MMA promoter’s page is certainly popular. That compares to 36.6 million for the Premier League – though the NFL languishes behind it at 17.1 million.
Individual fighters can command huge followings, sharing details of their training regimes and private lives and attracting lucrative opportunities for sponsored posts. Conor McGregor has 35.7 million followers – far more than his former opponent, the boxer Floyd Mayweather, who only has 23 million despite carrying out his jaw-dropping spats with 50 Cent in vivid detail on the social network.
Weston says the average Instagram user scrolls for nine metres per day, making it probably the most successful social channel in terms of engagement, and key for any sports rights holder who wants to be where the fans are.
“The UFC is excellent in its use of Instagram, if not best in class,” he says. “There is good access to talent, Dana White plays a key role, and they cover the fights well.” He praised the use of archive footage to keep fans excited.
Former professional kickboxer Jon Durrant, who now trains a number of MMA fighters, adds: “UFC is very interactive with its Instagram fans. It asks for feedback on things, asks to tag them in, to post what they are doing while they are watching the fight. If you compare it to Goldenboy, the big boxing promoter, their Instagram is good and they show videos, but they are not as interactive with their fans.”
But Weston believes UFC misses a trick with IGTV, as its videos are not posted in the required 16:9 ratio for people to turn their phones sideways and watch on a full screen - a problem so obvious, it may be intentional.
“They are also hugely protective. It may be that they don’t want the experience to be so great that fans depend on it. UFC is also active in shutting down fan pages,” says Weston. “While it makes sense to protect the rights that you have, punishing fans can come across as exclusive and work to your detriment.”
Like boxing, UFC follows the pay-per-view model, meaning it must tread the careful balance between attracting and engaging fans and protecting its rights. Perhaps that makes its Instagram success all the more remarkable. Fights are teased right up to the moment on Instagram, with fans given the option to scroll up and buy a package instantly.
Egalitarian and progressive?
The history of mixed martial arts and its relative youth may give a clue to the way it has found a natural home on Instagram now.
“You can see a very linear growth of UFC along with the internet,” Durrant says. “The first UFC fight was in 1993, and MMA has used the internet to evolve. Instagram is the last part of that puzzle.”
He points out that early fights were organised on MMA forums and came out of trash talk online, a move which the more traditional sport of boxing has copied.
“Boxing has followed suit – just as boxing followed suit by promoting women. UFC was the first to put women out there, and boxing has followed on from that, selling events and cards on the back of women,” he says.
Many female fighters have left other disciplines to become mixed martial artists, often because their gender meant they struggled to make money. Boxer Heather Hardy, who held the WBO featherweight title from 2018 to 2019, took to Instagram to announce her preference for MMA.
“Man I love to fight. But I know too much about this business to fight for nothing… pennies compared to what the boys are making. Because if I get walked out of the ring or the cage on a stretcher, who’s gonna worry about Annie? Not boxing, that’s for sure,” she wrote.
The original female star of UFC, Ronda Rousey, slept in her car after winning a judo medal at the 2008 Olympics. Forever adaptable, since leaving UFC she has competed in WWE and launched a gaming channel after the start of the coronavirus pandemic. She is estimated to be worth $12m.
The sheer violence of UFC means it will never appeal to everyone. But the nature of its roots in different martial arts disciplines means it is grounded in an ethos of respect and egalitarianism, said Weston. Anyone brave and skilled enough to get into the Octagon commands respect. A big UFC star such as Khabib Nurmegomedov can do the unthinkable and win over US and Russian fans alike. The international appeal inherent in a sport which borrows from martial arts that originated all over the world also lends itself well to social media success.
Weston believes it still has some way to go to achieve the success of his best in class: the NBA, with its 46.7 million followers. “Basketball is a highlights package dream, with lots of points and matches per season,” he explains. “But they take the approach that more eyeballs are better than no eyeballs,” releasing large amounts of content online for free. In times of cancelled matches, fights and games, it remains to be seen if others, including UFC, are forced to follow suit.