As soon as there is a Chinese or Indian UFC mens champion; MMA’s popularity will go through the roof.
Remember how popular Conor Mcgregor was in Ireland at his peak, or Manny Pacquiao in the Philippines? Now scale that to a population of over a billion people with a dose of national power projection, plus the hype of big event combat sports. The UFC will do better numbers than anything other than soccer and its World Cup.
Fights are eyeball magnates
If you’re at your local park and a soccer game breaks out in one corner, a fight breaks out in another corner and a tennis game breaks out in another corner. What is your attention drawn to? Which are you most interested in? Obviously it’s the fight, and thats the same for everyone. Even the participants in the soccer and tennis game would stop playing those inconsequential distractions and come watch the more meaningful, dramatic and higher stakes fight.
While other sports can be said to tap into something primal like tribalism, fights don’t just tap into something primal, they are primal. Being interested in physical conflict is an evolutionary necessity. No other sport comes close.
Why the UFC and Why now?
You might ask why hasn’t boxing or some other combat sport gotten as popular as I say the UFC will. For one thing we never had an Indian or Chinese boxing men’s world champion. But more generally no other combat sport has ever been as good as the UFC. The UFC has a superior format and a superior product.
Joe Rogan recons “Martial arts have evolved more since 1993 than they have in the last 10,000 years”. 1993 is when UFC/MMA started. I would say he is right, it’s that much of a game changer.
The UFC is also the best organized and most well structured combat sports federation ever. Boxing has been destroyed by corruption and fragmented federations which have not allowed the fights that people want to see happen. Since all the top MMA fighters are contracted to the UFC, the fights people want to see do happen.
Also note that different combat sports have been the most popular sports in certain countries at certain times, just not since the global media landscape existed. For example boxing was the most popular sport in the USA in the 1920s and Sumo wrestling used to be the most popular sport in Japan, so there is no natural ceiling for how popular a combat sport can be.
Why not the biggest?
MMA Could actually be the biggest sport in the world for a few years if there was a crazy coincidence like having an Indian and a Chinese men’s champion at the same time, but other than that it will not surpass soccer.
Soccer is just such a global monster, with so many big structural, cultural and historical advantages.
Teams tap into the tribal group mentality and teams let you support one entity your whole life. They even allow for multi generational support. You can only support an individual athlete like a UFC fighter for 10 years at the most. You can get hooked on your childhood football team and maintain that all your life and even pass it on to your kids!
The fact they played for the same team is what links Maradona and Messy. By supporting a team you gain interest in the past history of your team, the present and the future in a way you don’t with individual athletes.
The other factor limiting MMAs popularity is low participation. While everyone wants to watch fights, almost no one wants to be in a fight and even fewer people want their kids in fights. People only like to watch golf if they have played it and know how hard it is. MMA can’t do that at scale.
Long standing continuous integration into the structure of society
Soccer is ingrained in society. There are half a million soccer teams, they are in every town, in every community all around the world, playing every week and they have done for decades or centuries and will continue to do so.
In 2021 some big club owners planned to leave their traditional competitions and form a Super League that would have weakened local football. The consensus was that it was legal but that the governments of powerful nations like England, France and Germany would change the laws or make new laws to make it illegal!
That shows how deeply ingrained in society soccer is. People recognize that messing with soccer is messing with society as a whole. MMA will get more and more relevant but not to that point in the foreseeable future.