Now, before you lose your mind or call the “no-fun police” on me for suggesting fans shouldn’t attend MMA events, understand that this is not an opinion piece. It’s more of me thinking out loud as I try to form my own opinion on whether or not MMA events are actually better to watch on TV without fans in attendance.
With just about any other sport, this would be an easy answer for me. Not hearing the crowd roar after a touchdown, home run, or buzzer-beater just isn’t right. But when it comes to MMA and what I’ve seen from the UFC’s last three events that took place in Jacksonville, Florida, without fans in the stands, I think this is a fair question that deserves some exploring.
There are pros and cons to point out on both sides of the argument here, but let’s start with the likely more popular opinion: fights are better with fans.
Obviously, not much compares to a packed arena full of screaming MMA fanatics ready to see a fight. Having fans in attendance adds an extra variable to any sport that boosts the overall excitement of the event.
When Justin Gaethje beat Tony Ferguson for the interim lightweight title in the main event of UFC 249, there was no applause or cheer for the fan-favorite who just won his first UFC belt. Instead what you got was Gaethje’s voice echoing throughout the arena during his post-fight interview with Joe Rogan. Hearing crickets when Henry Cejudo announced his retirement after defeating Dominick Cruz at the same event was even weirder. Likewise, watching fighters enter the octagon and subsequently Bruce Buffer’s pre-fight introductions without the presence of fans seems a bit unnecessary and silly. But could you picture an MMA event without those aspects? Something has to energize the arena, right?
Some of the greatest MMA moments over the years have been fighters’ post-fight interactions with the crowd. Fighters often feed off the crowd’s energy as well, so the argument can be made that having fans in the stands creates a better product overall. But the fights without fans in attendance so far haven’t disappointed. The UFC’s last three events have produced plenty of exciting finishes and full out brawls between well-matched opponents. The energy in the octagon hasn’t been an issue.
While having no fans puts a bit of a damper on the activities before and after the fight, I think the strongest argument for not having fans attend MMA events is what goes on during the fight.
Hearing coaches and fighters interact throughout a fight or, even better, both fighters talking to each other while exchanging blows is pretty sweet. The thud of those blows as they connect with their target is perhaps the coolest aspect of having no fans at the event. These are things that go largely unheard during a typical fight with crowd noise.
For those who are more in-tune with the technical aspects of MMA, hearing how a fight is being coached adds another layer of entertainment and intrigue to the event. A few fighters from the UFC’s Jacksonville cards have even gone on record saying that they were taking suggestions from the ringside commentary because they could hear experts like Rogan and Daniel Cormier so clearly as they were calling the fight.
One of those fighters was former NFL defensive lineman Greg Hardy, who used Cormier’s advice to defeat Yorgan De Castro by unanimous decision.
“Thank God for not having the crowd,” Hardy told Joe Rogan in his post-fight interview. “Shout out to DC. I heard him tell me to check him, so I started trying to check him. Game changer.”
— UFC (@ufc) May 10, 2020
But Hardy wasn’t the first fighter to thank Cormier at UFC 249.
Carla Esparza, who defeated Michelle Waterson with a split decision victory in the undercard, also told reporters after her win that she pivoted strategies in the midst of her fight because of what she heard Cormier say in his ringside commentary.
Esparza said that she could hear Daniel Cormier calling the fight while she was in the octagon.
He criticized her for not mixing up her strikes and her wrestling and she used it as advice and started to mix it up more.
— Aaron Bronsteter (@aaronbronsteter) May 10, 2020
So maybe the fights without a crowd aren’t better for fans, but are they better for the fighters? Perhaps a few more crowd-less fights will make the answers to some of these questions more clear, but it’s good to know that the UFC has already proven its adaptability as a sport.
Admittedly, I’m not ready to say fights without fans are better for TV. The fans’ effect on the atmosphere before and after a fight is sorely missed. But if it’s still a while before pandemic-related crowd restrictions are lifted and fights must go on without a crowd in attendance, it’s good to know there are aspects of both scenarios that can be appreciated and the fights are still great.