The weekend was studded with great performances from New Zealand athletes – but for better or worse, one athlete and his code is a vision of sport’s future, argues Duncan Greive.
He emerged from smoke, wearing a black wide-brim hat and carrying an urn with the name Jared inscribed on it, while the mordant theme music of wrestling legend The Undertaker played throughout the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. Israel Adesanya was there to defend his middleweight MMA title against the powerful former heavyweight Jared Cannonier, and to put on a show. “That’s the greatest walkout I’ve ever seen,” said commentator Daniel Cormier, who has seen a lot of UFC walkouts.
Adesanya is 32 years old, unbeaten at middleweight, and radiates danger and star power. He’s one of the most significant figures in UFC, which is itself the most significant new sport of the 21st century. A Nigerian Aucklander, Adesanya is one of a clutch of New Zealand fighters hailing from City Kickboxing, the unassuming gym that has become among the world’s best under the stewardship of its founder, Eugene Bareman. The next UFC pay-per-view is also headlined by a City Kickboxing alum, Kai Kara-France.
Adesanya and City Kickboxing should be the sporting equivalents of Lorde and Taika Waititi, people adding texture and muscle to our national myth as a place that defies its scale to produce champions. Instead they feel slighted and invisible to our establishment – as when City Kickboxing’s training was interrupted by police during lockdown (which would not have happened to a rugby side), and with Adesanya’s iconic Halberg Awards speech in which he noted the absence of combat sport over the event’s history.
Our sports image instead remains transfixed by rugby and by the All Blacks, who played their first game of 2022 in front of a packed crowd at Eden Park this weekend. I watched the game live, and a full UFC card the following day, and was struck by the way rugby as a product has evolved, but also the extent to which UFC shows what it is competing with – and why its recent investment was crucial to its survival.
That’s because the UFC is owned by Endeavour, a wildly ambitious talent agency, and its competition represents a highly evolved example of what smart, ruthless capital looks like in a sporting context. In so doing it shows where rugby is likely to go now that the visionary, patient money of its new Silver Lake investors is involved. While some will mourn that as a betrayal of rugby’s genteel amateur origins, it’s a sign of where professional sport is moving. UFC is wildly popular and growing explosively, with a well-established pipeline of ferocious young athletic talent and fans willing to pay to watch it. Rugby remains very popular, but is rightly desperate to rebuild its relationship with younger sports fans here and around the world.
UFC is what the future looks like
The Ultimate Fighting Championship arose from what seemed more like a Jean-Claude Van Damme elevator pitch than a business: who would win a contest between the world’s greatest fighters, from any discipline? It limped along for a decade before the Fertita brothers and Dana White hit upon its modern format and aesthetic, which is sort of internet maximalist. You can tell a lot about the code by the company it keeps – the UFC’s are not just challenger brands, but scrappy, sometimes unmentionable underdogs.
Here Joe Rogan is not a Covid-sceptic podcaster but a star commentator. UFC’s key partners are second-tier streaming services, weird energy drinks and supplements, online gambling and crypto. Manscaped is the “official electric trimmer of the UFC”. VEChain is “the official layer one blockchain of UFC”. Everything is not just for sale, but sold.
There are piles of banner ads and pop-up video clips while the main event is playing – a main event which you paid $39.95 to watch. The fighters demand a doubling of the “knockout of the night” bonus during post match interviews. Alexander Volkanovski finishes his peerless title defence covered in blood – not his own, but his opponent’s. The first fight ends when someone is poked in the eye and temporarily blinded, and all this is totally normal, because this is cage fighting.
Why does this matter to the All Blacks?
The previous night I went to Eden Park to watch the All Blacks smash a spirited Irish team, first slowly and then in a flurry. In the buildup to kick-off there are little hints that this is not just a sporting event, but entertainment, a show. Shapeshifter’s ‘Dutchies’ has become the team’s warm-up song, and the seriousness with which the haka is taken and deployed has improved massively over time. British petrochemical giant Ineos and Japanese pharmaceutical giant Taisho are key sponsors, a sign of how the All Blacks are that rare New Zealand entity – one which derives huge power and income internationally as well as at home.
I watched from New Zealand Rugby’s giant box, which is admittedly a pretty nice way to do it. But you could feel the way the emphasis is starting to shift there too. Ten years ago it was all ex-players, provincial rugby people and their commercial partners. It was very serious and conservative and ultimately rooted in the amateur era from which it had emerged just 15 years before. Today you see young comics like Chris Parker, Tom Sainsbury and Guy Montgomery alongside radio personalities from The Edge and Mai FM. The demographic has come back around 10 years in age, a result of a calculated attempt to open up a game that inadvertently aged hard and fast with its Sky TV audience (incidentally, Sky is trying to do the same Benjamin Button trick too).
As Madeleine Chapman’s analysis for The Spinoff showed, the attempt to modernise is still incomplete. But it also needs acknowledging that it is a giant leap for New Zealand Rugby to even be publicly discussing and advocating for mental health, women’s rugby and Pacific communities at all. CEO Mark Robinson oversees a torture chamber of an organisational structure – NZ Rugby is an incorporated society effectively governed by its 26 constituent unions, needing to serve amateur rugby but hostage to its professional players and their union. Which makes any kind of progress ferociously complicated.
On that basis the very existence of the Silver Lake deal, which gives a piece of the commercial action to a giant technology investment firm, is a minor miracle. That it was patient and committed enough to wait out the public wrangling, the internecine squabbling between provincial unions and the players’ association shows just how valuable it perceives New Zealand Rugby’s brands as being.
UFC and the All Blacks are coming together, one way or another
The gap between UFC and an All Blacks test is vast. UFC has an enormous sense of itself as a product, and has been built as an internet-first competition. Its aesthetic, media and marketing are all built around the roaring chaos of the internet as primary media. The All Blacks remain a domestic pay TV-first financial proposition at present. This is a long-term subscription-based model – no engineered ad breaks, and an older and more conservative New Zealand-based audience.
But that audience is slowly dying and too small to fund world class sporting infrastructure into the future. It also needs to be replaced. This is not just a nice-to-have business proposition – it’s a cold and animal survival necessity. There is no way to invest in the women’s game, to look after players, to nurture the provincial game and compensate world-class athletic talent without following a version of the UFC playbook. It can be classier and less bloody, and attract more bougie brands – but the fight sport has shown the way to grow in this era.
This unavoidably means contemplating more reality TV shows to follow Match Fit and Second Chance Charlie (and likely dreaming about Drive to Survive, the show that has transformed Formula 1). It means creating a dynamic media ecosystem, running much deeper than just the All Blacks, with an owned streaming product at its core. It means being comfortable with changing the game to allow for everything from more commercial breaks to a faster flow, while also contemplating pay-per-view for your main events. It means selling most things that can be sold.
And while that might be confronting to its stalwarts who remember those who played the game for nothing but the black jersey, it also shouldn’t be viewed as a deadweight loss. While the Ireland game was hugely compelling, the carnivalesque atmosphere of the UFC’s main event was too, in an entirely different way. NZ Rugby has completed the hard stuff in selling Silver Lake to a highly sceptical internal and external audience. It has priceless heritage, a superb core brand in the All Blacks, immense upside in the Black Ferns, along with provincial unions and Super Rugby sides which could be so much more with investment and strategy. It has completed a very challenging regime change of chair and CEO (if not All Blacks coach).
Now all that remains is the transformation of the code into one which can compete and win against the globalised juggernauts of the international sporting universe. Which in truth is probably harder than any on-field opponent. It’s also a bigger and more existentially important prize.