Mixed Martial Arts – A Case Study in The Importance of Innovation

There might not be a clearer example of innovation in action than the evolution of mixed martial arts. Read on while we discuss the parallels.

Since it’s a Friday in December, I thought it’d be fun to take a less conventional than usual look at innovation and its application in the real world. It’s easy, after all, to talk about innovation in sterile and abstract terms, but (outside of go-to examples like Elon Musk or Steve Jobs) it’s not always as easy to see examples of how innovativeness plays out in the real world.

But today, instead of stuffy boardroom businessmen, we’re going to turn our attention to one of the fastest-growing and most innovative sports of the past two decades: mixed martial arts (MMA) – or just the UFC if you’re less of a connoisseur.

You see, whether you’re talking about the practice of the sport and the techniques employed therein, or about the business, marketing and profit models adopted and refined by the various promotions, MMA has provided a fascinating showcase for disruption and innovation in the combat sports and entertainment world. And even if you’re neither a fighter nor a promoter, there are lessons to be learned from these innovations.


An old idea, re-imagined

Some people misunderstand innovation as a synonym for invention, thinking that an innovation is necessarily something new. But, in reality, an innovation is just as often the result of taking something old and introducing it to your market or working environment in a new way.

This is exactly what modern MMA is.

In a way, MMA is one of the oldest sports in the world. Pankration – a mix of boxing and wrestling – was first introduced to the Olympic Games of the ancient world over 2000 years ago. And what modern MMA promoters have done is taken that ancient idea, thrown more combat styles into the mix – reflecting a more diverse contemporary world – and repackaged it for modern stadiums, arenas, and audiences.

The Innovation Lesson:

As technologically advanced as we become, we’re still all just human. And, often, innovating is simply about identifying a human need that isn’t being met. And sometimes the past is a good place to start looking.


Ignoring conventional wisdom

There’s no denying that MMA has taken a great deal of inspiration from professional wrestling. In both Japan and America, professional wrestlers often dip their toes into mixed martial arts, and the promotion of the sport often looks like it comes straight out of WWE.

But where the two most obviously diverge is in the competitive aspect.

Vince MacMahon, of WWE fame, is notoriously a control freak and never believed that a star could be built in combat sports, unless one could control the outcomes of the fights. For decades this proved true, with professional wrestling maintaining and growing a loyal worldwide audience through the 80s and 90s, while boxing’s light dimmed with a comparative dearth of legitimate stars.

The UFC specifically tested that theory by leaving the outcome of matches up to the skill of the fighters and building the strength of the brand to make up for lapses in fighter popularity. Dana White (promoter and part-owner) is essentially the face of the organisation and superstar fighters are allowed to developed organically before the UFC needs to devote additional resource to their promotion.

Conor McGregor epitomises the success of this approach that defied the presumed industry best practice. With three wins and four losses in his last seven MMA bouts, the outcomes of his matches are not what they would have been had they been controlled, but despite that, he is still the highest-earning athlete in the world and the UFC’s biggest star.

The Innovation Lesson

Conventional wisdom often informs best practice, but neither should be followed like the gospel.

Information is crucial when stepping outside the boundaries of best practice. In its growth, the UFC identified weaknesses and opportunities in the competitive and promotional architecture of contemporary combat sports and entertainment. They understood their market, and they structured themselves and offered a product to not only fit within it, but to expand it.


Leveraging an online audience

In the early days, when budgets were tight and MMA was still very much an experimental product without a proven track record of value, promoters had to make sure that every marketing dollar stretched as far as it possibly could.

In the late 90s and early 2000s, the internet was still a wild and unregulated place and digital marketing was barely even a concept. Nevertheless, MMA promotions – without much support from television networks, and with only a niche audience that was thinly spread across the globe – had to use the internet to reach enthusiasts and grow their brands.

This meant that MMA promotion was one of the first industries to fully employ online marketing tactics and tap into a global digital community. The legacy of this can still be seen in the existence of large and very active online forums of MMA discussion (whose influence is often leveraged by SEO professionals in that market) in a world where social media platforms like Facebook largely eclipsed forums like these.

In the modern world, innovation is often built on the back of digital transformation. In the case of MMA, one of the world’s oldest sports, digital transformation was a part of its rebirth, and has been an integral part of specifically the UFC’s rapid growth.

The Innovation Lesson

In a fast-moving and technologically savvy world, selecting the right tools and platforms on which to grow your organisation is often the key to creating competitive advantage. Whether MMA as a whole or the UFC specifically employed the internet and digital marketing with foresight or simply stumbled into it as the only available option, their success still illustrates the importance of considering the market landscape of tomorrow when selecting solutions today.


Promoting the promoter over the fighter

As we mentioned above, innovation is often about taking something old and putting it to a new purpose.

Well, when the UFC began its rise to prominence, part-owner and ideas man Dana White, looked to professional wrestling and boxing for inspiration as to how the organisation would be structured and its contests promoted.

Rather than depend on the drawing power of individual stars – like boxing had always done – the UFC needed a consistent brand that could sustain itself even when its roster of fighters lacked that true star power.

So, while the promotion desired the authenticity of competition that boxing offered, it looked to the WWE – and specifically its CEO, Vince McMahon – for inspiration.

The Innovation Lesson

Sustainability is important and an organisation’s most meaningful innovations will be those that build organisational resilience and that stand the test of time, not necessarily flash-in-the pan product innovations. And, by amalgamating the models of existing competitors, the UFC introduced a new approach that’s been successful and seen them grow from a regional organisation to the worldwide leader in combat sports over two decades.


Disruption and adaptation

Today, with the UFC holding a global market share of around 80%, MMA is fertile ground for innovative organisations looking to carve out a niche in what was once itself a niche market.

In trying to identify their USPs and separate themselves from the pack, new MMA organisations take new approaches to both the structure and the presentation of their product.

In Japan, ONE Fighting Championship has eliminated the unhealthy tradition of weight-cutting (dehydrating oneself for the weigh-in in an attempt to get a size advantage in the fight) and draws much of its talent from the regional Muay Thai circuit, as opposed to the more grappling-centric MMA in Russian and American promotions. So, while the UFC has far more depth of talent, ONE offers a higher-octane product with some of the world’s best stand-up fighters.

The Professional Fighters League (PFL) recently formed, with a competitive structure that resembles a traditional team sports. Tournaments are divided by seasons, and winners earn huge cash prizes – dwarfing the pay of most fighters at other organisations. The tournament structure offers storytelling opportunities, while cash prize allows the organisation to appeal to the socially sensitive topic of fighter pay which has been a growing weakness of the UFC’s for several years.

Innovation Lesson

In this day and age, we’ve all heard a lot about disruption. Often, innovation leads to disruption which provides opportunity for further innovation – and so the circle continues.

A business with a good understanding of its market and an effective ability to communicate with itself and to acquire and process knowledge, is a business that can innovate within disruption, and potentially expand a niche until it is a full-fledged market unto itself.


The evolution of styles

Taking a closer view for a moment, and looking at the actual in-cage or in-ring competition of mixed martial arts, we find that innovation is an integral part of what has proven to be a very rapidly evolving sport.

In its initial incarnation, the UFC was nothing more than a platform to showcase Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and prove its superiority over all other martial arts. And, early on, this assertion proved true. All fights eventually went to the ground and, once there, boxers, kickboxers and wrestlers wouldn’t last long before being submitted.

But, over time, new styles were incorporated, new training methods and techniques were introduced, and higher levels of athlete started showing interest in the sport. Cross-pollination of skills and techniques between different training camps accelerated the rate at which the whole sport evolved and for a time, each generation of fighters was head and shoulders above the one before.

And today, legitimate submissions at the highest levels of competition are very rare, because everybody has at least some understanding of two or more martial arts and some form of submission grappling is necessarily one of them.

While the first UFC champion was a master of one art, there is no MMA champion today who has not incorporated a range of tools drawn from different martial arts, to construct a style that is unique to him or her.

The Innovation Lesson

Much like MMA, the modern world is fast-moving and it demands adaptation. If you can’t change, you lose.

And when looked at as an analogous whole, comparing an individual business to the industry of MMA, training camps could be viewed as business units or project teams. They each work as independent and semi-autonomous groups, bringing together a diverse range of experts, who work together to create the best and most effective approach to the end product.

It’s this approach of decentralised action working toward a centralised goal that allowed for MMA’s rapidity or evolution.


Innovate and thrive

Ultimately, whether you’re running a fight promotion or a marketing agency, innovation is a key component of thriving in the modern and future world. And while we thought this would be a fun article topic to write, research and for you to read, the underlying reality is that innovation matters.

The Papillio Innovation Toolkit and collaboration platform enables innovation by providing you with a transparent view of project workflows, seamless collaboration, an effective brainstorming virtual workspace and tools, and team and squad management functionality.

If you want to get a taste of the platform’s capabilities and discuss them in the context of your business objectives, feel free to book demonstration with us. Otherwise, try the platform for free with full functionality for a single user.



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