Remember when mixed martial arts was a little niche sport that existed in some quiet corner of the entertainment universe, ignored or laughed at by polite society aside from the occasional moment when some senator or parents group would decide it was time to spout off about the decay of western civilization? Then this controversy or that scandal would blow over and MMA would be forgotten about again, leaving fans free to indulge our desires in peace, free from the outside world and all its noise.
Those were the days.
This week it was announced that Blake Lively will be starring in an upcoming MMA-themed movie called Bruised. According to Deadline.com the movie, which will begin shooting in September, follows the life of Jackie, “a single mother working two jobs and a disgraced MMA fighter who has been up against the ropes her entire life. When the authorities threaten to take her young son away from her, she must get back in the cage for one last chance to fight for redemption and give her son the life she always wanted.”
None of that is newsworthy on its own, of course. Over the last few years we’ve gotten several MMA movies coming out of Hollywood, and pretty much every one of them (along with nearly every boxing movie) has been about a put-upon parent/former fighter seeking redemption (both financial and spiritual) in the cage or the ring. In Hollywood the down-and-out fighter story is evergreen and ever-giving, finding new life with each successive generation of damned sentimentalists.
No, what makes the Bruised announcement significant is not its subject matter or its star in front of the camera but rather the company behind it. Lively, you see, is represented by Hollywood super-agency WME|IMG, and WME is the company that purchased the UFC last year for $ 4 billion. Ever since that deal WME has been doing what you might expect from a super-successful Hollywood agency that gets its hands on a fighting league: It has cut the promotion’s payroll dramatically, it has convinced many of its biggest celebrity clients to become investors, and it has completely mangled the UFC’s reputation for meritocratic matchmaking by pushing for meaningless money fights that do little but satisfy the temporary whims of casual curiosity-seekers, leaving longtime fans confused and fighters cynical.
But now, with the Bruised announcement, we’re finally seeing the first real indications of what the WME era is going to look like and why they bought the UFC to begin with. Because it looks like Blake Lively, along with Bruised director and fellow WME client Nick Cassavetes (who has long been attached to the remake of Road House starring—wait for it—Ronda Rousey, former UFC champion and—you guessed it—current WME client) are the vanguard of a new movement to integrate our humble little sport into a pan-disciplinary international cross-branding strategy worthy of a superhero franchise. In other words, our beloved MMA has officially been synergized.
It was only a matter of time, of course. After all, WME is famous for being the talent agency that transcends the definition, that is disrupting (apologies) the Hollywood game, the company that has revolutionized entertainment consumption and turned content, representation, licensing, branding, media rights, marketing, fashion, sports, movies, TV, video games, etc., etc., into a giant cross-border stew of integrative, diversified, multi-platform monetization. Gone are the days when a talent agency simply negotiated actor A into movie B and picked up its commission check. These days agents have a say in the actor, in the movie, and in the studio. WME now owns the league that is sponsored by the WME-associated product that endorses the WME-repped star who will perform at the WME-coordinated event that will be broadcast on a WME-controlled social-media platform. Music festivals, ad agencies, music publishing houses, beauty pageants, fight promotions: WME is putting its fingers in every pie in the entertainment/branding/marketing universe, blurring the lines once and for all between talent and bosses, brand and content, clients and employees, life and marketing.
How perfect then that the Bruised announcement comes the same week every fighter on the UFC roster was invited to Las Vegas for the “2017 UFC Athlete Retreat,” an event WME|IMG is describing as a “unique opportunity for you to interact with your fellow athletes, UFC staff and your new ownership group, while hearing from a wide variety of experts across sports, entertainment and business.” WME’s all-encompassing “incentivized collaboration” model has officially come to MMA. It’s a brave, new, brilliant, and sinister world out there. And now it’s ours.