The sport of Mixed Martial Arts is the fastest growing sport, and one of the most popular. It is a phenomenon that has grown exponentially every year, and continues to establish itself among the sports that have been around for far longer. But why the success? Why the interest? How did this seemingly brutal entertainment venue turn into one of the greatest sports of all time?
First things first, as already known to many, UFC and MMA are two different things. However, the UFC, in terms of the success and growth of the sport, IS what MMA is using as its vessel into the higher echelons. UFC is a brand, an organization, a business—MMA is a sport, in which the UFC builds its business upon. The keyword here is business.
With any business, the driving factor and success comes from the consumer, client, or customer. In MMA, it is the fans. The sport is only as successful as the fans make it to be, and thus the constant draw of fans is crucial to survival and potential growth. So what does MMA offer to someone to make him or her a “fan”?
MMA started its lineage as a stylistic matchup between two fighters. The two opponents would normally have one particular martial art that they were virtuosic in, pitted against a different style, with very few rules. Early UFC matches did not consist of defined weight classes or Unified Rules like we have today. This draw had two facets to it.
The first, the stylistic aspect to the fighters sparked people’s curiosity. It was the “Can his style beat his style” concept, and many found it intriguing to see the result. Also, the fights were tournament based, so having the last man standing led to a conclusive perception of the “top martial art.”
Second, you had an entertainment source that pitted two fighters against each other, which in of itself is a great thing to watch. Some fans only wanted to see one thing: a guy get beaten, bloodied, or knocked out—I assume there are some fans who still only care about this.
In both senses, though, the underlying draw of the early stages of MMA and what it is today is that “gladiator” connection. What in the history of physical competition is more glorified and learned than the Colosseum, and the gladiators of the time? This was the ultimate entertainment venue in Rome for a long period of time, and the masses were drawn to it to witness the competitive nature of it all, or the danger and bloodshed that could come of it.
While not fighting to the death, MMA has the parallels of the old gladiator days. It is taking two people, putting them at the center of a surrounding crowd, and having them use all their mental and physical fortitude to come out the victor.
But why are we drawn to this?
As humans we are competitive by nature, whether it be for land, food, companions, or just bragging rights. Our animalistic nature combined with our social institutions teaches us to be better than others in many ways. Sometimes it is out of being curious, sometimes it is out of pride; but either way, competing to see who is better is a trait that has long been a part of human society.
Yes, there are flashy things to heighten the experience, and they do play small roles as well. Having scantily clad women parading around the arena is a stimulant that caters to the male audience, which is the biggest demographic. But the way the sport is structured plays a significant part as well.
In most other sports, you have teams to root for. Even in the Olympics, you are watching individual athletes perform, but are rooting more for the country. In MMA, you are rooting primarily for the solitary athlete himself/herself. Yes, they have camps and other teammates, but when the cage door shuts, it is all about the two fighters.
This sport allows people to rally behind one single person. Think of what is more exciting: to vote for a group of politicians, or the President? People love to rally behind a football team, but put a great deal of emphasis on the quarterback. It is easier, more relatable, and more fulfilling to back one person.
The reason why, is that there is a connection there. If you see a team with numbers on their backs, then you are focusing on the team. With MMA, there are no masks, there are no jerseys, and very little else concealing whom the athlete is.
Think of how many MMA fighters you could recognize, and compare it to how many hockey players you could run into and know. This is putting it very generally, but MMA fighters are very much associated with their own look, styles, abilities, and, yes, country.
Country isn’t as big as in other sports, and this is why: You may cheer for a certain Brazilian fighter, but you do not necessarily cheer for every single Brazilian fighter. Some do, but typically, the separation is usually an athlete-by-athlete basis.
The stylistic draw is still there, and many fans are becoming more educated on the sport. Many people have turned to MMA training, and, in general, research the sport more in-depth. More and more people are starting to understand the technical game that MMA can be, and thus appreciate it more.
Some are still content with a knockout or submission, but both are draws in their own way. In general, fighting is always something that excites us. It’s that cliché schoolyard scene where some kid yells, “FIGHT!” and everyone rushes to see. Sibling rivalry is all a competition, trying to get that promotion before others is as well. Our lives are built around getting to the top, but sometimes suggests to step on others on the way up.
MMA is intriguing because of the way the athletes are connected as well. The MMA fighters and some head honchos of the organizations are all very connected with their fans. Dana White is a shining example.
But what makes the athletes intriguing is that you feel that connection with them. Why? Because they are fighting, yes, but their fighting is their livelihood as well.
For many of these fighters, this is their sole job and career. This is how they support their families and themselves. Fans can relate to that on a deep emotional and empathetic level. In other sports, athletes are playing for the same things, and their sport is their job, but fans do not feel that connection as much.
The reason is because they play many games, and are on a scheduled routine. MMA fighters you hear/see go through camps, training and preparing, and then finally fighting. They fight maybe 3-4 times a year, and you know what kind of finances they are getting each time. When other athletes in other sports are getting millions and millions of dollars, the personal connection gets diluted.
All in all, the sport has many factors that drive its attraction, and each fan finds their own connection in their own way. Like the fighters themselves, fandom is an individual venture that truly presents unique experiences that are more personal than other sports.
Competition and individualism are the building blocks of human nature, and are very well-represented in MMA, resulting in a sport that just feels natural.
Why do YOU watch MMA? What drew you in?