MMA fans have short memories.
One day a fighter can be on top of the world. Next thing you know, they're looking for a new job.
These days, putting on an exciting fight is just about as important as winning.
It's why the UFC has introduced bonuses like "Knockout of the Night" and "Fight of the Night" in both their pay-per-views and their cable TV show The Ultimate Fighter.
I admit that as a fan, I've been spoiled. Within the span of a year, I've seen many highlight-reel knockouts, the likes of which were never seen before in the sport (Anderson Silva's front kick to Vitor Belfort, Edson Barboza's spin kick to Terry Etim and Lyoto Machida's crane kick to Randy Couture, to name a few).
Moments like these have almost become the norm, and anything less qualifies as a disappointment.
Sometimes it's easy to lose sight of the fact that these fighters are real people. Whenever they step into the ring, they're putting their health at risk.
This isn't a game. These fights are their livelihoods.
It becomes understandable then, why someone like Georges St-Pierre seems to "play it safe" when he defends his belt. I'm not defending him, but I do understand why he doesn't take many risks.
To be honest, I'm not a fan of fighters like Jake Shields, Gray Maynard or Jon Fitch. The prospect of seeing them on a card doesn't excite me because there's a high probability that the fight will go to decision and there will be little action. Carlos Condit, a guy who normally finishes fights, was heavily criticized for his decision win in his interim title fight with Nick Diaz. That's all it took—one fight.
Basically, as a fighter you have two goals: win, and win in an exciting fashion. This is a sport, but it's also entertainment. Exciting fights bring in money.
In the UFC, it's hard enough just to win. You're going up against the best that the world has to offer. To be an exciting fighter is almost counterproductive. To be exciting means risking something—it's a gamble. You're letting your defenses down in favor of more offense.
This strategy doesn't always pay off. A key example of this would be Jorge Gurgel. He's a fighter with highly-regarded ground skills, but he almost never uses his greatest asset. He stubbornly sticks to standing up with other fighters in an attempt to please the fans. His record has paid the price.
If you win a boring fight, you'll find yourself criticized by fans. Wind up on the losing end of too many fights, and you'll find yourself both out of a job and dismissed by fans as "not good enough."
As the UFC gains popularity, the spotlight shining on its stars grows ever more intense. Much is made of failed drug tests and enigmatic personalities like Nick Diaz, but I don't think people should be that surprised.
These are cage fighters.
They didn't attain success on charisma alone—their job is to win fights. The fame is just a byproduct of their success. The same goes for any other sport. Their body is their tool, and their job is to win. It's not that surprising that an athlete would seek any advantage they can get over their opponent, even if it means "bending" the rules a little.
At the end of the day, it's the stars that make the UFC what it is today—charismatic fighters who beat the toughest competition in the world and do so in an exciting manner. That's a lot to live up to.
It's sometimes easy to forget that these fighters are real people, because like any other media figure, we don't know them personally. We only have an impression of them.
So, I think it's worthwhile to take a step back and realize that they're only human. But at the end of the day, the harsh reality is that if they fail, there are tons of guys ready to step up and take their place.
A brutal truth for a brutal sport.
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