Will Dana White's Globalization of UFC Move MMA Beyond the Fringe?

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Will Dana White's Globalization of UFC Move MMA Beyond the Fringe?
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As the UFC makes moves to improve its global presence, there’s a certain sense that the organization will usher in a new era as it finds existing markets and establishes itself beside them. This is, of course, good for the Fertittas, Dana White and the UFC, but it may be good for the sport of MMA as well.

With the recent television deal signed between UFC and Sony Pictures Television’s Multi Screen Media that will bring UFC programming to India, Dana White’s promise to take the UFC global is further developing at a rapid pace.

This year alone, we have seen expansion of the organization in big ways. A recent press conference in Calgary revealed three dates on which UFC events will take place in Canada this year, confirming and revitalizing the UFC’s relationship with its Canadian devotees and fighters. The UFC’s popular reality show The Ultimate Fighter premiered in Brazil featuring coaches American fans are all too familiar with: Wanderlei Silva and Vitor Belfort. And recently, White has guaranteed that he is similarly making headway in China, where the UFC opened offices in 2010 and rumors are spreading of a fight there in 2012.

All of this expansion brings to mind White’s philosophy about fighting as a potential global sport. In a 2010 interview with SportsBusiness Journal, White explained the barriers of various sports and their national boundaries—for example, the NFL in America and cricket in India—and how these sports’ small international presence remains historically limited, despite any financial stimulus they’ve received to encourage their global reception. Fighting, he says, can transcend these barriers.

“Fighting crosses all these barriers. I don’t care what country you come from or what language you speak, fighting is in our DNA. We get it and we like it.”

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Unlike aspirations of complete global dominance and the promise of a fight in Macau by the end of this year, we don’t need to take White’s word on the natural presence of fighting in human culture. Its presence is just as natural in White’s plan for expansion.

In America, sports like MMA continually fight against residua of religious reformation and the politics of tradition. One of MMA’s greatest political opponents, New York assemblyman Bob Reilly, explains his particular views that reflect such tradition.

“The greatest problem I find with mixed martial arts or Ultimate Fighting is that it’s violent, and I believe that violence begets violence. Now in New York State, the legislature and the governor constantly are trying to do away with violence: violence in schools, violence in our urban cities, domestic violence. And I think this just helps perpetuate and encourage violence.”

Reilly continues his criticism of the sport by explaining that his acceptance of it would only come with undermining the foundations of what has made MMA popular in the first place.

“What attracts people to Ultimate Fighting, unfortunately, is violence, and violence is not good for our society. Safeguards could come. Some people say, is there any way that you could accept mixed martial arts, and I say yes, if you drastically change your rules and took the violence out of it. But you take the violence out of it, as I think demonstrated before, and its attractiveness to a large fanbase is gone. I think that what we want to do is control the violence in every sport.”

Reilly’s case against MMA is arguable at the least. What should be noticed here, however, is that the sport in this case battles an American ideology of means against purpose instead of any specific offense. The assemblyman illustrates this later in the interview when he explains that the NFL has done a good job of controlling violence in sport because “the purpose is to put the football through the goal or to put it into the endzone.” But, he says, “in mixed martial arts, the purpose is violence.” Absent from this interview are a discussion about the evolution of competition, the philosophical revision of safety and sportsmanship or the fact that soccer is still not broadly welcomed in America.

Michael Nagle/Getty Images

In the countries where the UFC is rooting, however, these same things are integrated into the history of MMA. While others can speak to the modern view of the sport in these countries better than myself, for this has likely evolved in various ways only known to members of the respective cultures, it’s certain that Americans still have a nearly xenophilic attraction to the lore of fighting from other countries. Reilly speaks to this as well.

“All of the mixed martial arts, there’s a great history to them because the mixed martial arts developed over literally centuries in some cases based on a philosophy of making your body and your mind stronger and, in many cases, as a defense.”

What the casual viewer of MMA often misses is the demonstration of this “great history” present in every fight. Admittedly, it does take a certain knowledge of the sport to notice and understand this history within the stylistic hybridity displayed by fighters. Regardless, people do witness it, and the resilient presence of MMA in the U.S. is nothing if not a testament to that. Welcoming other countries into the UFC, many of whom have founded these histories, may be the best way—the only way—for Americans to realize it fully.

But to date, advancing the sport around its critics has proved challenging. The enthusiasts of MMA in America remain a small group of dedicated fans, but it has gained a certain position of prominence thanks in large part to White’s partnership with major advertisers and greater marketing through television presence. Such moves bring to mind the tactics of George Lewis “Tex” Rickard, the man credited with bringing boxing from the barbaric bare-knuckle sport of the late 19th century to the star-studded spectacle of the 20th.

Like Rickard, who saw potential in developing stars like Jack Dempsey over a series of fights, White has been able to use television and the Internet to develop similar hero-like stars who vie for title shots and defend their rank against a ready squad of contenders. Moreover, White is also willing to take risks on fighters who promise a good fight, much like Rickard who offered huge purses to attract fighters like Jack Johnson, Jess Willard and Dempsey, and still made a profit to continue similar promotions.

Furthermore, the popularity of training camps is essential to the success of their fighters’ branding. White understands this like Rickard did, who developed Dempsey’s name along with his manager, Jack Kearns. White has been sure to use social media and television presence to keep the fighters in the public mind, a move that no doubt piques interest in the sport among a larger audience.

Despite this historical precedent of boxing’s evolution, uncertainty still remains about the potential for the UFC to make MMA the popular arena for global competition. But the UFC is growing at a time when a connected world is a more globalized world, and the organization never misses a chance to focus on the resulting nuances. Unlike boxing, a sport that gained its modern professional perception through a generally European influence in its rules, MMA pits styles against styles more than fighters against fighters. The fighters are simply vehicles for a number of identities, including their countries, their fighting styles and training camps and their own histories.

Nevertheless, it is only through promoting the fighters themselves that we are able to understand these varied identities. In the aforementioned countries, there are a number of representative fighters that have made a name for themselves in the UFC and have become household names for MMA fans. Even when this isn’t the case, White has expressed interest in introducing TUF to these countries in order to not only expand the UFC’s presence, but to develop talent while he’s at it.

Such a strategy will work remarkably well in a country like India, where the Super Fight Leauge, India’s first MMA organization, is already beginning to establish an MMA fanbase by introducing them to ex-UFC fighters, including Trevor Prangley and Todd Duffee. Interestingly enough, the Super Fight League is introducing MMA to India with desperate slogans like “Come for the concert, stay for the fight” that remind us of UFC 1’s selling point marked prominently on the cover, “Unedited! Uncensored! Unleashed!”

What White has been able to do so well is market MMA effectively as a sport as opposed to a simple spectacle like that advertised at the video release of UFC 1 or recently in the Super Fight League. We get to watch these fighters train like athletes via pre-fight promotions. Many of the sponsors of an event and its fighters are health supplement companies or major sponsors of other sports. All of this together makes a night of UFC fighting a grand event that showcases raw athleticism in a way we’re used to seeing in similar events.

Not one to completely sacrifice the brand, though, White continually caters to his fringe audience with his notorious attitude that pervades every fight at every event. Although this is no secret, the sentiment was revealed most recently by Jon Jones during an interview with Ariel Helwani: “It's Dana's world when you're a UFC fighter and we live in it.”

Regardless, for America to both join the historic world of MMA and host it, “Dana’s world” might be the place to be. Not only has he been able to market MMA as an increasingly globally-sanctioned sport, he is finding global markets that are willing to invest in the development of athletes to participate in this arena; moreover, White is offering TUF to those countries as a development plan should they have none.

It’s expected that MMA won’t become the celebrated spectator sport we hope it will be in the foreseeable future, especially against the likes of American football or soccer everywhere else. Nonetheless, White’s encouragement of the UFC’s global presence has paved the way for an organic arena in which worldwide talent can compete both in the U.S. and abroad. It’s the participation of these fighters’ homelands as hosts for such events that place MMA on a truly global level of participation.

Ask any fan of U.S. soccer during a hopeful World Cup run—the significance of this level of participation and competition is hard to deny. But the intermittency of UFC events and the dramatic involvement of global identities can be made all the more appealing when a country is able to watch fighters develop and their stories evolve as representatives of both a certain culture and the general human condition. This is especially true when the telling moment is determined through the martial arts, that form of combat that defines the purpose of all competitive sport in its very nature.

If the UFC’s global arena continues to expand as it has most recently, this sport of worldwide acclaim may be able to achieve some international unity that allows MMA to appeal to a greater audience if for no other reason than that it can offer the most distilled and regular form of contest on the grandest scale by appealing to both an individual and national sense of competition.

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