MMA: Why UFC's Entertainment-First Mentality Cripples Sport's Mainstream Chances
In the Pablo Croce directed documentary Like Water, UFC middleweight champ Anderson Silva has just flown to the United States to begin training camp for his bout with Chael Sonnen.
While gearing up for his first actual sparring session, Silva is locked into a deep conversation with longtime training partner and friend Lyoto Machida.
"It's a lot of pressure from everyone. You can't let it change your game. A lot of things influence your situation. For example, everyone wants a brawl right? But if you get into a brawl in every fight, and end up losing every fight you can be cut," says Silva.
Machida nods in agreement with Silva's points and simply replies, "They're only seeing their side."
The double-edged sword fighters are constantly faced with creates insurmountable expectations that are nearly impossible to live up to.
If a talented fighter is deemed boring, he can be released from his contract after one loss. If a fighter goes out of his way to be exciting and still loses, he can also be released from his contract.
On UFC.com, Mixed Martial Arts is defined as a "full contact sport that was promoted as a competition to determine the most effective martial art for unarmed combat situations."
Unfortunately, this definition is a stark contrast from MMA today.
A world class UFC fighter like Jon Fitch is dumped on the curve after one loss due to his less than aesthetically pleasing fighting style, while guys like Dan Hardy and Leonard Garcia are given a pass after racking up four straight losses.
Frankie Edgar, who is on a three-fight losing streak, isn't only employed, but in the official UFC rankings, somehow still listed as one of the top-10 pound-for-pound fighters in the world.
"What you should do is try to go out and be the best in the world. And you should try to go out and whoop everybody's ass and impress them. It depends on how much money you want to make. If you want to go around and lay on people, how many people are beating down the door to see any of those guys fight again?"
Wasn't the entire sport based on finding the most effective martial art? If so, then how is the grappler to blame for the other guy being inferior on the ground?
While White's entertainment-first module is understandable, it's a bit of a stretch to think fighters are going to handicap themselves by changing their styles. Quite the contrary, the threat of being cut will only make them fight safer to guarantee wins and secure a future in the UFC.
Brendan Schaub's recent performance against Lavar Johnson at UFC 157 speaks volumes of this beginning trend. In a post-fight interview with MMAFighting's Ariel Helwani, Schaub explained why he decided to stick with grappling and avoid his usual striking-heavy offense.
"Usually, I always fight with just my heart, and this time I was fighting with [my head]...UFC cut all those guys and those guys are studs, and man I live, breathe and eat to be a UFC fighter. I love the UFC. This is it for me. I'm going to retire in the UFC Hall of Fame and that's my goal and I won't fight for anyone else, so to me, this is life and death."
The true beauty of MMA lies in its mixture of styles.
Everyone loves a good knockout, but this isn't kickboxing or boxing. Every fighter yearns to finish a fight, but this can only be accomplished by the unique skill set possessed by that particular fighter.
It isn't like everyone on the UFC roster is walking around with Silva's striking skills and Demian Maia's submission abilities. Fitch is a strong wrestler with good ground-and-pound, but the level of competition is unrivaled in the UFC, which makes opponents twice as hard to finish.
The same comparison can be made between collegiate and professional football. At the collegiate level, there are lopsided victories left and right, but in the NFL, every game is a fight and opponents are harder to put away.
In MMA, the line between sport and entertainment has been blurred, and it goes far beyond Octagon performance.
Fighters are using the media as a forum to swoop in and steal title shots from previously established No. 1 contenders.
Nick Diaz's constant verbal jabs hurled at reigning UFC welterweight champ Georges St-Pierre has allowed him to leapfrog contenders twice for a title shot.
After losing in a middleweight title bout with Silva, Chael Sonnen went on a trash talking campaign for the ages, and now, he is set to challenge Jon Jones for the light heavyweight title.
The featherweight division is already crowded at the top with contenders, but a quick callout from Anthony Pettis has ensured him the next crack at UFC champ Jose Aldo.
"The UFC created a ranking to avoid that, but, as of now, it is useless, because they are picking guys from other divisions," Aldo told Tatame.com, via BJ Penn.com.
"How does a guy get a title shot if he's never fought at my weight class? It's unfair to the others. I'm not speaking just for myself, because I'm the champion and I will fight anyone, but it's unfair to the other fighters who are training, winning their fights and thinking about getting the belt. Meanwhile, here comes a guy from another division, ask for a shot and the UFC agrees."
The UFC currently finds itself between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, the promotion works nonstop to uphold the integrity of the sport, but on the other, there is an obligation to keep fans happy.
It's obvious White has a new itinerary in mind, but there is no reason to believe he would falter after all of the hard work he has put into turning a dying idea into the fastest growing sport in the world.
Hopefully, the sport continues to evolve to the point where fans become more educated and begin appreciating diverse fighting styles.
If not, then four-ounce gloves and real-life competition might be the only two things separating MMA from tights and a squared circle.
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