These days it’s getting tough to decide whether MMA is a bona fide sport based solely on competition or just some entertainment stage smitten by fans looking to see someone’s face smashed in.
The mere basis of the creation of MMA was cloaked in a sports competition that gathered all of the best fighters from around the globe. The premise of the sport was to take masters of every combat art and let them duel it out to see which art reigned supreme. It was the purest form of competition in the world.
All it needed was a stage.
The Ultimate Fighting Championship opened its doors in 1993 and eventually grew to be the mecca of MMA. It was a brand that became synonymous with the sport, which is why Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta bought it in January 2001.
The promotion was struggling to keep afloat, but with the help of Dana White, the Fertittas’ childhood friend, the UFC slowly began turning a profit. Fast-forward twelve years later, and now the UFC is a billion dollar empire inching into doorways of mainstream media outlets.
With all of the worldwide success, the UFC has been forced to shed its cocoon in order to appease casual fans, which makes up the brunt of the MMA fanbase.
MMA is no longer the pure sport hardcore fans once marveled. Most fans don’t even care enough about the sport these days to educate themselves. Instead, they are drunk with the satisfaction of watching two Neanderthals bludgeon one another. Fighters are objectified in a sense and not held in the same light as other athletes.
All it takes is one trip to an actual event or your local bar to see the stark contrast between MMA fans and fans of other mainstream sports. The average football fan can describe in detail the nuances of all the happenings on the gridiron. Basketball, baseball and even hockey fans have no problem recalling the vernacular associated with their sports.
In MMA, you would be hard-pressed to find a casual fan who can describe an arm-triangle or a D'arce. They would much rather be preoccupied with striking than any form of grappling. Sadly, the UFC has opted to give in to these individuals, which leaves only one question: Is MMA an actual sport or just sports entertainment?
Lately, the UFC seems to be leaning towards the latter. Fighters are being released from the promotion for less than aesthetically pleasing fighting styles.
Yushin Okami, a perennial middleweight contender, was released after one loss, prior to being on a three-fight winning streak. Jon Fitch amassed a 14-3 UFC record before being released after a loss.
Gerald Harris was 3-1 in the UFC and was released after his first loss. Jon Madsen had an undefeated record with four straight wins, but after losing to Mike Russow, the UFC wasted no time in dropping him.
What is the single knot tying all of these fighters together?
They were all grapplers void of flamboyant personalities. Chael Sonnen, a grappler who has achieved superstardom, would be the first man to admit that his mouth is part of the reason why he has stuck around and remained relevant for so long.
During an interview with MMAFighting’s Shaun Al-Shatti, Sonnen claimed talking and fighting went hand in hand, especially for grapplers:
Fighting is an expression. It's a form of speech, and that's why they call it martial arts. It's an art. The greatest form of expression, or at least the most common that we have as human beings, what separates us from the animals, is speaking -- the ability to communicate. That's also an expression and an art, and they go hand in hand.
People bring it up to me, ‘Well, you're only in your spot because you can talk well.’ Okay, first off, you could be right. But second, what, am I supposed to apologize for this? No. This is expression. I don't know any other way to communicate besides speaking. I mean, maybe I could pump it out in Morse code, but I don't think as many people are going to understand as when I just say the words. So yes, I think that everybody could do a better job of that.
In the UFC, there tends to be a bit more leeway for strikers.
The mantra is typically three strikes and you’re out. While many grapplers have been cut after one loss, strikers tend to overstay their welcome in the UFC.
Leonard Garcia was allowed to continue his UFC career after accumulating five straight losses, and Dan Hardy’s career was somehow salvaged after racking up four defeats in a row. Chris Leben is on a three-fight losing streak, and there is a good chance he’ll be featured on the main card of the upcoming blockbuster UFC 168 fight card.
For the UFC, it’s all about marketing and promotion, as it should be. You can’t pay the bills and facilitate growth if people aren't interested in your brand. It all comes down to a tough business decision. Do you uphold the integrity of the sport, or do you make all of the right moves that guarantee the future success of your business?
So far, the UFC has teetered back and forth between the two.
A sport is based purely on competition, not a particular style that people find interesting. Shouldn't it be up to casual fans to educate themselves instead of being force fed entertainment by the UFC?
People need to learn that there is much more to MMA than just punching someone in the face. It is a sport derived from a variety of disciplines that came into existence to decide the best fighter in the world.
It makes you wonder. If every decision is strictly business-oriented over the next decade, where will the UFC be in 2023?
Worst-case scenario, those three iconic letters, M-M-A, may be nothing more than a moniker serving as the backdrop for a cloaked kickboxing promotion.