Watching UFC at 5 AM in the morning, I couldn't help but prick my ears up at an aside comment by commentator Joe Rogan to his fellow announcer during one of the fights: "Right now you are watching the best sport in the world."
Naturally, this got me thinking.
Was this was just Joe Rogan getting caught up in the hype? Let's face it: UFC's 100th event really was a landmark for the sport. Many never gave the sport or UFC a chance in its early years, when phrases like "Human cock-fighting," "barbaric," and even "inhuman" were bandied about by the mainstream media and when many states in America refused to sanction even a sanitised version of the sport within their territories.
Today, UFC has much to laud itself about. MMA is no longer an exotic underground activity a la Frank Dux and co. in the movie 'Bloodsport'. It's finally become 'Big'. Big enough to attract celebrity endorsements, big enough to be sponsored by well known brands and big enough to be watched in Ireland at 5am in the morning...live!
Of course, the other possibility is that Rogan, like other MMA enthusiasts, truly believe their's is the purest sport. That MMA is the height of physical competitive endeavor between humans.
That MMA is quite simply, the greatest sport.
But, to many, this is a very subjective issue. How can one compare sports anyway?! What about sports that are only found in certain countries, played among certain classes, among certain cultures?
For example, in my country, Gaelic football and hurling are popular. Who's to say they're 'inferior' because there's little interest in them anywhere else...especially if you haven't played or watched those sports. How the hell could good 'ol Joe rule them out without even knowing about them? Say it ain't so Joe.
For the record, I hate GAA and hurling. But that's not the point.
Likewise, polo, which is likely only to be enjoyed by the richer among us who own horses, access to stables, and a pitch designated for such use. Who's to say polo wouldn't be more popular and loved if we could all have access to it.
Should the genius of a sport come down to accessibility?
It's no secret many among may never get the chance to play certain sports for lack of equipment, money or even time. It's also no secret many of us can never play certain sports due to certain physical ailments or conditions. But certain sports are universally played everywhere precisely because they overcome these barriers.
Today, billions around the world know, follow and play football/soccer because the idea is so damn easy even a kid from a slum can understand it and 'jumpers for goalposts' make it a very cheap option for people for whom the notion of polo or tennis would be otherworldly.
Clearly, MMA has the potential to be practiced everywhere. Historically, martial arts have developed wherever there has been conflict in human affairs. Namely everywhere by everyone.
The modern action we see in the UFC really isn't too far off the action witnessed beneath the torches of the Coliseum 2000 years ago, a pit in eastern Mongolia 1000 years ago, or a fight between two knackers on main street 15 minutes ago.
In this way, MMA fundamentally isn't too alien a concept to those aforementioned 'kids in a slum' as football is. With a gym, the right coach and a few mats we might even see a few of these 'rougher' kids excel at the sport owing to their harder background.
What about sports that incorporate other sports? Doesn't football have an element of athletics? MMA certainly has an element of boxing and wrestling involved. And surely American football owes alot to rugby. Are these newer, amalgamated versions of prior sports superior?
I can see a lot of logic in this point. Because MMA actively subsumes boxing along with wrestling and other martial arts many would say what's the point in watching only boxing or wrestling alone? Why watch a fight between two boxers with one hand tied behind their backs when you can watch them fight with two hands...and two feet...heck their whole bodies!
In this way MMA encourages one to have proficiency in many sporting endeavours and thus could be classed as a 'total contact sport'—making sports like boxing or amateur wrestling 'inferior' in this sense.
A final aspect I'm going to point out in this little debate centers around the 'characters' and sports personalities we find in certain sports. For many people, sport only truly becomes interesting due to the participants involved. Some people follow a sport because a family member did or was involved in it, most likely your own father or brother(s).
While still others look to charismatic, inspirational and outstanding personalities like Muhammad Ali and Lance Armstrong who transcended the boundaries of their sport to reach out to people and spark an interest in the sport's they came to represent.
Does the MMA world have have similarly outstanding personalities? Fedor? GSP? Brock Lesnar anyone?!
Not at the moment. Much as I hate to say it hardly anyone outside the MMA world is likely to know of the achievements of Fedor Emelianenko. Even Lesnar owed a large degree of his initial drawing power to his WWE background.
So, in this last regard, MMA has not succeeded as a sport. While true mixed martial artists like Bruce Lee and Frank Dux have gone on to achieve much mainstream fame, today the sport lacks a person that can knock those walls of sterotypes and criticisms down to let more people come in and appreciate the work of its fine athletes.
But as the sport becomes more popular, and as more and more take it up, don't expect this situation to last forever.