At the conception of the organization that is now known world wide as the “Ultimate Fighting Championship” (UFC), there was only one clear and simple rule: There were no rules.
From it’s humble, albeit raw beginnings, fight fans were treated to a unrelenting bare knuckle spectacle of pure unadulterated violence. Matter of fact that was the selling point. The violence. And living up to it’s marketing campaign, were some of the worst and most barbaric display of hand to hand combat ever seen on pay per view (see Paul Varelans).
Fighters with minimal skill were paired up against each other, exchanging punches and wild flurries of strikes that are as visually sloppy and embarrassing to watch as a fight scene from the movie Mortal Kombat... 2. And yet on the other side of the spectrum were fighters of greater skill that were eating up the weaker competition in almost effortless fashion.
For every Tank Abbott and Keith Hackney, there was a more skillfull and masterful tactician in Royce Gracie and Marco Ruas. Fighters that were clearly miles and leagues ahead of the competition. And what started out as basically a commercial for Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, which quickly became the redneck version of rock’em sock’em idiots, eventually became the breeding ground for some of the worlds best fighters.
And in the process the firing squad for some of the world's worst fighters (see Paul Varelans, again).
Through the evolution of newly adopted rules, the balance of good to bad fighters shifted almost immediately. Consider this the natural selection of MMA. The good fighters evolved with the sport and began to train in multiple disciplines becoming what is now known as a “complete fighter,” where as the weaker fighters got stuck in the past and were left behind.
In the words of Bob Dylan, “the times they are a-changing.” And with the change of fighters inevitably came a change of fans. As the UFC continued to grow and prosper and really form itself into a legit sporting event, the grassroots fans of the old events, began to disengage with the product.
So just like the fighters that couldn’t evolve with the sport, the fans that chose not to evolve with the sport got left behind in the past as well.
I suppose you could say that the big question is, how does the new fan base affect the grand scheme of things for the sport? And I suppose the simple answer is, by education. By learning and tolerating all aspects of the sport, and all of it’s techniques & disciplines. Something the original fans of the sport didn't do.
Now with years and years of slowly building a new fan base, and with the help of the Internet, more and more people started to become aware of the sport. Naturally through watching the events, more and more people started to become hooked on the sport and started to educate themselves (gradually) on all the different strategies and moves.
The “triangle choke” and “kimura” became as synonymous with the MMA fan, as the “touch down” and “blitz” is to the football fan. And through all of this learning from the sport's newer fans, came even more learning about the sport from people who aren’t even fans of it.
What started out as a spectacle buried in backwoods USA, steadily became one of the fastest growing and biggest money making sports around the world.
I assure you the old grassroots fans of the sport did not accomplish this with their support...the new generation did. We did.
The sport is where it is today because in time the fighters got better, and because in time the fans got better too. MMA is nothing with out it’s fans. And if the fans didn’t evolve and grow with the sport, all the talented fighters that rose from the all the weaker and lesser talented fighters, would have never had a big stage to showcase their abilities.
Which is what makes right now the best time to be a fan of mixed martial arts.
The fighters keep getting better and better. The young guys that came in toward the beginning of the sport, that cleaned house with all the old guys...are now the old guys themselves being tested by younger and hungrier fighters. It’s a whole new ball game now.
And everyone caught in between that next generation gap, is only breeding the home coming of the fighters that will replace them and take that next step forward for the sport.
Fighters like Damien Maia, Anderson Silva, Georges St. Pierre and Lyoto Machida. A new breed of fighters that have proved to be leagues above the competition. And with these new breed of fighters, come new fans. Learning the ropes. Watching the fights. Educating themselves and the world in the process.
So with the next evolution of the mixed martial artist right in front of our eyes, just how far are we to the next evolution of the mixed martial arts fan?
The rabid, and long left behind, fans of yesteryear may not have shaped the new fans that came after them, but the same cannot be said for the fans of today, and how we are opening the doors for the fans of tomorrow.
Truthfully, the MMA fan may not be perfect...but I’ll be damned if they don’t know what a gogoplata is.