Fans of mixed martial arts are aware that, according to the mainstream sports world, their sport lies relatively low on the totem pole of athletic legitimacy. The sport is plagued by accusations of brutality and barbarism. Columnists write of the gratuitous violence and bloodshed that is almost unwatchable. Uninformed masses, unaware of the measures taken to protect fighters, predict a day that a fighter dies in the cage. As a result of this perception, many fight fans call for the competitors to act as “good ambassadors” of the sport. While everyone loves some good pre-fight trash talk and intense weigh-in stare downs, the majority of fans would like to see public perception of their sport elevated beyond the level of common thuggery. Yesterday’s Strikeforce event, airing live on CBS, had an opportunity to move MMA one step closer to sports legitimacy.
The event was Strikeforce’s definition of a super card. The list of bouts included three championship fights, consisting of five fighters considered to be among the top ten in their respective weight classes. The fights were to air on CBS, essentially meaning that the entire country could watch the card for free. It was a clear chance to recruit new fans to the sport and an opportunity to sway some of the media pundits who have been condemning the fledgling sport.
It was also to be a glorious night for the promotion. With a strong showing, Strikeforce could legitimize itself as a viable contender to the UFC. And, for Strikeforce, the card delivered. In many ways, it was a night of upsets, beginning with Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal shockingly outpointing heavily favored Gegard Mousasi for the promotion’s light heavyweight crown. In the second title contest of the evening, Strikeforce Lightweight Champion, Gilbert Melendez, clinically dominated Japanese champ Shinya Aoki, a man many believed to be the top 155-pounder in the world. And finally, in what should have been the highlight of the night, Middleweight Champion Jake Shields survived a Round One knockdown to dominate MMA legend, and recent UFC turncoat, Dan Henderson. This victory was especially significant for Strikeforce, as many believed Henderson to be the second-best middleweight in the world, and the only legitimate threat to pound-for-pound king Anderson Silva. With wins that can be called dominant, Shields and Melendez proved that the top competitors in Strikeforce can compete with the best that any promotion has to offer. It was, indeed, a grand night for the promotion and the sport. However, in a night full of upsets, the events that occurred after the final bout of the night gave the fans a lot to be upset about.
During Shields’s post-fight interview with commentator, Gus Johnson, middleweight contender Jason “Mayhem” Miller entered the cage to demand a title shot. This type of showmanship is unpopular, but not uncommon in the world of MMA. Typically, a display like Miller’s is seen as disrespectful to the victorious fighter. It is a brazen and arrogant attempt to disrupt a winner’s time in the spotlight. However, this particular instance showed how ugly these situations can become. Shields didn’t take well to Miller’s intrusion, and his corner responded by angrily shoving the title hopeful away. This act led to an all-out brawl, with Shields’s entourage, including Gilbert Melendez, Strikeforce Welterweight Champion Nick Diaz, and his brother Nate. Miller was held to the ground as a shower of fists rained down upon him, many coming from the notorious Brothers Diaz. And, to make matters worse, Gus Johnson, perhaps the finest play-by-play man in sports, embarrassingly suggested that these things happen in the world of mixed martial arts.
Johnson’s comments, almost certainly spoken out of humiliation and confusion, should cause distress to many fans of the sport. In actuality, these things don’t happen in MMA, and ought not to happen in any legitimate sporting enterprise. Episodes like this are crippling toward the goal of overcoming the public perception that the sport is merely organized bar fighting, perpetrated by a bunch of degenerates not fit for civilized society. To an avid viewer of MMA, the sport is populated by deserving and revered gladiators, who are both respectful of the fans and their competitors. It is routine to see pre-fight handshakes and post-fight hugs inside the cage. But, to a common sports fan, new to the fighting game, the Miller/Shields brawl only serves to further a misinformed opinion of a truly great sport.
Chances are that Strikeforce will consider capitalizing on this incident with a big-money title fight between Shields and Miller. And from a business perspective, it makes sense. In order for Strikeforce to remain a viable contender to the UFC, it needs to consistently put on matches that people want to see. And, unfortunately, such incidents, whether a post-fight melee or a benches clearing brawl, ignite general interest from the sporting world. However, in the grand scheme of things, it may be necessary to postpone this rematch, and impose disciplinary action on the offending parties. For, it is ultimately necessary for professional MMA in America to prove to the world that this type of behavior, more closely associated to professional wrestling than professional athletics, is not tolerated within the sport. Strikeforce ought to lay heavy fines, and possibly suspensions, on Miller, Melendez, and Shields, whose actions instigated the brawl. Furthermore, in addition to fines and suspensions, both Diaz brothers should be permanently banned from ringside in all future fights, as this is not the first time their conduct has tarnished the good name of the sport. Both brothers were a part of post-fight shenanigans following a match between K.J. Noons and Yves Edwards. In fact, it was only a few years ago that Nick Diaz failed a drug test so impressively, that it was believed he was intoxicated during the fight. And Nate, after winning The Ultimate Fighter television show, has proved to be a wholly mediocre fighter, whose finest moment inside the octagon was simultaneously choking out and flipping off Kurt Pellegrino.
While a match between Miller and Shields would certainly draw interest, ratings, and cash, it would ultimately harm the sport itself. It would open the doors, literally and figuratively, for fighters looking for a fast track to a title shot. It would legitimize sideshow, pro wrestling style antics. It would make Mixed Martial Arts seem more like sports entertainment than sports. And that is the last thing any fight fan should want.