Is Wrestling Killing the Sport of Mixed Martial Arts?

Elton HobsonCorrespondent IApril 7, 2017

It’s ironic, but as passionate, as devoted, as fanatically over the top as MMA fans can be, we can also be a little sensitive.

It’s a strange trait for fans of something as macho as cage fighting, but it’s undoubtedly true. Most news, it seems, is bad news, and most bad news is really bad news. I know the fractured, fast-moving, and mostly Internet-driven MMA news landscape demands a little sensationalism in the reporting, but it’s getting ridiculous.

MMA fans, analysts, and pundits are seemingly always on the hunt for something at which to point the finger at as “killing the sport” of MMA.

Lately, it seems as though wrestling, and fighters with a wrestling based offense, have come into the crosshairs of critics more and more. Wrestling, it is being argued, is going to “kill” the sport of MMA by making fights too boring for the TapouT wearing, Bud Light drinking, “Just Bleed“ enthusing general public to get into. Once the casuals depart, the sport will go back to being a niche attraction that big name athletes and media will avoid.

Oh, the humanity!

It’s funny, because for people so dependant on the success of Mixed Martial Arts, some elements of the MMA media and fandom always seems to be forecasting disaster. Reading through the news sites, blogs, and message boards can be a bit like watching an hour of Fox News—equal parts angry and confusing, with the only certainty being that everything is going to hell in a hand basket.

Over and over again for the past few months, writers, fans and pundits alike have made the same charge: that wrestling, and wrestling-based offense, is “killing” the sport of MMA by sucking the excitement out of it. MMA figureheads as distinguished as Michael Schiavallo have come out against wrestling, one of the core pillars of the sport almost from its inception, as being a roadblock on its path to further mainstream penetration.

This is hardly a new accusation, of course, having been around basically as long as the sport of MMA itself. Indeed, the ground game has always been the most confusing and off-putting elements of the game for new or casual fans, evidenced by the continued tendency of American MMA crowds to boo any fight that stays on the mat for too long.

Lots of fights recently have drawn criticism for being slow, grinding, position oriented wrestling battles that turn casual fans off. Usually, the vitriol is aimed at the fighter who used superior wrestling to impose their gameplan.

Look at recent fights such as King Mo vs. Mousasi, Shields vs. Hendo, or GSP vs. Hardy. In each case, one fighter used superior wrestling and grappling skill to utterly shut down and dominate their opponent—and were heavily criticized as a result.

After Rashad Evans’s careful, workmanlike win over Quinton Jackson in the much ballyhooed main event of UFC 114, some fans and media have once again taken up arms against wrestling itself. Casual fans were tuning in to see some “Black on Black Crime,” dammit, not a collegiate wrestling match! These boring grappling contests are killing the sport!

First, I have to wonder if these people actually watched Rashad/Rampage. Sure, it wasn’t the Fight of the Year or anything, but it had several moments of drama and was overall a fun fight. Not every fight is going to be Leonard Garcia vs. Korean Zombie, people, no matter how much advertisements try to sell it as such. Fans need to learn to temper their expectations a little.

Also, what always gets me about this line of thought is the totally misplaced blame. People accuse guys like GSP, Jake Sheilds, and King Mo of becoming predictable and causing boring fights while totally letting their opponents off the hook.

What, Mousasi didn’t know King Mo was going to shoot on him? Really? And was anyone really expecting Jake Shields to stand and trade with Henderson? Dan Hardy had six months to prepare for GSP, and what did he do? Nothing. No sweeps, no sub attempts, not a single moment of attack.

Bottom line is that MMA is supposed to most closely simulate a “real life” one on one fight situation with added rules for safety, regulation etc. Simply put, in an actual fight, using wrestling and grappling to neutralize your opponent and prevent him from hurting you is a really good strategy. If a guy like Jon Fitch can control you and pound on you for three rounds, is it really his fault for doing it, and not your fault for preventing it?

Also, I don’t buy the “wrestling = boring = death of the sport” line of reasoning either, because it forgets the real truth of the PPV sports market. Personalities, storylines, and hype sells far more fights then the quality of the bouts themselves, which are usually only an after the fact consideration.

MMA fans love to bash pro wrestling, but Vince McMahon and family do grasp the core element of successful PPV marketing in a way few others do. Simply put, people like to cheer, and they like to boo. They will buy fights on the basis of personal interest and investment, not potential fireworks—otherwise Aldo vs. Faber would be the highest grossing MMA event of all time.

Georges St. Pierre continues to draw criticism from some quarters for his reliance on his wrestling and for playing it safe, yet that hasn’t hurt his drawing power. His last fight, against fringe top 10 WW Dan Hardy, drew 850,000 PPV buys, putting it in the top five UFC PPVs ever.

Early estimates for 114 have the number of PPV buys at over 900,000, a huge number if expected quality of fight was the sole determining factor of fan interest (both men were coming off not so impressive performances in their previous fights). Floyd Mayweather is widely considered one the most boring, play it safe fighters in boxing today - he also happens to be far and away it’s biggest PPV draw.

So to all you doomsayers out there—relax. A couple of slow fights is not going to kill the sport. Besides, hype will always sell far more PPV’s and draw tons more interest then the expected quality of the fight. And for those fighters, pundits and talking heads out there who say wrestling has become broken and overused, well, maybe that’s because it works. Like the saying goes, don’t hate the playa, hate the game.

Oh, and learn how to sprawl—you’re gonna need it.


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