A Bloated Affair: Is MMA's Rise Good for Current Fans?
At first blush, it sounds like a stupid question and maybe it is.
Most fans want their favorite sports to be everyone's favorite sports.
As a die-hard baseball fan, it bothers me a little to see the cheap thrills of the National Football League supplant America's Pastime as the country's most popular display of athleticism.
That's pretty irrational, but there you go.
Naturally, the imminent ascension of mixed martial arts means that more people will list it amongst their favorites. Consequently, it should come as welcome news for those of us who already do.
And make no mistake, the real rise is coming.
The last six months of 2010 will make the past few years look like a mild swelling of the ranks. To be perfectly accurate, the explosion has already started.
When Fabricio Werdum handed Fedor Emelianenko his first defeat at Strikeforce: Fedor vs. Werdum, the Brazilian hit a plunger that was supposed to be triggered tomorrow at Ultimate Fighting Championship 116.
In the process, "Vai Cavalo" poured an extra dose of nitroglycerin onto an volatile mixture of explosives.
The shocking upset intensifies and broadens the intrigue by blowing the heavyweight world rankings wide open.
On Saturday, Brock Lesnar and Shane Carwin will do battle in Las Vegas, with the winner assuming the ultimate 265-pound throne.
The victor will unify the UFC Heavyweight Championship and take the crown as the first ruler of the post-Fedor heavyweight world.
UFC 116 also marks Lesnar's return—arguably MMA's biggest attraction—to the Octagon after his dire health issues sidelined him for almost a full year.
The buy-rate should obliterate the current record set by UFC 100, but it might not last long.
The UFC heavyweight division is bristling with angry men who see themselves as worthy heirs. Cain Velasquez, in particular, should get his title shot before the year is up. He last saw action in February and has been promised the Lesnar/Carwin winner (barring injury).
If the ex-professional wrestler emerges with the belt after this weekend, our fascination will only grow, and his date with Velasquez will be another burner.
If "The Engineer" wakes us from our WWE-studded dream by putting Lesnar to sleep, it might be an even bigger story.
There are others, too.
Fellow heavyweights Junior dos Santos and Roy Nelson should make quite a stir with their tete-a-tete, as should Randy Couture's freakish bout with James Toney.
Rumors have middleweight champion Anderson Silva settling matters with both Chael Sonnen and Vitor Belfort in '10, assuming "The Spider" eviscerates the former as expected.
Jon Jones gets at least one more chance to continue his meteoric rise through the light heavyweight division.
B.J. Penn will also get his rematch against Frankie Edgar and a chance to reclaim the lightweight belt he wore for so long.
The buzz from those two paragraphs, alone, is deafening, and it doesn't account for Emelianenko's next trip to the United States, UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre (who will coach the next season of The Ultimate Fighter), UFC 119, UFC 120, or UFC 121.
The last two deserve special attention because UFC 120 will be back in London and UFC 121 will be in Germany (where MMA has been banned from television).
In other words, the foundation of loyal minions laid by the last five or six years is about to see some exponential additions.
Again, though, is the inevitable fallout from all this excitement good for the sport's existing fans?
A lot of the unpleasant parasites of increased celebrity will come along for the ride.
As MMA reaches new consumer bases, the fame and fortune of the warriors at the center of it will see a considerable bump.
The days of casual sports aficionados recognizing only Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture are over. Most of the elite performers will be household names in the coming years, especially the UFC's.
The money will follow.
That invariably means bloated egos and boorish behavior, like we already see in Major League Baseball, the NFL, and the National Basketball Association (as well as hockey, soccer, and tennis).
Given the personalities and temperaments that populate the cage, the worst-case scenario would be a gridiron-like spike in criminal encounters.
If you believe the on-field violence of the NFL engenders its off-field scandals, well, the implications for a massively popular combat sport are obvious and gruesome.
Thankfully, they aren't inevitable.
Unfortunately, greater visibility will inevitably create a divide that separates fighter from fan.
You can't really blame the organizations or athletes because, as a modern-day philosopher famously said, "mo' money, mo' problems."
Common sense dictates you try to minimize those problems by separating the crazies in the crowd from the valuable assets in the middle of the arena.
The better part of valor is discretion, blah, blah, blah.
Nevertheless, the difference between a UFC extravaganza and those thrown by the other major sporting players is severe.
Drop your paper on a premium seat for a big fight and it'll cost you an appendage, but you're guaranteed a visceral proximity to the struggle. You're also virtually assured to rub elbows with some of MMA's brightest stars.
If you can't afford that option, spend a couple days circulating around the pre-fight hoopla—I promise you'll have ample opportunity to chat, get autographs, and snap pictures with an equally impressive array of competitors.
Even the UFC is forced to provide extensive accessibility because it's still building its brand, and the fighters are the best/fastest way to do it.
In many ways, the status quo is ideal.
Contrast that with MLB, the NFL, or the NBA—the bullies of American athletics.
Everything but the most expensive interactions are conducted at arms-length or through a force intimacy that stinks of obligation.
The brand is built and walls have been erected to protect it while maximizing the bottom line.
Now, barbed wire is being strung across their tops.
Whenever anyone on the inside feels threatened, player or management, things get ugly and everything gets muddled. Only one thing remains clear and constant—the biggest loser is forever the fan.
Granted, there are positives about the upcoming expansion that I ignored and it won't necessarily be plagued by the ugliness that's become so common in the other leagues.
The growth could be a boon for all involved, including the public.
Still, I wonder.
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