MMA: If MMA Fans Dislike Grappling, Why Isn't Kickboxing More Popular?

James MacDonald@@JimMacDonaldMMAFeatured ColumnistFebruary 15, 2013

Courtesy of MMA Junkie
Courtesy of MMA Junkie

Fans love it when fighters “stand and bang,” don’t we? All that rolling around on the ground is little more than an unwelcome distraction, something that we reluctantly tolerate until the next blistering stand-up exchange.

Given the perpetuity of this myth, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if half of you read that paragraph while nodding your head approvingly.

It’s strange that MMA’s ground game has developed a reputation as a viable NyQuil substitute, despite the preponderance of evidence to the contrary.

It’s difficult to pinpoint whence this notion became rooted in the collective consciousness of the MMA fanbase. It has become so pervasive due to its persistent reinforcement that even while I am enjoying a good grappling exchange, I can’t help but imagine that the person sitting next to me is stifling a yawn.

But, on further reflection, this image doesn’t really jibe with the facts.

In basic terms, mixed martial arts is kickboxing plus grappling. Take away the latter and you are essentially left with a K-1 fight contested inside a cage.

Is the mere image of two fighters inside a cage sufficient to make people watch a sport that is inherently less compelling? Has the UFC’s marketing of its product been so effective that fight fans have been blinded to its limitations as a source of entertainment?

Certainly these factors have played at least a minor role. However, they cannot account for the huge disparity in popularity between MMA and kickboxing.

If you buy into the myth that fans really do hate grappling, it must be difficult to wrap your head around MMA’s place at the summit of the combat sports’ hierarchy

In an interview on the MMA Hour late last year, former K-1 star Tyrone Spong expressed his own confusion when asked about kickboxing’s relative mainstream obscurity:

"I really don't understand. It's something about the American culture I haven't figured out yet. I've been trying to do that, but it's hard. Even at all the UFC events, you see that the people, crowd, the audience, they start booing when guys go to the ground, when they wrestle a lot and they do jiu-jitsu. And they start applauding and start yelling when they stand and strike and bang. So, I don't know if it's a thing of a ring or the Octagon that gets them, or the small gloves. I don't know what it is. But, people in the states like to see people bang it out, but at the same time kickboxing isn't that popular when kickboxing is all about striking and standing and trading and banging it out, so you tell me. I don't understand.”

Spong’s remarks appear to oversimplify the issue, however. The notion that fans automatically erupt into a chorus of boos whenever a fight hits the ground is demonstrably false. Similarly, fights that are primarily contested on the feet are frequently targeted by the boo-boys—Frank Mir vs. Mirko “Cro Cop” anyone?

At the Ultimate Fight Night 22 fan Q&A, Chael Sonnen made an interesting observation about the wants of MMA fans:

“There’s a real misconception that fans love it when you finish fights, fans love submissions or fans love two guys that 'bang,' whatever that means. Fans do want to see two guys that are working, though.”

That may be what it boils down to. Whether on the feet or on the ground, fans want to see action. We want to see fighters “working.”

The average MMA fan is now educated enough to appreciate what is going on when a fight hits the floor. They cheer guard passes, submission attempts, takedowns, sweeps, etc. They even boo when a referee prematurely stands fighters back up—that means you, Kim Winslow and Fernando Yamasaki.

So, why is MMA currently more popular than other combat sports? There is no real mystery here. Put simply, mixed martial arts offers us the chance to watch the best fighters on the planet. Other less dynamic forms of violence certainly have their place. However, they do not showcase the world’s best fighters.

Despite being peddled to the point of cliché, the concept of “baddest man on the planet” has managed to retain its allure. And that concept is currently best defined by mixed martial arts.


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