Ask any “hardcore” MMA fan, or anyone in the front office of the various promotions. They’ll tell you, unequivocally to the last man, MMA is soon to supplant all other sports as the top sport in the world. Some even believe (you know who you are) that all other sports will disappear as we know them to make way for an MMA-driven world. Now, the thought of Northgate High School having no Basketball, Football or Tennis teams, and, instead, simply creating a junior fight squad that goes around slapping armbars on the kids from Ygnacio Valley High and the hated De La Salle, doesn’t just strike me as ridiculous, it’s also downright terrifying.
The brutality of MMA is the second most destructive aspect to the sport’s would-be rise to the top of the ratings rankings (the #1 reason being the refusal to stop doing PPV’s, but I’ll get to that). Now, Anderson Silva’s leg break was gut-wrenchingly brutal enough, (I still haven’t even tried to watch it again since the first time), but that was a freak happenstance, a random occurrence. Still, no other sport, on such a recurring frequency, shows repeated slow motion replays of guys falling to the canvas, body stiffened, eyes rolled back or staring blankly towards the heavens. And even after the initial left hook drops the opponent defenseless to the ground, more often than not a fighter will drop down one or two explosive punches to the chin, nose and mouth of the dazed combatant before the ref can step in to stop the fight. Just type in “UFC Knockouts” into YouTube and you’ll see what I mean.
It takes a certain mindset to watch MMA, and it’s a mindset that simply isn’t quite mainstream enough to take the sport to the heights Promoters and Broadcasters would like to see it rise to. UFC on Fox carries with it, in every fight, the very real possibility that either (or I guess both in some rare Superman/Doomsday “double knockout”) fighter could catch a devastating blow that ends the match, possibly their career, and far less likely yet still possibly their life. (Note recent death in Glory?) As far removed as we are from the days of horse drawn chariots and bronze armor, there is an Ancient Roman feel to the Octagon that makes me believe that if tomorrow the UFC decided to put a convicted murderer (or convicted Republican) in the cage with a ferocious lion, not as many people would have a problem with it as one might think.
I would like to point out at this time that I highly enjoy watching MMA, and I try to catch as many of the UFC’s events as I can (although, seriously, who can watch all of the content they’re pumping out these days?). Two men, or women, step into a cage with a steel door clanging shut behind them. They circle and feint and eventually stand toe to toe and test their skills against one another in hand-to-hand combat. Movies, stories and real life have contributed to everybody on the planet understanding the core concept of a fight, and Mixed Martial Arts does its best to have only the most basic rules, just enough to keep the safety of the fighters and the fairness of the fight at the utmost.
Although the rules can be complicated at times (kneeing a downed opponent, the 10 point must judging system), most viewers know a knockout when they see one. The conditioning and athleticism of the fighters at the top levels of MMA are (for the most part) elite among the ranks of all athletes, leading to many epic, amazing battles of heart and skill.
They are few and far between the events that compare to the fifth round of a title fight, both combatants bloody and exhausted, pouring their very souls into every punch, every takedown attempt. I don’t care who you are, you step into an MMA fight, on any amateur or pro level, you have at least some level of my respect.
Now, as much as I enjoy watching UFC events, it can be hard to do so as long as the powers-that-be insist on sticking with the ever-annoying Pay-Per-View model. Sure, it worked fine for the WWF when every week we would see Stone Cold Steve Austin come out for five minutes and hit his finishing move on somebody (most often WWF owner Vince McMahon), and then would be asked to shell out 50 bucks (or beg our parents to) at the end of the month so that we could watch him actually attempt to wrestle. But the UFC doesn’t work that way. No single PPV is said to be “it” or built up as a finale, since there is always another big PPV coming up…forever. Sure, WWF has a PPV every month too, but through the use of written storylines, they can make it feel like a season finale every time. In the world of real sports that the UFC exists in, this is much harder, and is something you don’t necessarily want to do because the goal is to hook fans for future events. And yes, I’m hooked. The Champion Jon Jones (possibly the greatest champion in UFC history?) defending his title in a rematch against the young up and comer who took him through the 5th round to a debatable decision, Alexander Gustafsson, this is a fight I cannot wait to see. I have been waiting….and waiting…and waiting for this rematch since the final bell sounded in their first fight, before I even knew who the judges awarded the fight to. That said, I won’t be paying $60 bucks for it.
The simple brutality of a knockout is also part of an interesting juxtaposition with what happens when there is no “finish”, as what happened in the Jones v. Gustafsson fight. Borrowed from boxing, the 10-point must system has been recklessly applied to the sport as a horrible way to judge fights. Each round (3 in a regular fight, 5 in title fights and most main events) is scored for one fighter or the other, the winner awarded 10 points, the loser awarded 9. In a heavily dominant round, a fighter can pick up a 10-8 or even 10-7, although both are rare. In the event of a tie round, a score of 9-9 can be given. But there is no way of knowing, during the fight, what scores the three judges have awarded. The fight commentators usually do a good job of letting the audience know how the fight is going, but there is always, on every fight card, one or two controversial or arguable judgments handed out, and as far as we know (an odd statement to make in sports) those judges are not required to justify or defend their judgments. At the very least, they are not required to explain anything to fight fans or the fighters.
Even after the famous “Fail Mary” of the NFL, where the final play of a Seahawks/Packers game was called both a Touchdown and an Interception at the same time by officials, the NFL came out with a statement explaining the rules applicable in a clear and direct way.
Of course, this is much easier for other sports; each play is a universe unto itself, subject to very specific rules that can be reviewed and measured. The judging of an entire round would be much harder to explain in such exact and concise terms. How much is a successful takedown worth? No two takedowns are ever really the same. Some takedowns are outright slams to the canvas, some are simply trips or drags. Sometimes the fighter committing the takedown ends up in a very dominant position over the other fighter and holds them there for a very long time, sometimes the fighter that gets takedown escapes and pops right back up to his feet. And everything in between.
The prospect has been brought up of changing the scoring system, but of course that begets a very sticky situation. So many fights have been fought and won with the present system, what do you do if you change it? Do you go back and re-judge previous fights, altering records and drastically undermining legacies? Do you strip the current champions and start fresh? Each of these questions would be answered with an emphatic, door-slamming “No!” by all involved, I would predict. And if you tried to apply some kind of point system similar to collegiate wrestling, no wrestler would ever agree that a punch or kick should be scored anything close to a takedown, and no striker or ju-jitsu fighter would allow a takedown to be worth as many points as a wrestler would demand. If there’s a solution here, I just don’t know what it is.
So the new viewer is left in the dark, struggling desperately to understand who is winning, what the different strategies are and just who all these fighters are that everyone is so hyped up about (Joe Rogan and Dana White have yet to appear on a pre-fight hype video saying, “Meh, these fighters are okay, probably a pretty boring fight though”). Consider Baseball, Football, Basketball, where a new fan that doesn’t know much has a chance to watch their team every week or several times a week, and really get to know their team over the course of a season. Players almost instantly become beloved, friendships are formed with fellow fans and the drama as the playoff months grow near begins to weigh heavier and heavier on the heart. With the UFC, you watch one fighter, become a fan of him/her, and then have to wait 3…4…6 months to see them fight again. Often, due to injury or PED suspension (all too often PED suspension, but that’s a whole nother story), a fighter can be on the shelf for a year or more.
Sure, the best thing is to become a fan of the UFC as a whole, checking UFC.com every day for news, fighter bios and upcoming events. That’s me. But doesn’t that seem like wayyyyyy too much work?