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MMA: Can it be a truly mainstream sport, worldwide

"Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things."
― Winston Churchill

Now hear me out. Hold the vitriol till you read the entire article if possible. I know us MMA fans can be a little sensitive to criticism, but playing devils advocate can stimulate the discussion, and find solutions to problems; or indicate that perceived problems are phantoms, and not worth worrying our little heads over.

Dana White was hit with a dose of reality recently at a football game, when someone in his core demographic of 18 to 35 years old struck up a conversation asking what it was he did. After saying those three famous letters White probably expected some sort of sign of recognition from his new friend. Instead White was met with a blank stare and questions which indicated that the UFC might as well be the XYZ to this guy. He had no knowledge of the MMA powerhouse. For someone who is as much of a star in the MMA world as his fighters, this must have been a somewhat humbling experience. So, aspirations to be bigger than the NFL may have to be parked for a while.

However, the bigger question for me as someone from the UK is not whether the sport will ever be a mainstream US sport, but whether it’ll ever be a worldwide mainstream sport. Obviously, I’m thinking about this from the UK viewpoint, but the questions are easily transferable to other markets, and UK in the post is easily replaced with Sweden, Ireland etc.

A few key factors may play a part in stifling the MMA explosion from a cult attraction to something that plays out on the pages of our daily papers alongside the acknowledged mainstream sports. The three factors I see are the perception that it is an Americas centric sport, with those events outside the hubbub being lesser contests; secondly, the nature of the sport itself, and lastly the effect of having mainstream media attention as a daily aspect of the sport.

For us fans, perhaps it’s difficult to see the validity in the criticism of it as "Americas centric". However, with the clear priority of the triumvirate of US/Canada/Brazil, can it really be a fairly distributed worldwide sport? Those fans in these primary countries are hardly going to be that concerned that the UK isn’t getting a UFC PPV standard show, but I think for MMA to truly be a global mainstream sport, it has to at least partly shed the "American sport" label. A classic example of the pull of American sports abroad is the NFL. In the UK, though a growing brand, it is still at the stage of cult status. A curiosity sport, that lets us peer into Americana; even after twenty five plus years of network TV coverage here in the UK. However, like MMA, it has a dedicated core fanbase who’ll fill UK stadiums when the NFL rolls into town for a game. But to date, the NFL is like the circus coming to town; something to be enjoyed in person as an exotic rarity till next year, rather than the weekly exploits of our Football (Soccer) league which are attended in the hundreds of thousands each week, and analysed in endless pages of articles in our newspapers.

The increase in events is a great thing for the sport. Unlike some critics, I don’t believe that it’s over-exposure. As an avid fan, I love the fact that the UFC is no longer restricted to a few events. If you love the sport, how can more events be bad? However, this increase has emphasised the gulf in quality of the offerings to those in the American markets, as opposed to the European markets. Can you really see a title fight PPV every taking place in the UK again? Dana White has mocked the UK fans for complaining about this, and I do think that the UFC realise that there is now a more educated fanbase over in the UK. The recent Manchester card was a strong set of fights that indicated as much. But I think they’re missing the point that fans are now realising that it is as good as it gets. The superstar’s title fights, at least at the moment, are something for 3am TV viewing rather than an event with friends at the Wembley Arena.

Garry Cook (Managing Director for Europe, Middle East & Africa) mentioned in an interview with Ariel Helwani that he was "excited about bringing talent...that will one day be waving their national flag fighting for a world title in Las Vegas". Maybe I’m taking that quote too literally, but it seems to be geared towards still having the big fights in the US. Let’s be realistic here, Las Vegas is the Mecca for fighting, and for every boxer, headlining a show in Vegas would mark it as the pinnacle of a career. Every MMA fighter would want the same. But in boxing, world title fights are also fought in the home fighter’s country; even if it’s in Europe. And all fans have the chance to see them defend the title, not just those with the money for trans-Atlantic jaunts.

It’s well known how much the Fertittas had to shovel into the UFC to get it to where it is today; maybe they’ll also have to take some hits to grow it globally so that rather than a rare event (six ‘Fight Nights’ in Europe as a whole next year), it may make inroads to mainstream acceptance and coverage. Perhaps the occasional world title event could be sacrificed to Europe in order to grow MMA, (though it’s likely PPV losses due to time differences would block this). I’m sure this would require a hell of a lot more number crunching to see if it’s worthwhile, but I’m trying to float ideas as devil’s advocate, rather than just criticise. It’s also possible that once more bona fide domestic European stars are created; this may also help move high profile events across the pond. However, I still have the nagging feeling that PPV dollars are king, and time differences would again stifle title fights. But the danger is that the more educated the MMA audience becomes, the more they will come to realise their priority (or lack of) as an audience. This could block growth.

Now I know many may say that the domestic promotions fill the void that’s left by the scarcity of UFC events; and I think that’s a valid point. However, I believe that domestic promotions still service the hardcore fans, rather than help build mainstream. Ultimately though, it could be that all talk from the UFC about being a worldwide mainstream sport is nothing more than bluster, and they actually are more than aware that mainstream in the American market is the only realistic target. They could be happy to settle with that alone, as I’m sure loyal cult status in many countries still creates revenue, and may suffice.

The second main obstacle I see to mainstream acceptance lies in the sport itself; in its violence, and its complexity. It’s true that in getting the UFC into the conversation on general sports shows alongside other sports (as is the case on Fox), helps in the public perception of its standing and legitimacy among the old favourites such as football and so on. However, the perceived brutality that many see in the nature of MMA could be a block in public acceptance, and widespread acclaim. MMA is a new unacceptable brutality to some. Boxing has been around for so long that even for those that don’t like boxing, its level of visibility in popular culture means that it has a degree of societal acceptance that MMA is still striving towards. The modern rules of MMA have done a great job in cleaning up the less palatable aspects to the majority, such as soccer kicks to ground opponents and others. However, it’s also just a fact that certain aspects of the game take time to appreciate and understand. Years ago as a new fan, coming from a striking background in training and viewing, I was literally lost when I saw a fight go to the ground. Over time through Rogan's commentary, watching more and more events, and then my own training, I learnt to appreciate the wrestling and BJJ as much as striking. But is this something that the casual observer would do?

Though it has no end of controversies, in general boxing is much easier to understand. The complete novice spectator can probably tell in many fights who is getting the better of the action. In MMA that’s not necessarily the case. Think about how many fights just in the last year that have split opinion. Does a takedown nullify a number of strikes? How much should a failed submission attempt be worth in the grand scheme of a round? I’m sure there are countless others you could list. Because of the vast array of skills and gameplans that can be utilised, I think a certain amount of knowledge is needed decode what’s going on.

Perhaps time is the simple answer to this criticism. This is very much the sport of the young, whereas boxing has been around for over a hundred years in its current guise. How many boxing gyms are near you? Now, how many MMA or BJJ gyms are around? One is declining in many ways, while the other is booming. As today’s younger generation become the main consumers, this could be something that plays a part the standing of the sport amongst others. However, to summarise this point in one sentence, the question to me is exactly how palatable to the majority is a knee to the head, ground and pound, or slicing elbows. I’m just not sure that’ll ever be mainstream.

Lastly, the backing of the press plays a big part in a sports popularity. The recent rise of Connor McGregor in the UFC has made him a star in Ireland; with TV documentaries, talk show appearances, and positive newspaper coverage of MMA. Until recently, the only MMA coverage in a newspaper in the UK or Ireland would invariably appear in the front section, rather than sports pages, and would usually be negative. Any reference to the sport would take the same dull-headed and outdated viewpoint of "brutal cage fighting" that MMA outgrew long ago. However, the attitude of the press to boxing, at least in the UK, makes me question how probable it is that MMA will be able to shoehorn its way onto the back pages.

In the UK boxing is still a well followed sport. Admittedly, it peaks and troughs depending on the success of the most visible stars. It’s probably not at the same level as it was in the 90s, but still pulls good ratings on TV, with the top British stars selling out big arenas. Despite this, coverage in newpapers and TV is a fraction of what it was. With this in mind, how likely is it that a relatively new (and to some) controversial combat sport, will be able to get any sort of mainstream press? Though a rapidly growing sport, a brief glance at the website of the state funded BBC television network shows an absence of MMA, yet includes sports such as canoeing, fencing, and handball. Hardly giants of the sporting world in the UK.

The other aspect regarding press coverage of our sport might be a more divisive point. Namely, how ready is our sport for the less deferential coverage of mainstream media. UK press especially is not exactly known for treading delicately, so how will Dana White and the UFC deal with media that aren’t prepared to listen to the rants without challenge, and generally take a more confrontational attitude. Sports journalism is hardly the realm of political hardline media, but anything is going to be more challenging than some of the current crop of "journalists" who report on MMA but seem little more than cheerleaders, or shallow sports magazine shows who’ll cover MMA for a ten minute segment. There is good MMA journalism, this site being a case in point, however many of the current MMA media seem to be nothing more than elevated fans who are just glad to be there. Glimpses at the media scrum videos are all that’s needed to re-enforce my point, and illustrate that hard questions are rarely asked, and bullshit is rarely challenged. The good journalism is there, but for MMA, if you’re not at the big show of the UFC, you’re nowhere. But do you think mainstream press would care if blacklisted by a fuming Dana over a negative article, or difficult questioning? As a businessman/promoter, White has my utmost respect; but as a person, he can sometimes make me cringe when he has one of his temper tantrums. A good soundbite admittedly, but perhaps the Dana we know and love/hate is a limiting aspect to getting MMA to the mainstream table. However, it could be that mainstream newspaper press coverage would make White tether his sensitive temperament if he realises that the major press really can take it or leave it.

So to conclude, this article was triggered by the hopes we have for the sport to progress further, and the high ambitions of those that run it. Maybe these are fair points, maybe not. However, perhaps you have others that you feel need to be addressed for MMA to truly become a worldwide mainstream sport. Whether these things are limiting or not, I think it’s healthy to look at our sport with a critical eye; it’s the best way to improve it.

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