Part 1 of 2. I got so much game I had to break it down into two posts (read this shit or your favorite fighter will lose his next three fights[and he actually won't get a title shot either])
Over the last few months, after the booking of several potential block buster PPV cards and super fights, there has been an increasing ground swell towards the idea the sport is somehow drastically changing, or significantly different now than it was "before"(at some unnamed and poorly defined space in the past). Since the UFC announced that it needed to trim 100 plus fighters from its roster after the acquisition of Strikeforce and the inclusion of two new divisions in the recent past, leading to the dismissal of long time pariah Jon Fitch after a string of four fights where he managed only a single win, this chatter has reached a fever pitch.
The general idea is the sport is moving away from "sport" to "entertainment". However, this is a maddenly stupid proposition, completely relying on a false dichotomy that is predicated on a gross misunderstanding of what "combat sports" are fundamentally at their core, and also a completely delusional and idealistic idea about the sport's past, which appears to be completely oblivious to most of the history of the UFC, Pride, Strikeforce and the WEC(along with Bellator, who is the closest thing to a "pure sport" MMA promotion, and also almost completely irrelevant even without Strikeforce or the WEC or Pride around).
There is no distinction between "sport" and "entertainment" when it comes to combat sports(or sports in general as Omar Little deftly argued recently). MMA is an entertainment sport. The UFC may be the premier set of initials, on the same plane of perception and profile as the NFL, but, the UFC is not like the NFL or the NBA or other team centered leagues, because MMA is not like football, or basket ball or other team centered sports. A team sport, where fans have an inherent love of the game itself, which has parameters which seldom change(4 quarters, touchdowns, slam dunks are going to be standard in nearly every game played, period) is not like MMA, where the aesthetics, ebb and flow of a fight and event vary by orders of magnitude. In MMA, there are no regimented seasons fans can follow. And most importantly of all - the reasons fans watch are entirely different. Most fan of team oriented games watch their team and they want their team to win. The manor of victory is secondary to victory as a general rule. A painfully boring world series win for the Cubs would still result in
1.several hundred arrests
2. a baby boom of several hundred thousand in CubbieLand in 9 months
3. quarter billion dollars of property damage in downtown Chicago during the celebration.
It wouldn't matter who the players were as long as they wore the uniform of the Lovable Losers. It wouldn't matter how boring they were. All that would matter would be the win.
In MMA this is entirely different. People watch only if they are invested in individual athletes. Since the dynamics of the fight change so often, fans have to have some guarantee they will be entertained. This means that unlike team sports, for MMA to continue to grow, is has to remain exciting. No, in combat sports winning isn't everything. Being exciting does matter. Fans only become invested if you win in an exciting and entertaining way.
One of the primary complaints about boxing when dissecting the many causes of its woes is the shift toward hyper defensive fighting appreciable only to the hardcore boxing fan. We've seen boring fights(among other things we will address later) destroy boxing. Fighters who are famous for not engaging or lacking aggression are not fulfilling their roles as prize fighters. They are liabilities not only to the UFC but every other fighter who puts his body on the line for the fans, by potentially turning people away from the UFC. Jon Fitch doesn't just cost the UFC money. He costs fighters money. His style costs fighters money. He is bad for the sport.
This is not to say every ground fighter or strategic fighter fits this bill. Fitch's name is forever attached to lay and pray, which has been aptly titled "Fitching". There is a huge difference between the worst lay and pray offenders and smart grapplers.
There is this kneejerk reaction from a defensive, freshly converted casual-turned-hardcore fan to avoid at all costs to be seen as a "just bleed" stereotype guy who boos the ground game and calls MMA dryhumping. This type of fan has all the passion of a true hardcore fan, but often lacks the seasoned hardcore fan's perspective on what combat sports truly are. And this is bad news when coupled with their Hardcore Newbie Persecution Complex. This often leads to a gross over simplification in terms "sport" and "entertainment". There is a fear that anything short of a rigid ranking and contender structure will cause the old farts on PTI and the Herd on ESPN radio to slur the sport out as...GASP.....NO.... THE WWE!!!!!!!! Even though combat sports, which by its nature has to capture lighting-in-a-bottle and thus has little in common with the promotion model of the actual WWE due to it being scripted and planned out weeks and months ahead of time, there is this urge to scream WWE!! at the first sign some "deserving" "number 1 contender" is passed over for a title shot for someone the fans in general would rather buy on PPV. I understand this all too well. I fit this profile during the Lesnar hayday, as my hardcore love for MMA came at the end of the Pride era. I used to be this guy. (granted, Lesnar was never close to the number 1 HW in the world, and only I could see that, but there will be plenty of time to toot my own horn later after I post this and retire to my bed chambers - I digress) Think to yourself long and hard, are you this guy? Being honest? (You know who you are)
Back to boxing for a moment : do you know what else has ruined boxing for the mainstream? Fights no one cares about. Mandatory challengers, boring alphabet soup champion nobodies who the public neither cared about nor thought were credible challengers. What the UFC needs to avoid when promoted challenges for long reigning megadraws like Jones and Silva and GSP is slipping back into the past mode of bringing up contenders prior to the public ever learning who they are. Otherwise, the fights feel like squash matches with empty Rogan hype videos trying to fluff up inferior "world class" skill sets. When you're trying to pick between the number 1 ranked fighter no body cares about or knows, and the number 3 ranked fighter, but the number 3 ranked guy has by far more fan interest, guess what, he deserves the title fight more.
You want title fights? Be promotable. Talk Shit. Be exciting. Get on the mic after you win and say somebody momma so fat, she look like roy nelson if he shaved. Get on twitter and have it out with a hater. This is part of the job. I repeat, this shit is part of the job in this sport. And again, no, this isn't the WWE because again, that is 100% scripted well in advance, while in the UFC you still have to win fights against the best in the world. You still have to win fights.
Most of the time anyway. We can defend the Diaz fight since many felt he was the true winner against Condit(not me, but regardless, its a credible fight due to Diaz ranking and profile) and we can defend the Edgar fight since he was robbed against Benson in his previous title fight and was obviously a natural FW, not to mention, he represented a far far far far far better challenge than whatever Korean Zombie/Cub Swanson type fighter fans are urning to watch Jose Aldo eviscerate like an army sniper with a 50 cal. taking on a Taliban soldier.
The Sonnen fight? Eh...that one is real tough to justify from the "sport" side of things, but it appears they're succeeding in rebuilding the TUF franchise, leading to what certainly will be the biggest PPV of Jones career, launching him into the stratosphere of MMA super-stardom where GSP and Anderson sit along side the empty thrones of Chuck Liddell and Brock Lesnar. At the end of the day, Sonnon was still a top 2-3 ranked fighter in the nearby weight class, and was the only fighter to ever trouble Anderson Silva. Jones did "duck him"(not really) leading to the cancellation of an event. Lighting struck in the bottle here. The UFC saw the chips on the table and cashed them out.
Besides, as long as Gus and Hendricks and whoever else continue to take care of business and win, when they finally do the title shots they've earned and are destroyed as they almost assuredly will be, they will be in much bigger, more highly anticipated fights, collecting a much larger check while still collecting the same amount of GnP elbows from the champions they would have otherwise. Everyone wins. Kind of(not hendricks or gus in their actual title shots, in this universe anyway)
But is this strategy of booking gimmicky matches to create buzz, guys getting shots in the first fight in a weight class, guys fighting for the title off losses, cutting over valued fighters who no one wants to buy yet are top ten ranked after a loss, or building toward a super-fight using a mismatch TUF season new developments? Do these things represent changes in MMA?
Only if you have no fucking clue about the UFC at all.
1. The UFC cut Fabricio Werdum while he was still a contender off one loss due to marketability and contract concerns in 2008. The UFC's credibility survived. Tony Kornheiser was silent on this issue.
2. The UFC gave Randy Couture a title shot after a loss in a title fight in another division in 2007 and it ended up being one of the greatest moments in UFC history, adding TO the legacy of the sport, not harming it.
3. Tito Ortiz fought Chuck Liddell in the biggest PPV the UFC had ever seen in 2006 fresh of a TUF stint opposite the notable Ken Shamrock. Shamrock was of no threat to anyone, being washed up and on a major losing streak, yet the fight was a huge success on PPV, doing numbers GSP didn't do his last time out now(775) with a rematch being a major smash on free TV that was parlayed into the first million buy fight in the sports history, a moment which lead to the first major ESPN and media coverage of the sport, changing it forever.
4. Prior to Ortiz vs Shamrock the biggest event in UFC history on PPV was Gracie vs Hughes, another gimmick match which was huge in building the brand and profile. It also did not harm the sport's profile in any way.
5. The biggest fight of Ortiz title run was also against Ken Shamrock, who was changing divisions and promotions, while coming off a loss when he fought Tito for the first time in 2002. Another key moment which helped Zuffa survive this rough patch.
6. BJ Penn had never fought at WW in the UFC when he moved up in 2004 and defeated Matt Hughes in a star making and seminal moment in the early Zuffa period.
7. In 2011 Vitor Belfort fought Anderson Silva despite Vitor having no MW wins in the UFC itself, having fought at a catch weight. The bout proved to be Brazil's Forrest vs Bonnar/Ortiz vs Shamrock type fight, and launched the UFC's astronomical growth in the country.
The Sport has hardly changed guys. These moves were HUGE in terms of the growth of the sport, and with out them, the UFC might have never grown to the stature it is today. Let the paranoia go. Enjoy the ride. The moves the UFC are making now have been fucking huge and will launch it even bigger than it ever has been.
Don't be pissed off about the UFC choosing entertainment....
How about you, you know, just be entertained....
Part two will detail why the UFC right now is clicking on all cylinders, making the sport better than ever....