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The Wrestler's Dilemma

For a certain segment of MMA fighters, it has become an immutable law: you can play it safe and take the smart path to victory, or you can put on a show and entertain the crowd. You can't do both.

At least, not if your greatest strength is wrestling. Not with thousands of fans begging for stand-ups and howling for knockouts. Not unless you want to get showered with boos and stamped with the dreaded 'lay-and-pray' label.

This is the cruel dilemma many of MMA's elite fighters face. Victories keep the paychecks rolling in and their careers moving forward, and yet the masses aren't all that excited to see them do what they do best.

Ask them, and they'll tell you. The pressure is on to stand and bang, to produce fodder for highlight reels. Whether they give in to it or not, they're all aware of it.

"I feel that sometimes," says Phil Davis, a national champion wrestler and a four-time All-American at Penn State before making the move to MMA. "Definitely fans love to see knockouts. Myself, I also like seeing those knockouts. To compare it to something else, fans also love to see a nice slam dunk. But sometimes the smartest play is a lay-up."

Then again, it's not the guys known for their lay-ups who get the lucrative shoe deals.

It's easy to appreciate a knockout. A punch or a kick to the face, two guys standing toe-to-toe in the center of the cage and trying to ruin one another's dental work, that's something everyone can understand.

But a good blast double or a solid few minutes worth of top control, that's a little harder for some fans to appreciate.

"I think they are not as educated as they could be," says former Division II national champion and current UFC number one heavyweight contender Shane Carwin. "I see a lot of technically great grappling matches and you can almost always hear someone scream, 'stand them up.' And yet what you are seeing is a technical masterpiece. I think in time people will begin to appreciate all aspects."

But at least according to some fighters, there are times when wrestling to a decision win will get you jeered as a boring fighter, and times when it will get you hailed as a conquering hero.

According to Strikeforce light heavyweight champ "King" Mo Lawal, it all depends on whether fans like you to begin with.

"I think it depends on who you are. Josh Koscheck takes Paul Daley down and controls him and people don't like it, but Georges St. Pierre does the same thing. It's who you are. It's about image. Matt Hughes was one of the most boring fighters ever. And Randy Couture, his whole career was taking people down, laying on top of them, and elbowing them in the face. That's not really exciting, but it's effective. The fans pick and choose."

The fighters have their own decisions to make, and there are times when they don't always listen to the more prudent voices in their own head. That's why you'll sometimes see a wrestler standing and trading bombs to the delight of the crowd, rather than taking the fight to the floor and risk boring them to tears.

Just ask Koscheck, who was content to strike with Brazilian welterweight Paulo Thiago instead of exploiting his wrestling advantage. That strategy was panning out well right up until he got knocked silly with an uppercut.

No surprise that his teammate Jon Fitch didn't make the same mistake against Thiago a few months later. Koscheck also seemed to learn from the experience, judging from his safe and sure approach to the fight with Daley.

"Simply put, if you find a mismatch, you'd better take advantage of it," says Davis. "I'm sorry if that's not what's most exciting for the fans all the time, but you have to understand that at the level these guys are competing at there's such a slim margin for error. One mistake and Daley would have laid Josh Koscheck on his back."

But for a primer on the long-term career dangers of wrestling for a living in MMA, one need only look at the cautionary tale of Antonio McKee.

A decorated wrestler in California, McKee's MMA record stands at an impressive 24-3-2. So why isn't the UFC, or any major organization, in a hurry to pick him up? Most likely it's because 18 of those victories came via methodical, plodding decisions. Even when McKee vows not to go to decision, he wins by decision.

He hasn't lost a fight since 2003, and yet of the 13 victories he's piled up since that defeat, only two have avoided going to the judges' scorecards. One was a submission victory over the 13-13 Rodrigo Ruiz in March. The other? A TKO via knee injury against Gabe Rivas in 2007. McKee may very well be the best fighter with the least fan recognition, all because of how he chooses (quite unapologetically, in fact) to win fights.

Still, to friend and fellow wrestler Lawal, the state of McKee's career says more about fans and MMA media than it does about McKee.

"If you're winning, people need to make you fight a different fight," says Lawal. "You want to see a guy like Antonio McKee brawl? Stop his takedowns. You can't stop his takedowns? Why should he do you a favor and brawl with you? It's like you have Michael Schiavello saying that wrestling is hurting MMA. That's the dumbest s--- I've ever heard. And I like him, but it's ridiculous to say that."

As MMA continues to grow and evolve, certain conflicts between what fans want to see and what fighters want to do seem inevitable. Fighters who are constantly worried about getting cut don't have the luxury of deviating from their strengths, but fighters who play it safe all the time rarely get the fan support or the big promotional push.

When careers are at stake, there are no easy answers. Just guys trying to figure it out on the fly each time they step in the cage. Guys who want to win, but also, regardless of what they may claim, want to be cheered by fans as they do it.

"In the end, it's entertainment," says Tom Lawlor, a former wrestler at the University of Central Florida who's lately chosen to fight it out on the feet more and more, with mixed results. "All sports are. Different people like different aspects of it. You can't fault someone for what they find entertaining."

You also can't forcibly change their minds about it. No matter how much you might like to.

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