There is a lot to like in today's era of mixed martial arts. The rise of a new generation of stars, along with a global influx of international talent, have made nights like this past Saturday -- which showcase the beautiful chaos of high-level fighting -- an occurrence of almost dizzying regularity over the past year. But with that has also come the rebirth of the circus fight, a ratings grab from a stranger age which has been revived under the tenure of Bellator president Scott Coker.
Over three million people tuned in to watch Coker's latest experiment, a spectacle double-header which featured middle-aged UFC Hall of Famers Royce Gracie and Ken Shamrock atop the latest iteration of the Kimbo Slice show. That number of eyeballs is almost staggering, making Bellator 149 easily the most-watched fight of 2016. And as someone who has been around this game for over a decade, and overcome his fair share of hurdles in the process, World Series of Fighting lightweight title challenger Brian Foster is disgusted by a trend he sees returning to MMA's shores.
"It set us back, man. It really did," a fired-up Foster told MMA Fighting. "People who had no idea what our sport is about, to watch that for the first time, what the hell do you think they would think? It's just horrible, man. To see my sons training their butts off everyday and working towards a goal to become what their father is, and to have s**t like that happening and dilute the future, it's horrible, man. It's very, very horrible to a person who has children like that, who look for something like it. I don't know. It just hurt, man. It hurt. It was unsatisfying. It pisses me off."
Foster, who challenges WSOF lightweight champion Justin Gaethje on March 12, said his feelings on the subject intensified this past February, when within a span of one week Dhafir "Dada 5000" Harris nearly died of cardiac arrest after his fight against Slice, then Foster's younger son showed his father a video of 68-year-old Ann Perez de Tejada being badly beaten by a younger woman at a regional event in Colorado.
Foster believes both incidents are part of a broader systemic problem which starts at the top, with disorganized and often under-informed state athletic commissions.
"He sends me the link and I watch it, and I was just distraught," Foster said. "It hit me on the wrong note, man. That's not what this sport is. Are you going to allow a 68-year-old woman to put on shoulder pads and a football helmet and get out there with the NFL and try to practice? No, you're not. Are you going to give her a bat and have a pitcher throw a f**king 90-mile-and-hour fastball at her f**king face? No, you're not. Why would you approve of her getting in that cage, man? It makes no sense to me. It makes no sense for the future of the sport.
"What the f**k is that? And she's fighting someone half her age? I couldn't even finish the video. When my sons asked me why is granny getting her ass whooped? Who permitted this? I'm scared to tell them: I'm fighting for the same commission. I'm fighting for the same doctors."
After posting his thoughts on the two episodes on social media, Foster said he was inundated with replies from fellow fighters who felt the same way but were afraid to publicly criticize potential employers or state officials. Foster, though, said he takes his role as a father very seriously, and with both of his sons wanting to follow their father into the fight game, Foster felt it was his duty to at least start a conversation, since one bad night is all it could take to set the sport back several years in the eyes of a public still learning to embrace MMA.
"I'm not going to hold my tongue because I do have sons and they want to be fighters, man," Foster said. "They want to be gladiators, so I want the future of this sport to be awesome and I want them to be labeled as professional athletes themselves. And for s**t like that to happen, it does not show a good step in the right direction.
"Some people still look at [MMA] as barbaric and everything else, but every person who fights that I know, they fight for a reason. To be looked down or belittled under those other sports, ... something about MMA breeds confidence and self-esteem and everything else, and when you can do that and you take fear out of the equation completely, you can do the impossible, man. It's amazing. I'm not saying that 68-year-old woman didn't have a dream. But man, had that woman died or something bad would've happened, that conversation with that s**t would've been completely different, and it would've tarnished the sport. Commissions would've gone crazy. The fans would've just gone nuts."
Foster said he hopes the lessons of these incidents serves as a warning for promoters moving forward who may want to blur the line even further between sport and entertainment. Bellator 149, and to a lesser extent the case of Ann Perez de Tejada, came and went while avoiding near-tragic consequences. In the future, MMA may not be so lucky.
But Foster also knows that fighting is a numbers game above all else. So if car crash spectacles are going to continue attracting big ratings, Foster is passionate in his belief that the regulators of the sport need to step in and do their job.
"It comes down to the promoters and the commissions, them understanding what this sport needs to become versus what it was," Foster said. "We've got to continue to grow. We've got to continue to evolve. That's it. We've got to continue to get safer. I understand [the ratings] part of it all, but that's not safe. That's not safe. It's not. Had something happened to any of them, it'd have been really bad for our sport. And it didn't. [People] applauded when they got up and s**t, and it's awesome that they were able to get up, I would clap too, but I was just disgusted by the videos in general. It just wasn't appealing."