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What you’re seeing on your TV is a sport in the midst of a midlife crisis

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Heather Hardy, Ana Julaton Bellator MMA

So there I was yawning my way through the middle of Bellator 194, and praying to the MMA gods to deliver a finish to the Heather Hardy vs. Ana Julaton fight, which they laughingly ignored. Both the fight and the prayer, I mean. The MMA gods know when to bow out, and this was a fight without their blessing.

As I viewed it and watched the savage reviews roll in on social media (hello, Jordan Breen!), I thought of a story published by business website Bloomberg earlier in the week that painted a grim picture of the UFC’s current predicament. Sagging ratings, missing stars, aging demographics, oof, there’s a lot of bad going on. And it’s not just the UFC, as viewers of other promotions can attest to. MMA is in a down cycle right now. Of that there is no dispute.

It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. A few years ago, this was alleged to be the fastest-growing sport in the world, a thing that could overtake soccer! That always seemed a little pie-in-the-sky, but there was a real momentum that has disappeared with the speed of a blown-out candle. We’ve gone from pie-in-the-sky to the sky is falling.

That is how we got here, to where the biggest fight organizations in the world are willing to piece-by-piece, trade small pieces of promotional integrity for anyone that can help pop a rating. Friday night it was Hardy and Julaton, who brought some level of fame to the cage as crossover fighters making the switch from boxing. That they came into the fight with a combined professional MMA record of 3-4 is not just besides the point to the powers that be; it’s totally irrelevant. Yet there they were on national television, superseding countless fighters capable of topping their inept performances as they stunk up the joint.

As the No. 2 promotion, Bellator often gets a pass for many of the practices that draws ire from UFC critics, but plenty of what’s going on in the organization is head-scratching, too. Their current top promotion is a “Heavyweight” Grand Prix that features three light-heavyweights and a middleweight. While it’s not complete absurdity, it does make a mockery of the point of divisions.

While that’s a mild infraction in the grand scheme of things, the fact that such a tactic is necessary to complete an attractive field illustrates the state of MMA in 2018. Things haven’t evolved the way they were supposed to. Everyone is panicking. After its rise and fall, this is a sport in the midst of a mid-life crisis.

For MMA god’s sake, Bellator paid to bring in a fan named Jon Jones who has been confused online with MMA’s Jon Jones, just because ... I don’t know why. No really, they did this as some kind of promotional stunt. No disrespect to this other Jon Jones, but aren’t there better uses for the money? Just over a week ago, a young fighter put Bellator on blast for offering him $250 to fight in a major show. That’s kind of gross.

Over in the UFC, the midlife crisis signs are there, too. Which brings us to CM Punk. Just days ago, MMAFighting’s Ariel Helwani reported that the UFC is discussing bringing him back for another try on their June 9 show. Guess what? It’s a pay-per-view. You’re going to get the privilege of paying $65 to watch arguably the worst fighter on the UFC’s roster because they have nothing better to offer you. This comes on the heels of a lackluster series of cards that have scheduled little-known headliners from Eryk Anders to Yana Kunitskaya. This comes on the heels of Georges St-Pierre winning a belt and then getting out of dodge. This comes on the heels of Dana White bad-mouthing champions like Tyron Woodley and Demetrious Johnson because they had the gall to look out for their own self-interests, you know, like prizefighters are supposed to do. And Floyd Mayweather to the UFC rumors.

Even when they get something exactly right — the fantastic Tony Ferguson vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov booking comes to mind — they sometimes screw up the details. For instance, this match is for a belt that may or may not be the real thing. What are they fighting for? What are we paying for? Who knows?

Let it be known here that none of this is to denigrate the athletes. Not Hardy or Julaton, not Anders or Kunitiskaya, not even CM Punk.

When you’ve seen it up close — athletes sweating and bleeding and suffering for our entertainment; sacrificing for improbable pursuits and crying about shattered dreams—it becomes difficult to criticize individual undertakings. Humans want to achieve. To go further, faster and higher, even if they are not equipped to do so. Sometimes that is a blessing; other times, a curse. All of which is to say that these men and women cannot be blamed for taking an opportunity they might not have earned, or that they were not quite ready for.

No, this is solely on the people behind the scenes, grasping at anything that may prop up a slumping business. I guess in a way we always had this coming. “Freakshow” is part of the sport’s DNA, even if we tried to wash it away. It’s just that it always felt that it was trending in an upward, more professional direction. At least we now know that whenever they feel the heat, this is the first lever they’ll think about pulling.

This is a pivotal year for MMA. Conor McGregor may or may not come back, and his presence alone would change perceptions of the sport’s business. But the UFC’s next TV deal is coming, and the dollar value of it will tell us a lot about how the sports world views MMA in 2018 and beyond. But that’s then. For now, MMA is the balding, over-tanned, paunchy guy pondering that shiny new convertible to show how young and full of vigor he still is while from afar, everyone else is mortified, hoping that it’s all just a stage.