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The Great Divide: Do freak show fights help or hurt combat sports?

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MMA Fighting

The Great Divide is a recurring feature here at MMA Fighting in which two of our staff debate a topic in the world of MMA — whether it’s news, a fight, a crazy thing somebody did, a crazy thing somebody didn’t do, or some moral dilemma threatening the very foundation of the sport — and try to figure out a resolution. We’d love for you to join in the discussion in the comments below.

The UFC has done its best to keep churning out shows as we approach the end of a tumultuous 2020, but one could argue that the most talked-about combat sports events of the past month have had nothing to do with the world famous octagon.

Full Metal Dojo and CamSoda Legends dropped their long-awaited Fight Circus sequel, boxing legends Mike Tyson and Roy Jones Jr. defied Father Time to headline a successful pay-per-view, and a truly shocking “fight” between a woman and a man with a near 400-pound weight differential went down in Moscow and quickly went viral.

What 2021 matchup is already generating massive mainstream buzz? None other than an exhibition boxing match between Floyd Mayweather and YouTube star Logan Paul.

Freak show fights and oddities have always been deeply ingrained in the soul of combat sports, but have we reached a point where we should move on from such curiosities? MMA Fighting’s Alexander K. Lee and Jed Meshew discuss whether these one-off cash grabs are still beneficial to the growth of fighting or if they keep it trapped in a state of arrested development.

DON’T FEAR THE FUTURE

Lee: As with any art form, the growth of combat sports is dependent on both spectacles that draw the attention of the masses and those on the fringes who are constantly pushing the boundaries. Hence, the broad appeal and necessity of freak show fights.

We’ve seen this theory proven time and time again, with a little show called UFC 1 standing as possibly the greatest example of this. Who could forget the thrill of Sumo vs. Kickboxing vs. Karate vs. Jiu Jitsu vs. Tae Kwon Do vs. Boxing vs. Savate vs. Shootfighting? Art Davie and Rorion Gracie didn’t invent the concept of off-the-wall combat sports matchups, but they revolutionized them and built upon a rich history of violent attractions that were more suited for the circus than pay-per-view or cable TV.

Man vs. bear. Ali vs. Inoki. Mayweather vs. McGregor. Every year there’s an event that critics will point to as “the final nail in the coffin of combat sports” or “a new low,” but that ignores where we started from in the first place and thus fails to recognize why these kinds of things keep happening.

Which brings us to our latest volley of can-you-believe-this-is-happening fights. It’s one thing for events like Fight Circus and whatever the hell that Russian intergender fight was to occupy their own bizarre niche, but for an exhibition bout between Mayweather, one of the most decorated fighters in history, and Paul, a decidedly less-accomplished athlete, to draw more attention and coverage than most UFC championship fights, that’s a pill that’s a little too tough for some to swallow.

But close your eyes and take your medicine, because whatever draws eyeballs is always going to be good for fighting, whether it’s because of genuine appreciation for the athletes involved or morbid curiosity. By any measure, the Tyson-Jones Jr. legends bout was a massive success and the audience appears to have been comprised of types from across the spectrum: boxing fans eager to catch another glimpse of their favorites no matter how diminished, MMA fans who came to point and laugh and hopefully catch a disaster in real time, and a whole lot of casual sports fans willing to shell out fifty bucks just to see what all the hoopla was about.

Everyone got what they wanted on some level, including those looking for a viral highlight. It didn’t happen in the main event, but when Logan’s brother Jake flattened former NBA star Nate Robinson, it threatened to overshadow the evening’s final fight. It was also the epitome of a freak show fight and probably one of the most watched ever if we’re counting views and replays across social media. One way or another, people were talking about boxing in the year 2020 and it wasn’t just the old guard anymore. A fresh generation of fight fans are locked in and if any of that carries over to watching more legitimate forms of competition (admittedly, not a guarantee), then that’s a win for combat sports.

The fringes matter too. It’s no secret that the more depraved of us in the MMA media are eager to trumpet the weirdest and wildest fights that happen across the globe both out of feverish fascination and the desire to catch what could be the next big thing. Maybe it’s not 2-on-1 handicap matches or intergender fights or knight fights featuring 300 people. But somewhere in there is a spark of the innovation, not to mention the fact that a lot of these events are just hellaciously fun to watch. The guiltiest of guilty pleasures.

Objectively speaking, I can’t imagine that anyone wants bantamweight vs. super-duper heavyweight fights to become the norm. If that sort of thing becomes the dominant form of fighting fifty years from now, then I’ll be the first to apologize for it. That said, within reason, I’ll never argue against experimentation in the ring, cage, octagon, fight pit. Because for combat sports to grow it has to change, and change is often uncomfortable.

So bring on your Mayweather vs. Pauls and your Sapp vs. Akebonos and your Kimbo vs. Dada 5000s. Give us 50 more Fight Circuses. Let’s put the “Catch Me Outside, How Bout Dat” girl inside of a steel cage. As long as there’s a dollar and a cent to be fished out of people’s pockets, who are we to stand in the way of it?

Who knows? Maybe a fraction of those rubberneckers waiting for the cars to go flying off the tracks might just learn something and actually become invested in real fights. Think about how many MMA devotees are transplants from professional wrestling or disillusioned boxing fans. The future hardcores are out there and sometimes it takes a warped, money-fueled, jewel-encrusted torch to light the way for them.

GROW UP PETER PAN, COUNT CHOCULA

Meshew: Let’s be clear: freak show fights aren’t an aberration in the otherwise normal world of combat sports; freak show fights are the essence of combat sports. The entire premise of getting random people to watch two strangers beat the sh*t out of each other is outside the realm of normal sport.

In fact, fighting for fun and entertainment almost certainly predates any other form of sport and given human nature, you can probably also extrapolate from there that not long after human beings started fighting for spectacle, they started upping the ante by trying to do more outlandish forms of it. “Hey y’all, watch this!” has been the battle cry of men left to their own devices since time immemorial and what is freak show fighting other than that statement distilled to its purest form? And maybe that’s why it’s time we moved on from it.

People who have even a passing knowledge of who I am will likely be stunned by that statement and the hypocrisy therein. You’re talking about likely the most vocal proponent of absurdist combat in the MMA media space. After all, I’m a man who actually owns a Fight Circus t-shirt and unironically believes Kimbo Slice vs. Dada 5000 is one of the five greatest fights in MMA history. So how in God’s name can I argue against freak shows in combat sports? Because maybe it’s time to grow up.

Fight Circus, while majestic and amusing, is also probably exploitative and absolutely infantile (just listen to the commentary, this is not an event of high art). As with all freak shows, it’s passability exists only so long as nothing bad happens. You play with snakes and eventually you’re gonna get bit, and the minute someone gets seriously injured in two-on-one fight or an egregious mismatch, everything comes crashing down. Which brings us, finally, to this Floyd Mayweather vs. Logan Paul boxing match.

Unlike Fight Circus, MayPaul will be neither harmless nor amusing. The fight, such that it can be called that, is a foregone conclusion as certain as the sun rising tomorrow, and there is the very real possibility that Paul gets himself hurt in the process. One of the major talking points coming out of the Jake Paul-Nate Robinson fight was that “you don’t play boxing” and yet here we are, about to watch his brother do just that against an all-time great. This is as idiotic as having Paul try to tackle Adrian Peterson or drive the lane against Bill Laimbeer, only at least in those instances head trauma isn’t a guarantee. Unless your entire impetus is schadenfreude for Paul, this exhibition is useless. Not only is it useless, it’s actually even worse than that because it will directly enrich two people who neither need nor deserve your money.

And that gets to the other problem at the heart of all freak shows: the people who put these on are usually not great people! The phrase itself is a reference to the highly exploitative exhibition of physically unusual human beings that was popular in the 18th and 19th century and when P.T. Barnum is your ideological forebear, that’s not a good sign! If you’re the type of person who thinks “instead of coloring inside the lines, I can go outside the normal bounds of society by having other people do something dangerous and shocking for my own enrichment,” you’re probably not the most scrupulous fellow. Or to put it another way: promoting freak show fights make Dana White look like a normal, reasonable person.

I’m not trying to clutch my pearls here. I don’t think Freak Show fights are going to bring about the doom of combat sports or MMA, and as I’ve already stated, I personally enjoy the hell out of many freak show fights. But I am also self-aware enough to realize that the Venn diagram of things I enjoy and things that are good for the growth of combat sports probably doesn’t have a ton of overlap. The weird and subversive will always have a place in our culture but that place will always be on the fringe and while you can grow slowly on the outer edges of things, the foundations out there aren’t strong enough to build on.

There’s only so long you can stare at a train wreck before becoming restless, and that’s the problem with freak shows. They’re empty calories and it’s probably time we put down the Coke and switch to water for good.

Poll

What do you think of freak show fights?

This poll is closed

  • 30%
    They’re great, bring ‘em on!
    (90 votes)
  • 16%
    Boooo, they’re terrible!
    (49 votes)
  • 25%
    Mostly harmless
    (76 votes)
  • 25%
    Couldn’t care less
    (76 votes)
  • 3%
    Other (leave comment below)
    (9 votes)
300 votes total Vote Now