Tiger by the Tail: The Nature of Mixed Martial Arts as a Professional Sport
I just watched the UFC 229 event and while I was expecting some excitement, I wasn't expecting anything beyond it. Nothing that I was going to remember past the next day anyway, let alone be talking about it during the next couple of weeks or writing about it here. Yet here we are.
After going four rounds Conor McGregor lost to Khabib Nurmagomedov by submission, and the crowd was already excited watching the fight. After all, there had been tremendous build up from Conor’s antics and Khabib’s stoic responses leading up to the fight.
When McGregor tapped out however, Khabib, still hot from the match, decided to jump the fence and start attacking one McGregor’s team outside the octagon who insulted him. What occurred after that is what Twitter users have been accurately comparing to a WWE pro wrestling event: a massive brawl erupted both inside and outside the cage and then inside the cage. UFC president, Dana White refused to give Khabib the belt, which all sides agree he legitimately won. For the next few hours, it was the fight that shocked sports world.
And yet none of these events that transpired surprised me at all.
"Fighters who create the most drama bring in more money than good fighters with zero charisma."
I’m a Bad Man
Trash talking has been used by some sports in one degree or another to hype up their events and put butts in the seats. That is just business and has been that way for decades. Muhammad Ali was the best at it and is still considered to be the greatest trash talker of all time. Speaking of wrestling entertainment, insulting the opponent and the crowd has become a staple of its routine that all its performers have to be proficient at and that few master. However when it comes to mixed martial arts, that's something different, because its a contradiction.
Since becoming accepted in mainstream society and sports from its fight club-days back in the 1990’s, MMA, and the UFC in particular tend to rely on trash taking more so than other sports to run their business. Conor McGregor and Rhonda Rousey were masters at it and thus also became the face of MMA to the outside world. While everything was in a controlled environment, I think everyone assumed it was going to be fine. People could throw water bottles at each other, talk shit, and hell, even could have legal drama happening outside of the ring, but as long as it was controlled or out of the public eye, it seemed like everyone gave it a pass.
However when security failed to control the post-fight battle, was when things became out of control-or in other words, a real fight with no rules. While Khabib and his team definitely need to be held responsible for their behavior, I also feel that the MMA hierarchy should have seen this eventuality coming up.
When your cash cow involves slapping a lion in its most sensitive spot repeatedly, you have to be prepared when the lion prepares to swipe back. The rivalry between team McGregor and team Khabib was much more than just real: it was personal. Deeply personal thanks to the words thrown by McGregor months prior to the fight. Before that night in Vegas, everyone thought it was controlled because of the champion’s stoic composure, not seeming to let the challenger’s jibes get under his skin and rattle him: a trademark of McGregor’s. It’s worked for him in the past as his previous victims will attest to. However, using personal attacks as part your repertoire is bound to get the attention of someone who doesn't let it go after the fight.
The warning signs were there even before there was no shaking of hands. Never mind the attack on Khabib’s bus, but the follow up of insulting his culture, even after McGregor was arrested and fined was not going to go well. Even he should have known better given how proud and sensitive McGregor is to people insulting his own Irish heritage. Not even Muhammad Ali went as far as to attack his opponents family and upbringing. Though charismatic, it was always on the professional level.
It was going to be an explosion and UFC counted on security and it’s success containing past feuds to keep a leash on everything. It made for great drama after all as any fan watching the fight from their home or sports bars will tell you. There is definitely something to be said for that taking that stance. However that night was the one night when it slipped and everything went to hell.
No matter much people talk about MMA being about sportsmanship, the reality that plays out is that is its prospers on personal feuds. When was the last time you heard people talking about what good sportsman fighters were at fighting or losing? I would wager few and far between.
Without that personal stake, no one gives a damn. Fighters who create the most drama bring in more money than good fighters with zero charisma. On some level I think all MMA fighters know this and therefore don’t take the sportsmanship aspect of their job seriously, unless its a part of their personal character.
Similar Yet Different Roots
Also, despite being more main stream than its ever been within the last three decades, UFC still has a lot to prove because of its inherent risk factor. Boxing can be just as brutal as mixed martial arts and their promos can also sometimes border on the verge of open brawling like what happened when Mike Tyson bit off Evander Hollyfield’s ear in 1997. Same with sports entertainment in that their promos are fake skits by physical performers. Everyone has heard the tales of personal beefs between wrestlers behind the scenes that sometimes leak out to the ring like CM Punk’s shoot promo in 2011 on WWE Raw, but everyone was still on the same page of the overall course of events regardless. Restraint is built into to the fabric of both styles.
Mixed martial arts however is different because of the origin and nature of the sport. It’s cage fighting. Its started out as no holds bar contests where the only rule that applied was not killing your opponent. No matter how many rules you put in place, its still people using almost all parts of their body to beat the other human being into a bloody pulp or get them to submit. Aspects like control and discipline that you might hear at traditional martial arts schools almost don’t really apply because it requires more mental aggression with little body protection. This makes it more susceptible to the natural, human aggressive instincts, which while it makes more money, is also more vulnerable to those instincts breaking their leash.
More than that though, mixed martial arts is not rooted in a sport. It’s rooted in styles that were designed to injure, maim, or kill people, not entertain them. That link to extreme violence never goes away regardless if its tamed, untamed, traditional martial arts or mixed martial arts. The more aggressive you are, the closer you are to hitting that extreme potential. UFC events are reliant on the control of the fighters and their teams and if those fail...
So its these reasons that an incident like this eventually happening did not surprise me in the slightest. Honestly, its a miracle no one was killed.
Getting Back Up
So then where does mixed martial arts go from here after this debacle?
Things are already starting to get ugly with the nationality, racial, and religious slurs starting to be slung around by fans angry at Khabib and his team’s unsportsmanlike actions, while others are calling out hypocrisy on the part of the UFC leadership for being lenient with past fighters who have done illegal and outlandish actions, but were still popular, like Connor McGregor.
Critics of the sport may use what happened for legislation to again ban it from the mainstream. And traditional martial artists who have been feuding with mixed martial artists for years will feel vindicated in their arguments that MMA is nothing but human, dogfights that do nothing to raise humanity from their base instincts and is black-eye on the martial arts world.
For UFC to recover its image, they will have to have better trained security, place a limit on the amount of trash talk fighters can say, while enforcing them with a zero tolerance policy for any fighter who steps out of line in anyway shape or form. And finally, have all fighters officially be very clear on the rules and its consequences if they are broken.
Accountability must be held to all involved in mixed martial arts because its critics are right about the risk factor. This doesn’t mean that it can’t be part of the sports world or be involved in the mainstream. It means the UFC has to maintain better control and responsibility more so than other combative sports, or otherwise something much worse than large brawl after a fight is going to happen.
© 2018 Jamal Smith