The first time I encountered MMA I was by stumbling through videos of fights on YouTube. This is a rite of passage for a kid in the 21st century. Our dads scrapped it out in the playground or took a knock or two at home. Such violence is no longer commonplace, no longer considered socially acceptable, a way to “tough boys up”, and rightly so, but growing up on voyeurism is scarcely any better.
I learned the thrills of MMA by watching Gracie with his gi, Tank with virtually no technique, and some Russian dude who initially seemed to be called Emelianenko Fedor, until his brother, Emelianenko Aleksander came onto the scene and answered that mystery. I got to grips with the complexity of the ground game by listening to the commentators at PRIDE and later to Joe Rogan. My exposure to the sport, my learning curve, was a hands off affair. Not once in those early years of my relationship with MMA did I turn up at a boxing gym, a Judo school, or hunt for the BJJ academy that was yet to exist in England.
Meanwhile every lunchtime I would be out on the school fields kicking a ball about, emulating my heroes, Alan Shearer, David Beckham, Paul Gascoigne. And then after school would be football training and the obsession would continue. At the weekends, playing as a centre-half for my school and club, I would imagine myself as a mini Bobby Moore. These experiences, playing the game I loved to watch, led me to view the sport of football as a very serious activity: I had lived it, I knew how they felt, the ups and the downs, accompanied frequently by tears. It is an enduring cliché, but football was never a game to me.
This is not to say I didn’t want to scrap. A group of us bought fingerless gloves, cleared out a friends attic, and filmed our fifteen year-old selves trying to fight. With no idea what we were doing, there was little actual damage done, just my friend’s dad’s model soldier collection getting knocked off the shelves from our rolling around and crushed on the floor. After gathering them up and rearranging them with the broken models hidden at the back, we got drunk and watched Fight Club. None of this was very real to us, none of it very serious. It was something that happened in movies and on the internet.
There was just too great a distance between those fighters we saw on YouTube and our own experiences of martial arts. When UFC events were finally available on British television we watched with half-hearted awe. This is unbelievable, this is almost surreal, we thought. In contrast to the company’s slogan, as real as it gets, there was no point of touch down for us, it was another world entirely.
The truth is that MMA is a sport based upon violence. The ultimate aim of an MMA fight is to use physical force to get the other guy to quit or get the ref to step in. The only thing separating it from the wanton brutality of YouTube street fights is the production: the ring girls, the referee, the training of the fighters. Yet, these are but a veneer for what lies beneath. When you watch an MMA fight, you’re watching two guys (or girls) kick the shit out of each other. That is the intent. Whether this assumption is met depends upon the talent and willingness of the two fighter’s in question. But this very real fact brings us to the crux of my argument, that MMA is sports entertainment and, well, it pretty much has to be.
Senator John McCain infamously heralded mixed martial arts as “human cockfighting“. This was in the 90s, when UFC 1 was advertised with the slogan, “there are no rules”. No rules and teeth being kicked out onto the commentators’ table in ridiculous mismatches meant that McCain was not the only opposition to these early mixed martial arts events. Thirty-six states subsequently enacted laws banning such contests.
PRIDE Fighting Championships injected MMA with some much needed glitz in 1997 with PRIDE 1. Harnessing the Japanese infatuation with martial arts, PRIDE 1 featured two Gracies (Rickson and Renzo), took place in the Tokyo Dome, and boasted a crowd of almost 50,000 spectators. Significantly, Rickson’s opponent on the night, Nobuhiko Takada, was a former professional wrestler. PRIDE brought together the grit and brutality of “human cockfighting” with the epic staging and glamour of professional wrestling.
Perhaps seeing the potential of mixed martial arts in the success of PRIDE in Japan, in January 2001 the Fertitta Brothers and Dana White approached and purchased the UFC. UFC 33 was the first UFC event following the acquisition, and it signalled the new owners’ intent, bringing the UFC to Las Vegas and to PPV for the first time. They were dragging American mixed martial arts from its “no rules” beginnings, a niche product, and gift wrapping it as a spectacle for the masses, as sports entertainment.
But this roots search is a digression. The repackaging of UFC events by Zuffa (the parent company establish by White and the Fertittas) was a necessary step. Layering spectacle and polish upon what is at its heart a demonstration of the human capacity for domination through the exertion of highly skilled violence enables a sport like mixed martial arts to exist and flourish in an age of excessive political correctness and the incessant wrapping up of our children in cotton wool and adorning of these children with rose tinted glasses.
Yet the balance between sport and sports-based spectacle, or sports entertainment, is a fine one. The casual fan might not worry about the implications of the sport of mixed martial arts being confused with a performance like professional wrestling, but for the serious fans–the diehards–and the fighters themselves, such a distinction is crucial. It is the difference between real and fake.
So there is a balance between the wants of the MMA organisation, the UFC, and the wants of the fighters and diehards. In any given sport the aim is victory. However, the UFC’s president, Dana White, influences the behaviour and performances of the fighters by offering “of the night” bonuses. In addition to the organisation’s own focus on a certain style of performance (violent, acrobatic), certain fighters have taken it upon themselves to perform a particular role, furthering the sense of artifice at the top level of MMA. Quinton Jackson constructed the persona of “Rampage”, Tom Lawlor entertains at the weigh ins by dressing up as pro-wrestling and martial arts heroes from days gone by, and Chael Sonnen has become famous for his interview appearances, claiming title shots off the back of his caricatured smack talk.
This sort of performance has led to a blurring of the lines between real and fake, sport and performance. Many a casual observer has commented on the UFC being “that fighting thing like WWE”. The crossover of Brock Lesnar from the world of professional wrestling to mixed martial arts was a further confusion for casual fans. But Lesnar’s crossover was not an isolated incident, Bobby Lashley came to MMA from a pro-wrestling background, and such crossovers are multidirectional. Rampage Jackson recently signed a deal with Bellator MMA which includes cross-promotional opportunities with TNA (total nonstop action wrestling), a professional wrestling organisation.
An embodiment of the blurring between sport and performance is the new opening sequence for UFC on FOX. Two CGI robots attack one another in a representation of fighters in the Octagon. There is nothing real here, the essence of the sport, the truth, two men in combat with one another, has been buried beneath a facade of technology. Fighting as a sport is not consonant with the realities of the 21st century, yet as sports entertainment it endures.
And thus the UFC brass must maintain a delicate balance to appeal to the hardcore fan, the casual fan, and the uninitiated public. The hardcore want to see clashes between masters of their respective arts and more commonly of mixed martial arts itself, they want to see if JDS can land the big shot before Cain swarms him, if Maia’s grappling can somehow overcome the indomitable wrestling of GSP; clashes which perhaps will become legendary. The casual are looking for a spectacle: violent knockouts, blood (just bleed, anyone?), and brawls a la Leonard Garcia. And there there’s the uninitiated. At first they might appear the least important of the three, they don’t purchase PPV’s for starters. But attracting the uninitiated, persuading them that mixed martial arts is more than just an exposition of violence, is the golden ticket for MMA promotions. It is that floodgate which holds the sport back from the international mainstream, and the key to unlocking it might well be the marketing of the sport not as a fight, but as a spectacle.