July| Vol. 22 No. 8.02 | Christian's Chronicles © 2015 – All rights reserved.
I used to be a fan of mixed-martial-arts. In fact, I was more than a fan. I was a competitor. I fought professionally for about a decade, and I’ve had the good fortune to travel the world on a promoter’s dime, competing in the UFC, King of the Cage, IFC, WEC, and other organizations. So, I guess you could say I have somewhat of an insider’s understanding of what MMA is all about. Granted, I never became a household name in the sport, but I had the best seat in the house for some of the biggest events, under the glitz and glamour of the spotlight in the arena and on pay-per-view, and I’ve even signed a few autographs as the “Hungarian Nightmare.” My competitive days are well behind me, and although I never held a prestigious world championship belt, I have no regrets.
But, I am not much of a fan anymore.
For me, MMA has lost its luster. Granted, the level of skill has greatly improved and the talent pool seems to get deeper and deeper with every passing year. But in my humble opinion, MMA is suffering from a heavy dose of overexposure.
I started competing around the turn of the century. Seeing a fight on TV in those days was something special, and watching it live was an even more rare and impressive phenomenon. Competing in the sport was a bit more of a gamble; sometimes the rules were not exactly clear prior to the bout, and it was even more of a question to what extent they would be enforced by the hometown referee. The sport was not yet regulated (read: illegal) in California, and the only options to compete in the state were on Native American sovereign lands. Watching “the fights” on television more often than not meant getting some videos of PRIDE FC bouts from Japan, or maybe Vale Tudo from Brazil. Stateside, there were the ‘dark ages’ of MMA with few venues where the sport could legally be promoted and even fewer options to watch its domestic version on cable, prior to regulation and consolidation, and eventual mainstream acceptance that came at the heels of the inaugural season of The Ultimate Fighter around 2004-2005, which exposed ‘fighting’ to a much larger audience than the cult-like subculture of fans in the early days.
With increased popularity came legitimacy and acceptance. What once was seen as ‘human cock-fighting’ and as a blood-sport with little regulation and skill became a respected sport with highly trained and talented athletes, whose every move, and every word, is scrutinized on social media and in traditional news outlets, too.
Let me be clear: I am a fan of the sport of MMA, not necessarily the ‘spectacle.’ I am not one of those who long for the old days when “there truly were no rules.” I like rules. I like sport. I like fair competition. And, I like to watch fights, inasmuch as the fight is a fair contest of skilled professionals with more-or-less equal skill displaying maneuvers, talent, and determination the rest of us can only admire from afar.
So why am I ‘over’ MMA?
It is the only way to describe why I’ve lost my passion for a sport I once followed with much more fervor. To be honest, it is not even possible to follow the sport anymore; there are simply too many fights, too many fighters, just too much with which to keep up. Even more annoying is a phenomenon that goes back far longer: the ever-present wanna-be fighters who continue to give the sport a bad name. We are all familiar with the MMA-branded-T-shirt-wearing, imaginary lat syndrome types with a chip on their shoulder who fixate on MMA as an image and an identity, rather than a sport that requires immense sacrifices, dedication, and discipline.
MMA is not ‘special’ anymore. As the sport shed its former image, along with it, it became less exciting, less special. It became safe. It became mainstream. What used to be viewed as something dangerous, something fans would rarely see (and perhaps therefore appreciate more), and something few would dare participate in, became just another sport on TV. The audience has become desensitized.
The issue of desensitization to the inherent violence of the sport is somewhat of a side-effect of overexposure, but I think it is worth mentioning for a couple of reasons. Although the rules and regulations of MMA give it a certain predictability and improved safety, make no mistake, it is a dangerous sport. This is perhaps something that we no longer appreciate. There is the danger of head trauma, which thankfully is an issue that is generally receiving more attention albeit due in different contexts, especially football, but is something that should not be ignored in the sport of MMA, either. There are other physical risks to competitors, as well as the effect of desensitization on the audience, on which, although worth considering, I will not elaborate, in the interest of brevity. And, now that there are lawsuits alleging monopolization and oppressive contracts, there are legal issues to consider as well.
In my opinion, the overexposure of MMA is at least partly, if not entirely, by design. It reflects practices that are aimed at eliminating competition. For example, a financially larger promoter can drown out the competition by putting MMA shows on free television when a smaller competitor in the same sport, or perhaps a boxing or even wrestling promoter, is attempting to sell its own pay-per-view. This is understandable, and just part of business, I suppose. But, perhaps the same considerations underlie the saturation of the airwaves with what I believe is just too much MMA for even devout fans to follow. If it becomes impossible or very difficult to follow all the fights, perhaps fans will be more likely to follow one brand. And, even if the brand dilutes itself in the process, it can afford to do so, so long as it remains the biggest, effectively the only brand that fans follow, or can follow, if they want to watch top-level competition.
The problem, in my view, is that the sport is more-or-less entirely controlled by promoters. By signing fighters to long-term contracts with one promoter, the ability of fighters to sell their services to the highest bidder is eliminated. Additionally, since top-level fighters are contractually obligated to render their services to one promoter, their options are greatly reduced since they can only fight against other athletes signed to the same promoter. It is axiomatic that it takes two to make a fight. The world’s greatest fighter cannot make a living in the sport if he has no opponents to fight. If a significant portion of the top contenders are signed to one promotion, it is impossible for the most talented and worthy of fighters to make much money at all, let alone become champion. Thus, because of contractual restrictions, promoters are able to dictate the terms of contracts for fighters, in a take-it-or-leave-it type situation.
I could go on and on about the problems related to the unequal bargaining positions of fighters and promoters. For present purposes, I will only offer a hypothetical scenario, which I believe could have eliminated the problem of overexposure. If one accepts, as I believe, that overexposure is a real issue for MMA, that is. Furthermore, that this overexposure was the direct, and perhaps intended, result of practices designed to eliminate competition in the market and consolidate power and market-share in the hands of a very limited number of promoter(s).
The business model of MMA resembles that of professional wrestling. Athletes sign with a promoter, and compete (or perform) exclusively for that promoter. Along with their athletic services, they sign away the rights to their likeness for merchandising, videos, games, etc. Moreover, there is no independent sanctioning body responsible for awarding titles and for rankings, like there is in boxing. In other words, the promoter runs the whole show, makes matches, decides rankings, etc. The legitimate business interests of a promoter are: (1) to make as much money for himself as he can, (2) as a corollary to 1, to keep costs as low as possible (whether in the form of payouts to fighters or otherwise), and (3) again as a corollary to 1, to eliminate competition to the extent possible and legally permitted. As a result of the amount of control over the business, and as a natural consequence of pursuing his own interests, a successful promoter may indeed purposely generate overexposure to consolidate control.
But what if things were different? What if the sport of MMA had an organization, much like in other professional sports, to represent the collective interest of the athletes? What if this organization also created an unbiased, point-based ranking system independent of whatever contractual obligations a fighter may have to a particular promoter? What if instead of signing long-term contracts to limit a fighter’s services to one promoter, fighters signed with this organization, which in turn would make matches and open them up to bidding, driving up the price and the pay for fighters? What if the audience would not have to wonder what a fight between two great fighters would be like, prevented from actually experiencing it due to contractual restrictions?
I will resist the urge to elaborate much longer on such ideas. I will only mention that a couple of years ago I was part of an effort that sought to make the federal Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act applicable to MMA fighters in California. That effort eventually failed. However, it served to bring to light some of these issues, and I discussed some of these at fighterfairness.org, a site I created.
I still believe such an organization is sorely lacking. I believe fighters need a stronger voice and more bargaining power, and this can only come from a collective effort. An organization to advocate for and represent the interest of fighters as a group would go a long way to improve competition and fairness in the fight business. As an organization representing the interest of fighters and responsible for regulating the sport as a whole, as opposed to maximizing the profit of any one promoter, perhaps it would also seek to avoid overexposure.
Maybe when the day comes that fighters wake up and organize to create such an organization, I’ll become a true fight fan again.
Until then, I’m kind of over it. Due to overexposure.