When the MMA and Ultimate Fighting became somewhat mainstream several years ago, my younger students seemed excited. They insisted that this was a real sport, and that it was way better than boxing, a sport I enjoy watching.
(Yes, I know, the athletes scramble their brains, as they do in football, but that’s a whole different column.)
I guess this was my first experience being on the other end of a generation gap.
But I don’t hear the same buzz anymore. I believe the main reason why isn’t because many of the fights simply break down into two guys rolling around on the ground all match, nor is it because most of the matches seen on TV are pre-recorded, the results already known to any viewer with an internet connection, nor because the announcers are pretty low-rent. I think the sport is becoming increasingly dull because individual matches are not special.
Watching boxing on Showtime, for example, we get polished announcers telling the back story of the fighters so we can figure out whom to root for. Often, the main event in boxing may have two undefeated fighters going against each other. Or there may be a former champ, perhaps past his prime, going up against a cocky young gun. Compelling.
Sometimes in boxing there is an upset. Sure, there are upsets in all sports, but an upset in MMA usually seems like a twist of luck for the underdog. Perhaps he catches the favorite in some toe-hold.
Maybe it’s the way they are presented, but the MMA guys don’t seem to have personalities I can identify with.
While I don’t watch WWE wrestling, I do think the WWE, when it was the WWF in the 1980s, had a good model to go from a fringe sport to mainstream.
Here’s what MMA, or Ultimate Fighting, could learn from 1980s pro wrestling:
Have undefeated stars. The WWF stars, like Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant, fought what were called jobbers every week. Like “tomato cans” in boxing, they were meant to lose. Once or so a year, a couple of super stars would be matched up and interest was at a maximum. Who would win? Both seemed invincible. That’s high drama.
Abandon the weight classes. Sometimes someone like Andre would fight three little people at once on a Saturday morning show. Sometimes a local judo instructor would try to take on one of these monsters, only to get tossed around like a toy. Maybe it would be interesting to see a really tough 150 pound guy take on a somewhat tough 250 pounder in the octagon? I’m curious to know the result.
Have heels. The old WWF had some great heels – so bad, they were good. Rowdy Roddy Piper was brilliant as a diabolical bad guy. Surely, some of these MMA guys are bastards in real life. Let’s make that known and have fun booing them.
Break up anything resembling amateur wrestling. There is a reason why amateur wrestling never took off as a sport viewers were interested in. It’s too up-close-and-personal. The refs should be instructed to break up any ground action that is going on for more than 20 seconds. Get them standing and slugging.
Give them funny managers who hang out outside the ring. The fighters are usually not articulate, but someone like a Classy Freddie Blassie could do the trash talking for them. What fun!