Not that I have to tell you this or anything, but Mixed Martial Arts isn’t for everyone. Yeah, it’s grabbed a big share of the prize fighting market (and of Boxing and Wrestling’s fanbase) and managed to become somewhat mainstream, but there seems to be forces working against the chance of it ever becoming fully embraced on the level that Boxing once was.
For starters, MMA has a tendency to be rather violent and at times just too fucking bloody for alot of people who prefer the violence they consume to be of the action movie or “Tom & Jerry” variety. Like, you want to see it, but it would alot easier to stomach if it wasn’t so, well, real. That’s a major problem when it comes to attracting a new audience to MMA. I mean, there is only a finite amount of people in the world who can see something like this and not be turned off for good.
Hey, if you have any love in your heart for watching two guys fight each other, there’s plenty to like about MMA. It’s a game that features virtually all the different fighting disciplines and styles, sometimes all in the same fight. It can be wild and unpredictable, featuring fights that can end in a split second. And yes, it can get super nasty. Of course, the culture surrounding it can be as macho and testosterone-driven as any sport around, and the majority of the fan base tend to subscribe whole-heartedly to the bad tattoo/fauxhawk/tight-fitting screen-printed T-shirt aesthetic.
Not for everyone, like I said.
What all of this adds up to is simple. As a sport and as an entertainment entity, MMA is at a bit of a crossroads. Now that their baseline audience has not only been established, but appears to have even dwindled a bit in recent years, they need to figure out what the next step is. The people who love this stuff are just as unlikely to be scared away as the non-believers are to be lured in.
What to do, then?
Well, there’s only two choices really. You either accentuate the violent, edgy side of the sport or you seek to refine it’s image. Me, I’d go for the latter.
In the most basic sense, the majority of the non-believers are either put off by the violence or the often crude visage of most of the fighters. Interestingly enough, the two biggest drawing cards in the current UFC are the living embodiment of both sides of this coin. Brock Lesnar is your stereotypical loudmouth monster, sporting a gigantic tattoo of a sword that basically covers his entire back, while Georges St, Pierre comes off as a classy, dedicated sportsman who looks as much like a pediatrician as a lethal cage fighter.
Even still, the truth here is that the best fighters in this sport are not it’s biggest money-makers. What drives interest here is alot of hype and promotion of the Pro Wrestling variety, where the outsized personalites and controversial (and often completely contrived) characters make the biggest splash. Call it a catch-22, really. If you’ve learned that the way to make money is through bluster and wild antics, then so it shall be.
Of course, if the UFC really wanted to expand it’s reach beyond the die-hards, they’d be sticking every last ounce of promotional muscle behind a different type of fighter. Sure, the promoter doesn’t always have control over who the fans will take to, but they can definitely influence them with the right approach.
If they really want to get to the next level, they have to spotlight a different, less common breed of fighter. A winner. A champion. A freaky athletic specimen. A Sportsman.
In other words, the UFC needs to put everything they have into making Jon Jones a household name.
What else is there to do when such a gift is dropped in your lap? Already the youngest champion UFC history and a next-level athlete with the type of offensive arsenal you’ve perviously only seen in video games, this is the guy the UFC needs to make the face of their company. You can believe in the “we are sports and Entertainment” rhetoric Dana White spits out if you want to, but the reality is that alot of people don’t want to hear that. There are only so many times you can hype a fight as “these two guys HATE each other”, only for them to hug afterwards and admit it was all for show before the fans start to feel tricked and tune out.
If you really want legitimacy, if you really want to be considered mainstream, if your aim is really to be a household name, you have to take full advantage of a young man like Jones and his unique gifts. Not only is he among the greatest talents the sport have ever seen, but his persona and carriage set him apart from your average MMA fighter. Shit, the guy foiled a robbery hours before he won the title! How many real-life superhero athletes can you name off the top of your head?
Listen, I’m not saying it’s a good idea to put every one of the fighters in tuxedos and teach them the queens’ english or anything. Just like the circus, there should be room for a little bit of everything. What I am saying is that if you really care about winning over a broader audience and eliminating some of the negative stereotypes that plaque your product, you have to make something more than token efforts. Promoting the classier, more pure-sports element of mixed martial arts, well, that’s the best chance you got. The longer they wait, the harder it will be to change the minds of the naysayers.
You’ve been given a gift here, UFC. Take full advantage while you still can.