No, really. Just ask Dana White. Or any number of fans and even fighters (Dan Hardy of which was likely the most outspoken), many of whom were apparently horrified by the fact that Clay Guida decided not to stand right in front of Gray Maynard and play Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots with him.
First of all, let’s agree that it’s absolutely crazy that Dana White gets taken seriously when asked about anything having to do with the UFC or its fighters. We’re supposed to be surprised that White, the president of the UFC, is unhappy with a fight that many fans found boring?
White is the exact opposite of an unbiased observer. He has a tremendous and obvious financial stake in not only the outcome of fights, but their entertainment value. In what other form of sports or entertainment do we care about what a promoter has to say about his or her own product?
Hardy has an ulterior motive that is just as clear, if not more so. This is a guy who was taken down repeatedly and rendered unable to mount any kind of offense for 25 frustrating minutes by a Greg Jackson-trained fighter, all during the biggest fight of his career. Hardy’s UFC career was saved because he fights a crowd-pleasing style, according to Lorenzo Fertitta himself. Are we to be surprised that Hardy, a fighter who not only enjoys standing and trading punches, but has had tremendous success doing so, would speak out against a game plan that would make it harder for him to do what he wants to do?
What’s even more disappointing than people using a “boring” fight as a way to advance their own agendas is the hypocrisy others in the sport have shown in their reactions towards Guida and even Jackson’s MMA.
For the most flagrant offender, look no further than Guida’s opponent, Gray Maynard. Maynard has recently started to think of himself as a slugger, but had previously built his career off of taking people down and controlling them, often while doing minimal damage, en route to one-sided decision victories. Now, he’s speaking out as some sort of people’s champion? As if all of his fights have been barn-burners?
No, Maynard was only pissed because Guida’s strategy frustrated him. He wasn’t prepared for it, he had few answers for it, and it almost cost him a must-win fight. Like White, Hardy, or many of the other critics within the sport, his reaction has more to do with his own biases and interests than any actual concern about “the fans getting their money’s worth”, which is always the official reason we are supposed to be up in arms about dull fights.
So, what about the fans?
In a way, they’re the only ones who can be taken seriously here. You can’t take White’s opinion seriously, since he’s worried mostly about PPV buys and ratings, which go up with exciting fights. You can’t take Hardy’s opinion seriously, since a rise in game-planning such as Guida’s would lead to more frustration in the cage (and likely, losses) for him. You can’t take Maynard’s opinion seriously, because until his last two fights with Frankie Edgar, he was one of the more boring, methodical fighters in the lightweight division.
But the fans, they are out for one thing: entertainment. If they aren’t entertained, the fighters aren’t doing their jobs, right? Even if Guida had won the fight, he couldn’t truly be happy if the fans were displeased, right?
I disagree there for two reasons.
1) The sport of MMA should always be regarded first and foremost as a sport, and sporting contests aren’t always tremendously entertaining.
This point is easy to defend. We still care about titles, even if our champions (Georges St. Pierre, for example) haven’t had the most exciting fights in recent history. Fans argue over media rankings and debate over which fighters are better in hundreds of thousands of forum threads. No matter how much Dana White and company appreciate fighters “that WAR!!!”, fan favorites still get cut after one too many losses.
2) The backlash that is felt after a boring fight is largely the creation of the MMA community itself.
There is this immature, schoolyard mentality among fans that when a fight happens, they are owed not only the entertainment of watching two people beat each other up, but that they are owed a certain style of fight, as well. If you want to know what will hurt the sport in the long run, it is this mentality that we have encouraged. In order to grow the sport, we have thrown fighters like Guida under the bus and essentially trained new fans to do the same.
There is literally no other sport in the world where a new fan is allowed to come in and basically expect the sport to cater to him or her right away. Sports always come with steep learning curves, and new fans are accepted with the understanding that if the sport isn’t your cup of tea, you can hit the exit at any time.
MMA used to have that mentality, and it was doing just fine. It has become popular these days to believe that Dana White and Zuffa single-handedly saved MMA, and they certainly had a huge part in where the sport is today. However, let’s not forget that White and the Fertittas were already fans of the sport the way that it was in the old days. So was I, and so were many others that today are the trainers, fighters, sponsors, and writers who help make the sport what it is today.
In the 1990s, MMA was sometimes brutal. Just as often, though, it was extremely methodical. Boring, even. It’s hard to take Dan Hardy’s claim that “Greg Jackson’s game plans are going to ruin the sport” seriously after sitting through Ken Shamrock-Dan Severn II, or watching some of the early Pride events (particularly Severn-Kimo or many of the fights of Akira Shoji). Even the great Royce Gracie would mount a largely-defenseless foe and then proceed to do very little for two to three minutes before working his way toward a fight-ending submission. Yet, when you watch his fights, you didn’t hear the boos that you hear after a minute of relative inactivity these days.
How is it that the less-educated fans of fifteen to twenty years ago were more accepting of methodical, strategic game plans than the supposedly-savvy fans of today?
Because we’ve trained MMA fans to be that way.
Dana White has trained MMA fans to expect exciting fights by publicly bashing fighters whenever he feels they didn’t fight in an entertaining fashion, as he did several times on Friday night via his Twitter account.
Fighters have trained MMA fans to feel okay about criticizing them by throwing one another under the bus in post-fight interviews or (even worse) apologizing to booing fans after a winning performance because the fight “wasn’t exciting enough.”
Referees have trained MMA fans to disrespect the more subtle aspects of the ground game by warning fighters against inactivity after as little as twenty seconds where not much happens on the mat, then often standing them up shortly after.
Instead of allowing new fans to come into the sport and appreciate it for what it is (warts and all), we’ve self-consciously catered to them, possibly out of some still-lingering belief that mixed martial arts can never be a truly mainstream sport. We’re all on our best behavior, still surprised by the fact that hey, you can see MMA on network TV now or, wow, they’re covering MMA on ESPN!
I’ve seen thousands of fights. Many of them have been dull, and plenty have been flat-out boring. Yet, there I’ll be, watching innumerable UFC, Bellator, and Strikeforce events yet to come, along with any other MMA events I can get my hands on, thanks to the power of the internet. Even when an entire event has been a stinker (which is exceedingly rare), I’ve never really felt like I’ve wasted my time watching the incredible athletes of MMA in action. For me, the good fights always outnumber the bad, and the reasons to watch always outnumber the reasons not to.
All of the efforts to attract and educate new fans will be for naught if we continue to reinforce short attention spans and an ugly sense of entitlement within them. How is the sport supposed to grow if we don’t expect fans to do the same? Better yet, how is it supposed to grow if it is expected to be more entertainment than sport?