Fronted by Kid Nate. Flattered to have you posting here Dr. Mayeda!
When I interviewed "Rampage" Jackson back in 2006, he said of boxing and MMA:
I think the boxing community is player hatin’ on us ‘cause you have the athletic commission, it’s often called the boxing commission, and they’re over MMA too. So I think we’re getting player hated on a little bit ‘cause we’re comin’ up and they’re goin’ down. Right now all the heavyweight champions are Russian, except for one, and it’s bad for boxing right now. In America, boxing is going down fast, and mixed martial arts is goin’ up fast. So people can’t just be happy for each other and work together.
"Rampage’s" point regarding the international flavor that now characterizes many of boxing’s top athletes illustrates the separate directions in which the two sports are moving. Like boxing, MMA has an enormous number of mixed martial artists not from the United States. However, American MMA fans have embraced some of those from foreign soil, such as Georges St. Pierre, Anderson Silva, Wanderlei Silva, and even Mirco Filipovic not too long ago. On the contrary, how many American fans get behind the likes of Manny Pacquiao or Wladimir Klitshko? More to the point, how many mainstream American sports fan even recognize those latter names?
Historically, boxing’s fan base has been immensely diverse in terms of socio-economic status. Boxing has always had its upper-class fans who reveled in watching minorities of color bash each other into oblivion. But boxers of the past also stood for working- and lower-class communities and symbolically represented those communities’ needs. Over the decades, this influenced urban youth of color prior to the 21st century to identify (often times politically) with Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, and Oscar De La Hoya. On the contrary, MMA’s development was much more sudden and immediately took on an international identity when Royce Gracie dominated the UFC in the mid- to late-1990s.
Yet when the UFC began attaining mainstream sporting status as a result of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) in 2005, many of the champions who built the organization at that time came from wrestling backgrounds – a sport whose demographics tend to be much more white and middle-class. Just look at the first four coaches on TUF. Randy Couture, Chuck Liddell, and Matt Hughes were the UFC poster-boys, all of whom came from strong wrestling backgrounds. Likewise, Rich Franklin was heavily marketed as a proud UFC representative, commonly celebrated as a high school math teacher with a masters degree. None of these heroes who took MMA into the sporting mainstream represented urban America, and certainly not communities of color.
In turn, MMA has had difficulty reaching America’s urban demographic, which boxing captured for decades. In most working-class, urban communities across the United States, it is still easy to find boxing gyms where memberships are not terribly expensive. Locating a pure boxing gym in an upper-middle class American neighborhood is virtually impossible. In comparison, MMA gyms are popping up all across American suburbia, and it is not uncommon for monthly membership costs to exceed $200 if one wants to learn the multiple fighting disciplines that comprise MMA.
Said MMA veteran fighter Antonio McKee, who owns and operates The Body Shop Fitness in Lakewood, California in a personal interview, "There are very few African Americans who own their own gyms and who reach out to kids from the inner city. We’re gonna see more African Americans and fighters of African descent dominating in MMA, like "Rampage," Anderson Silva, and Yves Edwards, but because the gyms aren’t bringing in the kids from ghetto, it’s gonna take longer for MMA to have a big urban fan base."
The real key to building a truly diverse fan base and assemblage of fighters over time lies at the grass roots levels through the gyms. Tiger Woods has not built an extensive African American fan base for golf because golf is still an inaccessible sport for most African American communities, or working-class communities irrespective of race. Let’s face it, golf’s general demographics have not changed to the degree people thought they would after Tiger stormed onto the golf scene back in the late 1990s. The same is true for tennis – Venus and Serina Williams and James Blake have not stimulated an enthusiastic wave of young African American athletes who now try to break into tennis.
The National Basketball Association is popular among multiple socio-economic and ethnically diverse communities not only because it is an exciting sport, but also because youth from numerous demographics play basketball and remain fans into adulthood. As Antonio McKee suggests, if MMA gyms do not begin increasing their outreach efforts to urban communities and make MMA training programs affordable to all families, MMA will remain a sport whose fan base and fighters are disproportionately Caucasian and upper class.
David Mayeda, PhD is author of the book, Fighting for Acceptance: Mixed Martial Artists and Violence in American Society