In Search of the Elusive Mainstream

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For many fans, mainstream press coverage of MMA is some kind of validation.  Having been looked down upon for years for enjoying such a violent sport, seeing it on Sportscenter makes them think everyone else was just late to the party.  Going mainstream is now the biggest straw man out there; it's a debate-shifting tactic more than anything else, and bringing it up assumes that going mainstream is actually an option.  The idea that ESPN would one day have an "MMA tonight" and anchors of SportsCenter would discuss it alongside football and basketball as an equal was always a preposterous notion.  Take away the two most controversial events at UFC 100, and you still have a blood-soaked mat starting the show, a man who couldn't open his eye and could barely walk after his fight, a vicious one-punch knockout, and a main event comprised of one man headlocking the other and beating his head in.  After all this, do we really believe it is Brock Lesnar's antics that will keep this sport from going mainstream?   

As a friend in the MMA community put it to me, Jimmy Fallon and Dancing With The Stars are mainstream.  Why do people want to be a part of that so badly?  There's a big difference between going mainstream and increasing public awareness.  The UFC should aim for increasing the latter, and let the former work itself out in the long run.  Most mainstream press reports on UFC 100 are positive; there are more online MMA writers focusing on how the mainstream will react negatively than actual mainstream reporters reacting negatively.

I've learned this weekend that many MMA fans really want pro wrestling style angles with fake heat.  They want Matt Serra and GSP to pretend to hate each other while building up a fight, and then hug afterwards.  They want Matt Hughes and Matt Serra to do the same.  Mir has been "poking the bear" for weeks now, mocking the idea that Brock can even compete with him, and saying he doesn't deserve his spot.  Brock took it personally, and told Mir where he could shove all the trash talk afterwards.  The crowd booed Lesnar, and Lesnar flipped on them.  The emotion he displayed was much more "real" than most of what we see in mixed martial arts.  Brock Lesnar might be a legitimate psychopath; just about everything we saw was real.  Maybe that's what is so disturbing.

We live in an age where a video on youtube explodes in popularity, and then CNN does a story on the video later in the day on how popular it is.  The UFC is basically in the same position, which is why most press stories focus on how amazingly popular it is rather than anything else.  Nobody should confuse this for traditional mainstream acceptance.  Many in the media can't wait for the day that the sport's popularity goes away so they can mockingly refer to it as a fad.  Rather than get on our knees and beg them to accept our sport, the best plan of action is just to keep delivering fights that fans want to see and win more and more new fans while keeping the old.  Over time, that's the most reliable way to build a lasting sport.

Brock Lesnar is just a temporary bump in the road; he will get a lot of attention for another year or so until he loses, and then whoever beats him will be a big MMA hero for returning honor to the division, or some other such nonsense. You can see Frank Mir already playing this up.  I'd share the concerns of others if this was happening all across the UFC, but one guy "disrespecting" the sport really isn't that huge of a deal. 

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