Here's a fantastic new article by Jordan Arnold, over at Five Knuckles:
"How many fake-ass fighters would we see down at the bar with their Tapout shirts saying that their time is coming. Shit, you know they don't train. If it was easy, all of those guys would be in there. I don't know man, I don't want any part of that."
This is a quote from one of my old interviews with Jens Pulver. He said this back in 2007, however it may apply even more today. One can consistently find twenty and thirty-year-old men in the gym working out with their TapouT shirts on, punching each other in the abs while they do sit ups. Everyone knows that they probably do not do any actual mixed-martial-arts training, however they have this false perception that they are some kind of brave warrior that is ready to step in the Octagon at any minute.
All of this raises the question: Is MMA the new Poker?
Everyone remembers when poker got big back in 2003. We all watched as Chris Moneymaker tore through all of the professional poker players, whom we had never heard of, to win the World Series of Poker. After that, the sport exploded. Millions joined online poker leagues, poker hit huge deals with ESPN and NBC, branded poker rooms became a staple in every casino and guys like Phil Ivey and Phil Hellmuth became household names.
Now fast-forward a bit to April 9th, 2005. In most minds, this date marks the arrival of MMA. On this night, Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar competed against each other to see who would become the first "Ultimate Fighter." Throughout the three rounds, both fighters absolutely annihilated each other in what was a ratings hit. More and more people kept tuning into Spike throughout the fight because their friends had called them and told them that they needed to watch. Dana White refers to Griffin-Bonnar as "the most important fight in UFC history."
When compared, one realizes that the rise of poker and that of MMA are very similar. Poker's rise is generally credited to online poker, the World Series of Poker being televised, the 2004-2005 NHL lockout, television commercials, and Chris Moneymaker. The rise of MMA is often attributed to The Ultimate Fighter, the downfall of boxing, TapouT, the purchase of PRIDE, and Kimbo Slice. See the similarities?
Comparison #1: The Downfall of Another Sport
In order for poker and MMA to get big, another sport had to get out of the way. In poker's case it was hockey. The NHL did not have a 2004-05 regular season. It returned the next year, but it has never had the same popularity. This was perfect for poker because the World Series of Poker Circuit Tournament is the same time as hockey season. With hockey being off of television, this gave more room to show poker on ESPN. Also, it gained a bigger share of a sporting fan's interest. With the extra TV spots, poker was primetime television. Plus, with the hockey lockout, sporting fans may have been more interested in a sport that has no contracts like poker or MMA. People were tired of pay raises going to players who made too much already and did not perform on the field.
In MMA's case it was its weird older cousin, boxing. As Joe Rogan said in 2007, "The famous people that (boxing has) right now are the only famous people that are going to exist in the future." Boxing had been dying for a long time and it needed a new hip replacement. Fans quickly realized that MMA is actually real fighting while boxing is just one aspect of MMA. Fans who got tired of spending money to watching boxing legends gas in the second round moved on to MMA.
Comparison #2: Average Joes Standing Out
Both poker and MMA also had faces that average fans could love and latch onto. Chris Moneymaker was the first online poker player to win a WSOP main event (2.5 million). He was just an average Joe that ended up making a huge amount of money and was the face of a sport for a few years. Kimbo Slice, like it or not, is one of the faces of MMA. Some may not know who Chuck Liddell is, but everyone knows about Kimbo Slice. Kimbo was a goofy-looking homeless man that beat up people on Youtube. He then moved to the cage and was a huge television hit. Again, Kimbo was an average Joe that turned one opportunity into a huge contract, huge fights, big money and lots of fame.
Comparison #3: The Television Tournament
Both sports also had tournaments that were watched by millions of people. The World Series of Poker was a staple in most households for 2003 and 2004. Nobody could get away from it. The Ultimate Fighter was huge in the rise of MMA simply because it is a reality show and people can watch it every week. Additionally, at the end of each season there is a free UFC event televised on Spike. UFC pay-per-views are 50 dollars, so a lot of people do not bother to buy them just because they can not afford them. Accessibility was huge for the UFC because with the rise of The Ultimate Fighter, one could watch MMA on a weekly basis for free.
So is MMA going to be as popular as people say? Or will it peak, much like poker did a few years after its boom? The facts seem to suggest that it will continue its meteoric rise. This is because:
1 Poker is mostly chance and MMA is mostly skill. People love watching the results of the hard work that mixed-martial-artists put into their careers. In poker, it is very possible to dominate without much hard work at all. 2-7 off-suited (the worst hand in Texas Hold'em poker) can technically beat a pair of aces. There is definitely a certain amount of luck in MMA (see St. Pierre-Serra), however the fans love it because they too often see lazy athletes with natural talent that do not put in the work that is needed. MMA represents the blue collar spirit of a hard work ethic.
2 MMA is fighting. From Gladiators to sword duels to boxing in the 1920s, humans love fighting. Fighting seems to be hardwired into our brains just as much as peace or love is. This is why war games and violent movies are so popular. With boxing dropping off of a cliff, MMA is taking its place.
3 The UFC is great at hyping fights. Right now, they are saying that UFC 100 is the biggest card of all-time. In a few weeks they will be saying that UFC 101 is. They somehow got fans hyped up for Ortiz-Shamrock 3. They had already fought twice! Every fight that Georges St. Pierre has from now on is going to be "the toughest test of his career" because that sells pay-per-views. Poker definitely lacks here. They have one big event all year and the other events are usually not even televised. It would be like the WWE having Wrestlemania as their only pay-per-view of the year.
4 There are always intriguing storylines to follow in MMA. Young vs. old, style vs. style, power vs. technique. In poker, there is rarely a storyline to follow. Occasionally we run across a guy like Moneymaker that has a good story, but nothing like "PRIDE vs. UFC" or "Ortiz vs. Liddell."
5 MMA has journalists writing about the sport. Poker did not have a Sherdog or a Five Knuckles. MMA journalists can write about events, training before the events, future fights, rumors, etc...but poker journalists can't. They can write about events and that's it. MMA fans can get their news or opinions on almost any fighter at any time.
MMA's rise is extremely similar to poker's rise, however MMA will not plateau at its peak. So do not worry folks, MMA is here to stay. Ignore the guys in the Xtreme Couture shirts who don't know who Randy Couture is. They will come around.