After watching three of four British fighters clearly bested last night, I had some questions about when (if ever) we're going to see a British fighter emerge as a champion or championship-caliber fighter (sorry, Bisping doesn't qualify). Josh Gross echoes my sentiments:
"It doesn't matter what country you're from, it's about the type of fighter you are," he said when asked about British fighters' struggles. "When you think about it, we've taken the fight business to a whole 'nother level. You never put on a fight with two Brazilians in Montreal. It's insane. It wouldn't work. But it does with this sport."
Yes, MMA can be captivating, as it was when Mauricio Rua rematched Lyoto Machida at the Belle Centre in May. It's what I like to call "sticky" -- once someone with an open mind is exposed to it, he or she usually wants to see it again. More than 17,000 fans packed the O2 Arena (a 1.6 million pound gate) for a card featuring a good but not great British middleweight, a good but not great British welterweight, a well-regarded British prospect who fell flat, and a host of others who don't look like they have what it takes.
MMA is "in" for 2010. Two or three years down the road, without an emerging British star, will the UFC continue to pack a place like O2? The likelihood is strong that the sport will continue to grow in the UK. But the rate and scale of that growth could be impacted significantly by whether or not British fighters are capable of winning against the best.
This is why the UFC pushed Bisping and Hardy so hard from the outset. They needed British fans motivated by the prospect that local fighters can compete against anyone. And this is why UFC will continue nurturing British prospects up the ranks.
Because of the UFC's investment in the UK and the continent, MMA is embedded on the minds of fight-friendly European fans. Gyms are popping up. More kids are trying it. All this leads me to believe the UK -- and other areas -- will cultivate fighters good enough to be the best. It just hasn't happened yet. (If it does, this is moot.)
But what happens if British fighters can't take the next step? Will the crowds keep coming for more good-but-not-great names? Will London mimic Montreal -- which became MMA crazed after Quebec's St. Pierre broke through -- and support two Brazilians in the main event?
The question isn't just will an emergent fighter ever come from England; it's whether or not England is even capable of producing one. Let me explain.
I recently spoke with Abu Dhabi medalist and jiu-jitsu black belt Ryan Hall. Hall spent just shy of two weeks training in Ireland. Hall had effusive praise for the talent and drive of those who he trained with there. He was also eager to praise the skill of 2009 Abu Dhabi stand out and Renzo Gracie black belt Gunnar Nelson. However, he noted wrestling's influence on the American grappler had overall raised the level of the grappling game stateside. Same goes for MMA. He argued that even if you find a fighter in America who is primarily a striker, that fighter is a) likely to have decent defensive wrestling and b) will make a concerted effort to pop back up once taken down. Hall said even your hobbyist grappler in America who wrestled in high school can sometimes be harder to hold down than a more seasoned European grappler because they've developed the "horsepower" to recapture base or move or simply create space for offensive opportunities. Same goes for more developed and diverse offensive wrestling attacks. Those commodities exist in Europe and the UK, obviously, but they are harder to come by.
Hardy didn't get knocked out last night because of an inability to defend the takedown, although that obviously cost him against St. Pierre. And Bisping didn't win last night because he was able to hold down Akiyama for a three-round decision. But the point still stands: a championship-caliber fighter has to have a reasonable measure of well-roundedness to succeed. The fact remains fighters who are from and train in the UK have to yet find an answer to the wrestling institutions available in North America.
I don't know if massive improvement in wrestling in Europe or the UK will solve all of the issues involved with creating an emergent fighter. Part of it is simply luck. Any fighter who transcends the popularity and achievement of his peers likely needs to be naturally popular and marketable as well. And it's conceivable a British-born fighter could get their early or supplemental training in the States. I'd also say as younger athletes began their training in "MMA" as opposed to a sub-disciplines, perhaps they'll start their training with an emphasis on the right kind of fundamentals.
But even if one fighter is able to breakthrough to elite status, we are still talking about an country or continent of fighters who are competing in grappling circuits or fight promotions where the game is considerably less challenging. And they're preparing themselves in formative stages of their careers for competitive outlets that are behind the curve. As popularity in the UK continues to increase the hope is that the resources to improve fighter quality and performance will continue to develop. The question, though, is will it move in lockstep with talent development? And are U.K. fans patient enough to support the sport at a feverish level without a national icon to rally around?
No one really knows the answer, but the questions are real. Here's to hoping there's an Englishman in training capable of taking the big step. And let's hope he or she has the broad enough shoulders to carry U.K. MMA into the next stage of development.