Why Blame Herschel Walker When MMA Itself Is a Freakshow?

Herschel-walker_mediumI want to tell you about my perspective on Herschel Walker's involvement in MMA not as a fan, but as someone trying to embed themselves into the larger sports media in a top ten media market in the United States.

Initially I had little interest in any of Walker's MMA endeavors. I wasn't opposed to them per se, but adopted an insouciant attitude in anticipation of what I knew would be low-level MMA. Provided Coker treated Walker as the neophyte that he was (meaning his opponent was equally green), I didn't see any cause for acclaim or blame.

But then something strange happened.

Folks who never talk about MMA in the DC sports media establishment began to talk about it...to me. I started getting emails about Walker, reading columns about him and hearing him discussed on the radio. I started hearing them talk about it even in casual conversation. I got Twittered and Facebooked about it as well. Friends who never watch MMA even asked me about it. In fact, at a bar on a Sunday evening after the bout, I not only heard two patrons talking about the fight, but one asked the other whether they had read the article about his fight on CNN.com. UFC 100, for all its acclaim, never even came close. At least not in DC.

For those like me interested in moving the needle as it relates to MMA coverage in mainstream sports media establishments, Walker is a godsend. If I am to ask myself what I can do to grab the attention of editors at The Washington Post or producers at 106.7 The Fan, Walker is by far my best option. Why? Because we are talking MMA not on MMA's terms, but on their terms. We are introducing MMA into the discussion on grounds where they feel comfortable doing so. Some of you will object to that as retreating from a true image of MMA. I don't disagree entirely, but would only respond with the following: trying to convince them about the beauty of MMA on MMA's terms is infinitely more difficult than using a little carrot with the stick.

Based on my experience, the trick to getting people of power in traditional sports media to pay attention is not to shout them down for their bias or age. It's to view them as potential allies. It's to recognize the special nature of their power that would be of tremendous benefit to us. And, most importantly, it's about understanding how they view MMA. That informs our judgment about what we must do to alter their beliefs from the position from which they begin.

The MMA community often thinks of soft-handed freakshow fights as detrimental to the sport in the eyes of the casual observer. The reality is, when handled correctly, it has precisely the opposite effect.

Jake Rossen understands this idea and proclaims the deft art of acceptable freakshow to have real value:

All of this led, inevitably, to the most grotesque geek show of them all: the idea of pitting disparate styles against one another and mopping up the blood afterward. This is what is slightly ironic about MMA’s current attitude toward the sideshow: As a sport born from a circus atmosphere, it doesn’t leave itself much room for comment.

...

Rather than bemoan the oddities of combat sport, it might be more pragmatic to see how they act as fuel. When Carnera circulated, boxing had taken a nosedive after the departure of Jack Dempsey. Lump of nothing that he was, Carnera nonetheless reignited passion for prizefighting. The UFC of the 1990s was nauseating, but it self-corrected and evolved into something special. If it weren’t for the morbid curiosities of the paying public, Frye and White wouldn’t have jobs.

Anomalies continue to intrigue us. Brock Lesnar had a decorated career as an amateur wrestler, but did the hundreds of thousands of people buying his first few fights expect to see a clinical demonstration of a pin fall -- or a grunting man-rock tossing people over the cage padding? And didn’t the athletes appearing underneath Lesnar benefit financially from his participation? As a sponsor paying an athlete to wear your brand, do you want his ass-billboard on a card headlined by Lesnar, or by Thiago Silva?

The danger in criticizing the Herschel Walkers of the combat sports world is that it ignores the basic human interest story. We watch fights because we have an emotional investment in the outcome, and that investment is tenfold if the athletes participating have endeared themselves in other endeavors. If you grew up watching Walker play football, you’re probably going to be intent on seeing him fight. If Jean-Claude Van Damme actually has a muay Thai match -- as he’s alleged to have set up for later in the year -- he will attract a sizable number of people who can quote "Bloodsport" chapter and verse.

The lesson is not that all freakshows are created equal, but that over time products can be improved and palates refined. What begins as a mess often causes enough of a spark to eventually burn away the unessential and produce something of value. As Rossen correctly underscores, MMA itself in America began as a freakshow, but the melee of circus bouts and proposed alligator pits nevertheless homed in a core concept of hand-to-hand fighting that has matured, endured and blossomed into a sophisticated, respectable version of its former self.

MMA is viewed by many members of the traditional sports media as a freakshow. They can and often do have respect for its athletes and are conceptually aware MMA is a sport, but many have yet to emotionally commit to that idea. Whether or not Strikeforce, Walker and his fight with Nagy are the forces who are going to adjust those attitudes is certainly debatable (although with Walker's repeated defense of MMA, he makes a strong case for himself). What is not up for debate, however, is how celebrated figures who are historically revered by program directors, producers and editors across the sports media establishment have the unmatched ability to force aforementioned influencers to pay attention to MMA.That is not up for debate. I have witnessed it up close and personal and there isn't a Sengoku fight or fighter on the books that could even come close to matching the former Heisman Trophy winner's ability.

Will some of those influencers watch a Herschel Walker fight and leave with the impression MMA is little more than a freakshow even more reinforced in their minds? Probably. Some stalwarts cannot be budged. Most reasonable people, however, will begin to notice the differences. They'll notice some fighters are strikers, some are grapplers, some appear to be exceptional athletes and sometimes the action is riveting. And that's progress. A common mistake among hardcores is that in order to properly respect MMA one must become a hardcore fan him or herself. Not true. A little progress in the hands of the powerful is not to be scoffed at, and a little more coverage in the mainstream sports press helps MMA position itself alongside other traditional sports. And with that positioning comes more of the trimmings enjoyed by other sport's leagues that we all so desperately crave.

As we move forward, let us be mindful of our origin. We cannot surrender our standards and principles - those that have brought us closer to our self-identification as sport - for cheap entertainment that could undermine validity, but we must also be mindful of our evolution. We must be aware of how those in positions of power who can help us turn MMA into what we want it to be and where it needs to go can, over time, have their views adjusted. The recipe for change involves many ingredients, all of them both sufficient and necessary. But before we can demonstrate the potency of this dynamic sport, we have to have the most essential ingredient of them all: their attention.

Herschel Walker is no Fedor, but Fedor is no Herschel Walker.

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