Right now, I feel awful. I have one of the worst cases of the flu I have ever had in my adult life. If you are the kind of person who gets flu shots, don't wait, this year's version is brutal. When I am sick I have to do things to keep my mind off of how I'm feeling. I have been thinking about the cage in MMA, the Octagon in UFC, and I am beginning to think maybe its time has passed.
I was watching the thoroughly enjoyable UFC doc "Ultimate Gracie" the other night when this thought started to ruminate in my head. I enjoyed Art Davie explaining how he constructed the model for what would become the UFC. As he described the process, he unveiled the original "Octagon" design as a big part of the overall sales pitch with which he raised hundreds of thousands of dollars and obtained a PPV partner. From that point on the Octagon became something symbolic of the UFC. It helped define their brand in a unique way
The debate over the ring vs the cage is not a new one. It has been exhausted at different levels. But, I think we are entering a new era in MMA here in the states and perhaps worldwide.This is just my opinion but I believe that MMA and specifically the UFC are reaching a saturation point. What I mean by this is they have netted as many casual fans as possible thru the use of TUF, major sponsorship, other television avenues, and of course the box office buster; Brock Lesnar. It seems the ceiling in the states is somewhere around 10-12 million fans, ranging from die hard to casual. At UFC 100, with an unbelievably stacked card, we saw the ceiling for how many of those fans would actually buy a Pay Per View, a number that likely won't be eclipsed in the foreseeable future. Also, with the exception of last year's Kimbo Slice fueled TUF season, the show's numbers have been in decline. The casual fan is starting to tune out. Why? Is it a matter of they have seen all the came to see, their curiosity is satisfied, some of the wrestling that is dominating the sport has bored some of them? Possibly a combination of all these things.
We have also seen each and every other promotion outside of the UFC either struggle to survive or go down in flames. Strikeforce has done a good job of growing from a regional promotion to a player on the national stage but even they seem stalled. Some of that is due to the fact that their management at times appear to be utterly rudderless. I believe they can grow much larger than they are now with some intelligent promoting and increased production value but their viewership has also declined.
Over the course of the last decade we watched MMA, and particularly the UFC, explode in growth but that is now beginning to slow and may even be reversing. There is a chance that this might be cyclical but even in cyclical situations something happens, an event that turns the tide back the other way. The Octagon, which was so controversial and so iconic to the history of the UFC, has also been the most polarizing element of MMA for the everyday sports fan. As the UFC grew it was the symbol of two bad asses getting in a cage and locking the door, it fed the base of its fans beautifully while it revolted many others. I don't think the UFC could ever divorce itself from the Octagon but it might be the thing that keeps the organization from growing past its previously reached heights. Psychologically, it is the biggest barrier for drawing in new fans, it probably has some effect on where the sport can be sanctioned. Nothing could provide more of a boost to the sport than to have a huge card headline Madison Square Garden. I just don't think it will ever get there in a cage.
Growing up my family was filled with huge boxing fans. If there was a fight on TV, Pay Per View, the radio, wherever it was on. When many of them first saw the UFC, the cage, they were revolted. They found it to be treating the fighter like animals. They would never let their kids watch it. Yet, at a very young age I watched Boom Boom Mancini kill a man on national television. I remind them of this and it gives them pause but they will never turn into MMA fans. The cage is too brutal a gimmick for them to get over. Same goes for a majority of the female audience.The cage will always be the taboo for many sports fans and will always limit the growth of MMA. It is what it is.
There are other benefits resorting to a ring could bring to MMA. Many of the wrestlers and dirty boxers that use the cage as part of their strategy, and at times bore us death, would not have that advantage to fall back on. There has been a ton of talk lately about how wrestling is hurting the sport. I won't delve deeply into that debate here. What I can do is look back at UFC 105 where you had one of the biggest names in the sport headlining the card and it was televised on Spike. The main event of that card between Couture and Vera was one of the most boring bouts I had watched in a long time. I'm certain that it hurt the UFC with the casual fan. You can even look at the Rampage-Evans fight which had so much hype backing it yet the main event itself was dull, disappointing many casual fans. You could not have those kind of fights in a ring.
It would be an unfathomable risk for the UFC to move to a ring. I don't think they will ever do it because the Octagon is so ingrained in who they are. But, I wonder if they did would they lose current fans? Would it change the way the fights are viewed both from a strategic prospective and a moral prospective as well? Would it be more exciting? Would the sport get sanctioned in places like New York, the largest media market in the country? If the UFC can't do it, I think it would be a striking, bold move for Strikeforce to make the switch. It would be a distinctive difference between the two promotions and most of their current star fighters are already better suited to the ring. I could see promos for a CBS card airing during an NFL game with the ring and those fighters and the casual sports fan becoming at the very least curious, if not excited. Now, Strikeforce can't book the fights the fans want to see let alone make this kind of move. But, on this flu-fueled Saturday night this fan wonders "What if?".