Over the past two decades, mixed martial arts has carved a highly sustainable niche in the North American sports market due to one primary factor: its product is eminently digested by the coveted young, male demographic. MMA is fast-paced, (relatively) simple to understand, and hyper-violent, appealing to a primal instinct often ignored or repressed in our everyday lives. The glossy packaging of the UFC has allowed this product to creep up to the very edge of mainstream popularity, a fact that members of the astute Internet fan community constantly obsess over, making it a sort of Holy Grail to be constantly pursued.
Whatever constitutes being "mainstream" - be it a lucrative network television deal or simply top billing on the evening's SportsCenter - has been positioned by MMA fans as the ultimate desire for the sport's consumers, athletes, and businessmen. "Mainstream" is a status that will surely validate the fandom of many who were with the sport in its dark ages, bring much greater revenue to the fighters who risk their health for our entertainment while also bringing in higher-caliber athletes, and maybe even purge the sport of unwanted tropes such as hideous fan apparel and Nu-Metal theme songs.
As MMA has gradually drawn nearer to mainstream acceptance, however, the culture of the sport seems to have developed an identity crisis.
North America's first real crossover star fighter was Chuck Liddell, with his mohawk, beer belly, and thunderous overhand right. Liddell's notoriety was as much a product of his rugged appearance and playboy lifestyle as it was his knockout prowess. The vacuum created by Liddell's decline and eventual retirement was filled by two fighters who couldn't be more different: Brock Lesnar, a brash, hillbilly former pro-wrestler; and Georges St. Pierre, a handsome yet quiet French-Canadian. Pulling in his wake a massive pro-wrestling fan base, Lesnar took the sport to new heights as its most charismatic, if controversial, figure. Through a combination of dominance, charm, and a rabid Canadian fan base, St. Pierre has become a massive draw in his own right, albeit not to the extent of Lesnar.
Over the past eight months, however, Lesnar has become somewhat marginalized. His dismantling at the hands of Cain Velasquez last October as well as recurrent intestinal problems have made him an afterthought in the heavyweight division. As for St. Pierre, well, he fights roughly twice a year for a promotion that runs ten times as many events. Neither man really carries the banner of MMA in North America. That task is left to - or, rather, commandeered - by the president of the UFC, one Dana White. And as the face of the UFC, he's cultivated an image that many fans loathe. More importantly, though, his personality has permitted or maybe even created an environment in which the sport's best fighters and biggest stars are prone to public relations nightmares the likes of which most major sports executives desperately try to avoid.
Therein lies the identity crisis to which I alluded earlier. The young male demographic that makes up MMA's "base", so to speak, generally disregards the frequent PR mishaps in the sport. Rather than condemning such actions, many of them enjoy Dana White calling Loretta Hunt a "fucking dumb bitch" or Joe Rogan calling Tomas Rios a "fag". Indeed, it's not a stretch to assume such expletives are a part of the "casual" fan's lexicon. But what is said amongst a dozen friends drinking beers and what comes from the mouths of two of the sport's most recognizable faces are completely separate matters. The UFC is a product, and as a sport it is attempting to be as widely palatable as possible without fundamentally changing the athletic competition itself. So, while the "base" rabidly eats up such snafus, it runs counter to the objective of making as many fans as possible, thereby going mainstream.
This topic has seen renewed interest in recent days after Quinton Jackson 's interview with Karyn Bryant following UFC 130. In that interview, "Rampage" flirted suggestively with Bryant, as he's done quite often with female reporters in the past. Most who saw the interview greeted it with laughter, though some went far into bigoted extremes that need not be repeated. Needless to say, the interview sparked quite a bit of controversy, with writers from Brent Brookhouse to Maggie Hendricks opining on the subject. To Hendricks, Jackson responded with claims that she must be "ass ugly." Joe Rogan chimed in by calling her "cunty". Unfortunately, most fans aware of the situation are in agreement with Jackson and Rogan and encourage such remarks as if they're some hard truth that needs to be spoken.
While these comments are certainly unsavory, the fact is that they alone will not inhibit the growth of MMA. What may, however, is the environment that fosters and encourages them, which has been cultivated ever since Dana White famously asked, "Do you wanna be a fucking fighter?" It's an environment in which vulgarity and insensitivity are commonplace, dismissed as the obvious, inevitable by-product of men who fight in a cage for a living.
Just two weeks ago, Kobe Bryant was fined six figures for using the same term that Rogan used. And while the two certainly aren't comparable in stature, the NBA is nowhere near the precarious position MMA currently is. What happens when families attempt to get into the sport, only to find a culture that not only allows but also extols such slander? If his own half-hearted apologies in the past are any indication, White doesn't want to risk losing his legions of fans over keeping his employees and fighters on the straight and narrow. After all, here is a man whose sympathies go out to convicted felon, cheater, and racist Chael Sonnen.
In the age we live, political correctness is very often an obstruction to honest discourse. It is, however, a fact of life, and one that must be dealt with to achieve any monumental task. Getting such a violent sport as MMA to the mainstream is one such monumental task. So when downright disgraceful statements are permitted, a stain is rubbed ever deeper into the fabric of the sport, and the image to be presented to the masses is increasingly vandalized. Stamping out this bigoted, insensitive culture is vital to the progression of MMA, and no one has more responsibility or capability to do so than Dana White himself. Too bad he seems to be as absorbed by the culture as any shirtless meathead with "JUST BLEED" plastered across his chest.
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