I've got to come off like that just to get a fight. You're going to point the finger, make me the bad guy. I'm the bad guy. Now I get a fight. The only reason why I'm getting this fight is because everybody wants to see me take an a**-whipping right about now. - Nick Diaz
People like stories. We always have and our attention generally gravitates towards the better storytellers among us - musicians, long-running television shows, hit movies, teenage angst novelists and so on. However, in the midst of all this story-consuming, we forget sometimes that each of these storytellers is attempting to assemble some kind of narrative that the public at large can jump on and devour. These people are not necessarily trying to tell us the most accurate story or the best story possible; they want to put out the story that makes the most money for the storytellers.
This motive is the entire raison d'etre for having anything besides public access television on our screens at all: having a compelling narrative means people pay attention and when people pay attention, allowing advertisers to sell stuff equals money pouring in. The prevalence of this "compelling story = money" mode of thought has gotten so embedded into our culture that it is hard to prevent ourselves from the risky behavior of constantly constructing stories around certain facts - what I call the creation of a narrative or storyline- and then cherry-picking facts and signs to fit within that narrative. We run the risk of ignoring reality and the possible presence of facts that do not fit the narrative and yet the audience and the media keep building stories like how Sports Player X is "clutch" or that Steve Jobs was the next thing to a god on Earth.
For whatever reasons, the stories we flip out over are rooted in conflict - which meshes well with live sports and mixed martial arts in particular. It is hard to get a more direct conflict than to have two people in a cage trying to beat each other up for pride, fame and fortune. That may very well be the essential appeal of the sport. The format of mixed martial arts at the highest levels lends itself readily to any storyline that the quartet of promoters, fighters, media and fans can make sticky - or memorable to the largest audience possible.
So how do you sell Nick Diaz? Or Carlos Condit? Are they easily reduced to straightforward protagonist/antagonist roles and readily served up in bite-sized promo videos? Is doing the Countdown trash-talking and mean-mugging the best way to sell fights or can we shift to the Primetimes and independent serial videos like The Reem (despite their associated problems)?
From a lifetime of observing and consuming these narratives in all forms, I can tell you that what really gets the gears going is when we see a hero fight a villain. The problem is that in elite mixed martial arts, there are no real heroes or villains. Everybody at the highest levels is already a somewhat similar combination of unusual talent and relentless dedication to self-improvement with plenty of ruthless dispatching of skilled opponents already in their past. Nobody stepping into the cage these days is a fat, grizzled felon who savaged their way to the top. We do not have the avatar of a monolithic Cold War side like Alexander Karelin to root against. The differences between fighters is more subtle these days and that makes marketing a bit more difficult.
At this point, The Reem might be the most loved video serial in MMA. It does a brilliant job of marketing Alistair Overeem too. Eldar Gross and Fabrice Deters have nearly unrivaled access to a prominent fighter and their videos impart a sense of urgency and impending superstardom to the recent happenings in Overeem's career. But what happens if the upcoming title bout against Junior dos Santos fizzles as a PPV or if Alistair loses? Is the narrative wrecked? Or do they gloss over and/or ignore those inconvenient facts like they did with the Golden Glory split, the Strikeforce non-fighting, or the various nightclub incidents that Overeem has been in over the years? I see the appeal of The Reem, but I do not trust it fully and the words of Bas Rutten, who has been critical at times, and others only serve to reinforce that attitude. Plus, I suspect that the videos could be done better.
From a videography point of view, the decision to make The Reem almost entirely in black and white is a curious one. This is not the mid-90's. Gross and Deters are not using film stock. The lighting seems to be relatively controlled despite the wide variance in conditions and locations. Perhaps what really drives the choice is the desire to appear "historic" - which is exactly what the narrative of The Reem is trying to sell: Alistair Overeem's historic rise to the top of the various combat sports he participates in.
While I enjoy most of the music choices within The Reem, the soundtrack would never survive a first look at the potential copyright clearance budget. This video series is never going to be pieced together and released in a longer form that is as that we experience it now. What's more is that despite the Reem team's attempt to not use too much UFC footage (see the multiple jumps between video sources for the Brock Lesnar fight), Zuffa might have some qualms about such commercial usage of their product.
All of that combines to drop The Reem down my list of favored combat sports narratives. At the same time, it opens the door for lesser knowns like Stuart Cooper and for random self-released videos like those of Jon Fitch and Pat Barry.
Cooper, the British videographer, recently released The Rise of Toquinho, which was in full color, showed rare glimpses of training footage and had extended interviews with newsworthy figures in the life of Rousimar Palhares - all without music copyright violations or going all greyscale on us. Unfortunately, Cooper's last two videos - the Evolution of BJJ for Braulio Estima, the reigning ADCC Superfight champion, and Jeff Monson's Time for a Change - have gone greyscale (perhaps in response to The Reem). Given Cooper's access and connections, I would not be surprised if Cooper works with more fighters like Rafael dos Anjos to make more "Road to [Fight[" serials.
How many of you saw the Pat Barry/Cro Cop singalong video? Jon Fitch chopping down the tree with his shin? These two fighters are perhaps the best at showing the randomity of life beyond the training and the cage. However, the audience has responded much more viscerally to Barry for whatever reasons - perhaps for his back and forth fights - and the sly humor of Fitch goes almost unnoticed. Seriously, why isn't Fitch and Dave Camarillo playing Skyrim and interacting with fans in a surprisingly honest way a bigger deal? My point is that the fighters themselves, with their Twitter accounts, video cameras and easy access to fans, have the power to build their own narratives and Overeem and Barry seem to be connecting well with people despite using very different approaches.
Very few people lead simple enough lives to be fully encapsulated by a 30 second promo video. Nick Diaz certainly is not one of them, but his aggressive and insolent fight style lends itself well to snap judgments that go against his perceived character. His in-fight trash talking and unorthodox style fit the role of an antagonist better than anyone in recent MMA history. The promotional videos have made full use of this heel bonanza and the media frustrations with getting Nick to open up or to turn down his ornerniness level have led to a self-perpetuating cycle in which Nick believes everyone is making him out to be the bad guy and he is made out to be the bad guy because he rarely ever lets people see his good side or his interests outside of fighting and repping the difficulties of life in Stockton or Lodi, California.
The missed press conference appearances, the unwillingness to talk to anyone outside his group of trusted friends and family and the occasional cuss word directed at a nameless or faceless audience that hates him or wants to see him lose all perpetuate this cycle. When other fighters jump on the "Nick Diaz is a bad guy" bandwagon, as GSP did, the resulting media attention probably drives Diaz nuts.
This is where the Primetime series comes in - those videos are the single best chances for Nick to show that he is a multifaceted person who deserves to be spoken of with the same respect a "true" mixed martial arts athlete gets. Unfortunately, Nick doesn't care. The lack of give from Nick means that the people behind the Primetime series are having trouble constructing an easy-to-latch-onto narrative for Nick, so they try to split the difference and hope something sticks. Thus we get contradictions like Cesar Gracie telling us with those cold blue eyes that "Nick does not enjoy hurting people" while earlier, the narrator extolls Nick's brutal fight-winning patterns. What Cesar is telling us may be the truth, but it doesn't fit the narrative well and probably would have been left on the cutting room floor by a more unscrupulous editor. At least we have Nick as the bad boy to fall back on.
The same thing is happening with Carlos Condit. His career has been primarily one of knocking people out or submitting them, often after a slow start and putting his all into highly entertaining bouts. Yet, he is not a mega-star within the promotion and his personal life is as diverse and unreducable as Nick's is. The Primetime folks have yet to figure out how to reduce Condit to something easily digestible. The nickname has never fit and seeing Condit do grown-up things like renovate a house and keep strong ties with his extended family only serves to diffuse the narrative into a nearly incoherent mush.
Perhaps the approach of GSP is better: show nobody any hint of a personal life and focus all public attention on the incessant pursuit of mixed martial arts like some sort of real world Ivan Drago. The only problem with that is that the storyline is completely manufactured and the audience can turn on those Potemkin narratives as they do all the time in pro wrestling and other sports.
The careers of both Condit and Diaz are littered with Fight of the Year contenders and nearly every performance both have put on in the last three years has been stellar, savage and hopefully star-making because both fight in a way that MMA fans seem to gravitate towards (primarily stand-up, but gets a high number of finishes on the ground or standing). The problem with these two is that to reach the next level of visibility and stardom, they themselves have to get involved in and comfortable with creating narratives that the masses can understand - or become Brock Lesnar. I suspect that shift in attitude will never happen with Diaz and the jury is still out on Condit waking up in that respect.
Lest I seem facetious, I admit that creating a narrative with true stickiness is tough and the competing narratives put out by the aforementioned quartet can clash or blend to become a babble few pay attention to. Some narratives are more successful than others and short taglines and videos seem to dominate the format of the most effective pitches. Thus it is understandable that the biggest MMA promotions in the world try so very hard to attach some set of easily recognizable storylines to each event and record hype videos. Remember those taglines attached to the early numbered UFCs1?
The tagline for UFC 143 should be "Nick Diaz and Carlos Condit". However, it is coming off more and more like "The next guy to fight GSP".
1UFC 26: Ultimate Field of Dreams is my favorite, as it conjures up the bizarre mental image of some kind of event held in a cornfield where the bloody spikes of Ty Cobb would have been perfectly at home.