Mixed Martial Arts began with a sort of school-yard-argument ethos. If you put two guys in a fight, who would win? Wrestling vs. Karate, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu vs. Boxing, Taekwondo vs. Judo? MMA was a proving ground for the efficacy of combat disciplines; a place to put into practice martial arts often more given to sparring and theory than full-contact fighting.
When the dust cleared at UFC 1, questions were answered. BJJ was king.
Since then the sport has gone through iterations and evolution. Wrestlers took over (and still form the fundamental bedrock of modern MMA), strikers are now thriving; high risk kicks and attacks once thought the fantasy of baggy pants wearing senseis have made their mark. But, the most fundamental change has been that somewhere along the way, MMA became not a proving ground for different martial arts, but instead a proving ground for different people as martial artists.
By 2001 mixed martial arts, as a style, had taken over and become its own thing. Today, an MMA fight largely tells you who is better at MMA.
In part that had to happen; a natural evolution of people with different skill sets figuring out how not to get beat on by other people with other skill sets. But, it also had a very deliberate aspect to it, namely the UFC and their method of fight booking. In the late 90s the UFC shifted their booking style, from finding black belts looking to show their stuff ‘for real,’ over to finding experienced mixed martial artists who had a proven track record. People who knew how to fight.
There’s a solid argument that, had the promotion not made that shift, someone would have ended up getting killed. If there’s any great lesson to be learned from the early history of MMA, it’s that even very good, dedicated practitioners of individual martial arts are ill equipped to deal with the realities of cage fighting.
Men like Don Frye, Frank Shamrock, and yeah, even Tank Abbott perpetrated some shocking sanctioned violence because they were prepared to do more than just strike, just grapple, or just wrestle. Matchmaking had to evolve to face that reality. But when it did, there’s no denying that something was lost.
Generally speaking, the hardcore fan element from the early days of MMA drifted away from the UFC, just as the UFC drifted away from what got them interested in the first place. For some fans, Pride became the answer. The Japanese organization may have had its fair share of bringing in experienced fighters from big fight camps, but they were always willing to give some Olympic Judoka, Sumo wrestler, or K-1 star a chance to put on a show with MMA gloves.
Since Pride’s death in 2007, that element has more or less disappeared from MMA entirely. Organizations like the UFC, and even more notably early Bellator, have been geared toward a sports-entertainment style built on interchangeable athletes. You show up for the brand and the brand means MMA fighters fighting MMA fighters. Good for technical growth, good for consistency, but missing the pop of classic ‘what if a wrestler fought Robocop?’ matchmaking.
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All of this brings the modern UFC era and their new ownership into sharp perspective. The last couple of years have teased a slow shift back for the UFC. As has been the case all along, that’s part by necessity, part by design. A mediocre 2014 that ended with a downgraded credit ranking meant something had to change, but new ownership, new staff, and the necessities of growth mean that changes may have been part of the plan anyway.
However you want to approach the run up (either as a series of calamities and responses to them, or as a slow but inevitable transformation) the UFC and its matchmaking are becoming a fundamentally different beast than they were a decade ago. As Chuck Mindenhall noted in his recent editorial for The Ringer, “The new owners favor the eye candy/intrigue combination over fighter rankings/title relevance.”
This comes through in the pushing of young stars like Sage Northcutt and Paige VanZant, Dana White’s “Lookin’ for a Fight,” and an increased drive both from fighters and promoter to put together the most broadly appealing bouts possible in the moment. The fact that the UFC is actively courting a Conor McGregor vs. Floyd Mayweather Jr. PPV bout couldn’t put a plainer face on just what the UFC is trending toward.
This isn’t Randy Couture vs. James Toney with its deep undertones of “let’s embarrass this washed-up former star to prove a point” styling. White recently made a public offer of $25 million per-fighter to get the bout together. This is an opportunity to make money, to draw people in, and to do it using the biggest stars in combat sports today.
And weirdly, it’s also something of a return back to the beginning. What drew people to MMA in the first place: The spectacle of “What if?” Sure we’re now replacing senseis and brawlers with martially-inclined celebrities, but it’s the same tune, just in a different key. What happens when a pro wrestler fights a 23-year old BJJ brown belt? What happens when a reality TV star fights an under-sized former WMMA champ?
It doesn’t hurt either that there’s a broader trend in the MMA market surrounding this shift. Bellator, once the home of meat-and-potatoes, Unknown Fighter A vs. Unknown Fighter B matchmaking, has made a dramatic shift toward circus MMA. They’ve even brought back Royce Gracie and Ken Shamrock, just to put a fine point on it.
And Pride is back too. Of course, it’s called RIZIN FF now, but it’s so obviously Pride Fighting. Right down to the rules, the grand prix, and the near-absurd showmanship. More even than Bellator’s redirection, RIZIN’s arrival has served as a reminder of just what MMA had lost; that feeling of mystery. Not just for who will win when Fighter A meets Fighter B, but a real uncertainty as to what a fight between these two people would even look like?
Does Floyd Mayweather have any idea how to stop a double leg? Will Conor McGregor really just box against one of the greatest boxers in history? Those are the kind of questions that can keep a fan up at night, marveling at the potential for the absurd.
The other question, unfortunately, is how much of this can the UFC get away with? After 15 years of morphing into a brand-first pseudo-meritocracy, it’s worth wondering how easy it will be for them to shift directions. Or, how far they can shift before they become fundamentally unstable. Fighter unrest is already growing, with stars searching for bigger name fights and more money, and young fighters looking for more ways and means to become stars. Fighters want more guarantees just as the business model is shifting increasingly toward the unknown.
With threats of collective bargaining from talent beginning to brew, can the UFC afford to pay mega-stars $25-million a fight while giving newcomers $10,000 to show? There are more than 500 fighters under contract and the majority of them have their eyes on getting as big a piece of the pie as possible. Making showy, carnival fights helps reveal just how big that pie really is.
The UFC bringing back some of the spectacle that made them an instant sensation isn’t a bad thing. Merit-only MMA is even more niche in an already niche combat sports landscape. Carnival fights mean more interest, more money, and thus, more fights. But, it’s unclear whether or not that’s a future the UFC is actually prepared to embrace. A future where the attraction is the curiosity of the fight more than the consistency of the brand.