This weekend is a brief recess for both the UFC and Bellator MMA, which offers another promotion an opportunity to step into the breach and grab the attention of fight fans. On this occasion, it’s the latest offering from Triller Fight Club, as the upstart company debuts its Triad concept, a series of bouts between MMA and boxing notables under a custom rule set. In a climate where the idea of “MMA versus boxing” has had a surprising resurgence, a venture like this seems obvious. However, Triad may be more brainless than a no-brainer.
Saturday night at the Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, former UFC heavyweight champion Frank Mir will take on two-time boxing heavyweight title challenger Kubrat Pulev in the card’s headliner, while the undercard features the likes of Matt Mitrione facing Alexander Flores, and Mike Perry squaring off with Michael Seals. These fights will be contested under two-minute rounds, with eight-ounce, open finger gloves, in a triangular ring. In terms of striking, only punching is allowed, but clinch fighting is permitted, as well as the sorts of more exotic hand strikes you’d see in MMA, like spinning back fists and Superman punches. According to Triller braintrust, these rules are supposed to “level the playing field,” a dubious claim at best.
Oh, by the way, Metallica are performing live, as well.
It makes all the sense in the world for any promoter looking to make a splash to try to capture the modern renaissance of MMA-boxing crossover bouts. However, most of Triad’s bouts run contra to the factors responsible for the renewed interest in these kinds of fights. Triller founder Ryan Kavanaugh claims the Triad idea first came to him in the wake of the Vitor Belfort-Evander Holyfield fiasco in September, which was both a financial disaster and horrific, irresponsible spectacle, putting a 58-year-old, unfit Holyfield into a short-notice fight. Ironically, wacky rules aside, the Triad event seems to be the polar opposite of Belfort-Holyfield: the card, by and large, is pitting boxers closer to their physical prime against MMA fighters, some of whom, like Mir and Mitrione, are clearly on the backside of their careers.
The card has a lot of potential to turn into a mild embarrassment, or worse, a total shooting gallery. Unless you somehow believe skilled, trained boxers are going to be shocked and flummoxed by Superman punches, there is no “leveling of the playing field.” On top of that, so many of the rules seem misguided. You want to allow clinching, yet you have a triangular ring? Go watch any podunk midwestern MMA card from years past that inexplicably used a square cage and watch what happens. If you like watching people get trapped in corners, maybe this is right up your alley, but you’re in the minority. The rule set seems like a classic example of novelty for novelty’s sake, that only serves to hinder the fighters and by extension, hurt the fans.
Speaking of said fans, given all that I’ve said, I have to wonder: who is Triller Triad really for?
As I mentioned off the top, this weekend is a lull in MMA action before UFC and Bellator reboot the weekend after and there’s certainly a contingent of fight fans who will watch almost anything, especially if it’s got some name value involved. There’s also a certain kind of fight fan who has a morbid curiosity, the sort of inclination that has helped a lot of Triller’s previous ventures. However, there’s a vast difference in wondering if an unproven internet celebrity like Jake Paul could box up a legitimate albeit retired MMA fighter Ben Askren and what’s being offered here.
If we look at other recent MMA-boxing spectacles, they have a particular dynamic that makes them compelling. Take something like Anderson Silva against Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., for instance. Both fighters were in relatively similar states of degradation in their respective sports, so Silva delving in Chavez’s realm was intriguing. What is interesting about Frank Mir, whose ability to withstand damage has always been an issue, trying to box a former top-10 heavyweight like Pulev, whose only career losses were to legitimate world champions in Wladimir Klitschko and Anthony Joshua? Hell, even though Pulev is 40 years old and not a big puncher, the Joshua loss was less than a year ago, so it’s not like his performance has fallen off a cliff.
Yes, there are a sliver of fight fans that will find something like this worth a watch just to see what the hell happens, but again, it’s purely a novelty and many of these fans are probably hoping for some kind of cataclysm or car crash to take place; that’s not a renewable promotional gimmick. No combat sports promotion has ever had long-term viability by catering to a small fraction of the consumer base who are simply rooting for anarchic disaster.
On top of all of that, keep in mind that a sizeable part of this live audience, however large it might be — consider that they’re running a 40,000 seat baseball field and not a 18,000 seat arena — will simply be there to see Metallica. Writers covering Triller’s TrillerVerz cards, its co-promotion with Verzuz, have reported that large portions of the crowd who showed up to see the rappers on the bill were confused or surprised to learn that half the event was boxing matches. Likewise, how many fight fans, want to see a geriatric ersatz version of Metallica, even if they still personally rock out to “Master of Puppets”?
Historically speaking, the combination of live music and combat sports, whether its pro wrestling, kickboxing, boxing or MMA, simply doesn’t work. Those who show up for the music tend to be put off or annoyed by the fights, and the fight fans are jaded by sitting through a quasi-concert. I appreciate that Triller’s initial cash cow Jake Paul has moved on to a promotional contract with Showtime, but if the company is looking to find its new niche, the combination of fights-plus-music likely won’t be nearly as successful as it might appear on paper, based on 30-40 years of precedent.
Yes, there are people who will tune in on Saturday night, but they will do so simply with a smirk on their face, hoping for the worst. That’s not a fanbase to build a company around. So again, I ask: who exactly is Triller’s Triad Combat for?