Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Spectacle and Legitimacy: Brock Lesnar in the Ultimate Fighting Championship

Mixed martial arts fans were suspicious of former professional wrestler Brock Lesnar when he began his MMA career a scant two years ago. Coming on the heels of the embarrassing Kimbo Silce MMA debut (the street brawler choked-out 46 year old boxer, Ray Mercer) the signing of another “outsider” to a contract with a major promotion seemed to confirm a trend towards desperation and possible mediocrity. Desperation because the UFC had never had a strong heavyweight division. In an effort to thwart accusations of “freak show,” UFC president Dana White had been judicious about signing what he considered true athletes. Other organizations, notably Japan’s K1 and PRIDE promotions, had maintained deep heavyweight (and super-heavyweight) rosters. To be sure these rosters included many stellar athletes - Fedor, Crocop, Nogera, Arlovski, Overeem - but they also included “personalities, ” known more their size and/or antics than their ring skills, like Bob Sapp, Zuluhinio, “Giant” Silva, and Hong-Man Choi (who recently fought disgraced baseballer, Jose Conseco).

This mixing of the legitimate and the suspect in Japanese MMA promotions is understandable from a cultural perspective. In Japan, professional wrestling is arguably more “real” than it is elsewhere. The matches, though still staged and predetermined, are still highly competitive insofar as there is pressure to make the action look real, right down to the injuries the combatants often endure. It is telling that many of the superstars of Japanese “puroresu” have gone on to compete in mixed martial arts. Indeed, many will argue that MMA did not begin with the Gracie family, but with Japanese wrestling star, Antonio Inoki challenging Muhammad Ali to a boxing-verses-catch wrestling match in 1976. As a promoter, Inoki has organized dozens of events which mix Japanese pro wrestling matches with MMA bouts.

But in the west, where cultural expressions are more compartmentalized, there could not be a bigger gulf between the worlds of competitive sport and pro wrestling. This, despite the clear fact that many, many American pro wrestlers (including Lesnar, Kurt Angle, and Dan Severn) were highly decorated amateur wrestlers. But, until the UFC began showing a profit under the aegis of the mercurial Mr. White, there was really no place for the talented amateur wrestler (or judoka, ju-jitsuist, or samboiste, for that matter) to go to earn a living. Pro wrestling has been the only game in town for nearly a century.

So, without anywhere else to go, Lesnar joined the ranks of the WWE, played his roles, followed the scripts. and made his millions By any measure, he was wildly successful.

MMA provides something like “legitimate” professional wrestling, at least insofar as it provides a space for real Greco-Roman wrestling skill to be showcased. Wrestling can be thought of as one of a “holy-trinity” of core fighting disciplines in MMA, along with muy-thai kickboxing and Brazilian ju-jitsu (BJJ). Any elite fighter must possess skills in at least these three disciplines if he hopes to make a career in the UFC or any other promotion. Time and time again, highly skilled, mono-disciplined “specialists” fighters have fallen to “true” MMA fighters. Cases in point are numerous, but perhaps the key match of the recent history was Matt Hughes’ 2006, first-round TKO over Royce Gracie. Gracie, a master of his families’ signature brand of BJJ, was once considered unbeatable. In fact, the pre-White era of the UFC was essentially dominated by Gracie who would routinely make a show of dispatching any number of larger fighters. But against the more well-rounded Hughes (an Olympic-caliber wrestler with great strikes and a decent working knowledge of BJJ), he was simply outclassed.

(Although, in an after-fight interview, Gracie claimed that it was spiritual victory for BJJ, since Hughes did use techniques – and has gone on to use them more in subsequent bouts – in their match. It is probably truer to say that Hughes simply recognized that MMA is a style unto itself. The evolution of the sport, as evidenced by the recent decisive world-title victory by karate master, Lyoto Machida, suggests that being a “well-rounded’ fighter may not be enough in the long run. For as the sport grows, it will attract more exotic styles of fighting that would make training for an opponent even more challenging than it is presently. )

More recently, when Brock Lesnar met the smaller Frank Mir, the casual fight fan was shocked by Mir’s submission victory over the man-mountain. In truth, the kneelock that Mir used to get Lesnar to tap-out is seldom seen in the higher ranks of the sport. Learning to counter such a move is considered “ju-jitsu 101.” Lesnar, having essentially taken a crash-course in MMA in the year leading up to his professional debut, simply didn’t have the defense in his store of knowledge. His mindset may have been closer to Gracie’s in this respect.

But Lesnar is a quick study. Six months later, Lesnar took apart hard-traveling workhorse Heath Herring like a cat playing with a wounded sparrow. It wasn’t a finesse match, it was simply a matter of Lesnar methodically keeping the pressure on Herring. He bloodied his opponent for three rounds and took a unanimous decision. (It should be noted that Herring was a replacement fighter for the former UFC champion, Mark Coleman, who had to bow-out due to injury.) Lesnar was now 1-1 in the UFC. Then, in a move that continues to seem inexplicable to many, the UFC granted Lensar a title shot against the champion, Randy Couture. After only three total MMA matches, the former WWE superstar was getting a shot at the marquee title in mixed martial arts. Lesnar, who has often said in interviews that he has “never been given anything,” was gifted the opportunity of a lifetime.

The outrage among MMA fans was two-fold. First, MMA fans are skeptical of pro wrestlers in general. Second, what happened to “rising through the ranks”? The typical career-arc of an MMA fighter is to start out in the boondocks with a small promotion, get a year or two of wins under his belt, then graduate to a major promotion. In fact, the UFC has essentially created its own farm league (at least for lighter weights) with its acquisition of the WEC promotion. And though there are no ties formal or informal, the UFC maintains a friendly relationship with California-based MMA and kickboxing promotion, Strikeforce. These organizations and dozens of smaller ones throughout the US and the rest of the world have fed the UFC’s rosters. Fighters aspire for an opportunity to compete in the UFC’s octagon, even if it is only on the non-televised portion of a pay-per view undercard. But Lesnar did not follow this route, and nor did he express any particular gratitude or sense of awe for having been contracted by the UFC. Lesnar simply saw (correctly) that the UFC was only game in town if you wanted to make real money dolling out real pain.

For his part, Dana White may have seen Lesnar as a way to bolster a sorely lacking heavyweight division. In truth, the UFC has never had a terribly strong roster of heavyweights. Of their 70 numbered main-cards since UFC 30 (the beginning of the Zuffa/White era) 31% of the cards have featured no heavyweight division matches. In fact, half of the last 30 numbered events featured no heavyweight matches in the main card at all. Promotional emphasis has traditionally focused on the light-heavyweight and welterweight divisions. (UFC 84 was an exclusively light-heavyweight main card.) White has had great success in promoting individuals and building heat for main events. Chuck Liddell, arguably the Zuffa-era’s first cross-over superstar, headlined event after event fighting as a light heavyweight. Matt Hughes, BJ Penn, George St.-Pierre, and the WEC’s Urijah Faber have all become highly popular and bankable commodities fighting in the lower weight divisions. Even Randy Couture, the UFC’s iconic heavyweight champion, is perhaps best known for his matches as a light-heavyweight, where he was also a two-time champion in the division.

With the dissolution of UFC’s most significant competition, the Japan-based PRIDE organization – a heavyweight, and even SUPER-heavyweight intensive promotion – the UFC assumed it would see a flood of new heavyweight talent knocking on its door. Highest on the list were no-doubt a trio of fighters who had been super-star heavyweights overseas: “Minotauro” Nogueria, Mirko “CroCop,” and Fedor Emelienko. All three represented lucrative gates wherever they fought. Fedor, the last PRIDE heavyweight champion and current World Alliance of Mixed Martial Arts champion, is the only one of the trio to have not made the move to the UFC. Indeed, with the exception of PRIDE lightweight champion, Takanori Gomi, all of the active marquee fighters of the PRIDE organization have fought in the UFC in recent months. And though the UFC has fulfilled many an MMA’s fan’s “dream matches” by pitting the likes of the Wanderlai Silva against Chuck Liddell, the long hoped for UFC debut of Fedor in the octagon has never come to pass. Indeed, after the lackluster showings of both CroCop and Nogueria in their UFC matches (Nogueria did win the UFC’s interim-heavyweight title from glorified gatekeeper, Tim Sylvia. He is 2-1 so far in the UFC, and looked terrible against Frank Mir.) the PRIDE “bump” has not really done much good for the UFC heavyweight division. Recently, Dana White has asserted that Fedor’s arrival in the UFC is “gonna happen” for sure. Fans are cautiously optimistic, but they won’t be holding their breaths.

Lesnar’s entrĂ©e into the UFC ranks and quick promotion to the contender status (despite an early major loss) may be seen as the first part of an expansion program for the division. A program that includes the arrival of extremely promising newcomers like Shane Carwin (11-0), Cain Velasaquez (6-0) ,and Junior Dos Santos (8-1), and the premier of a new season of the Spike TV reality show, The Ultimate Fighter dedicate exclusively to heavyweights. Among the behemoths vying for a chance to compete for the organization on TUF is the famous street brawler and internet sensation, Kimbo Slice. Much reviled by the MMA community, Slice did earn some stripes competing in official capacities for the now-defunct (and disgraced) EliteXC promotion, but hype and promotion meant that the 35 year old Bahamian was pushed to main event status too quickly. And unlike Lesnar, the background didn’t quite square with ambition. He lost miserably against a modestly talented mid-carder who was brought in to replace Ken Shamrock at the last minute. But the parallels between Lesnar and Slice (Seth Petruzelli is no Frank Mir, but the losses are approximately proportional given their respective athletic backgrounds) suggest that the desire for show and spectacle may be entering into the machinations of Dana White, et al, in ways that may conflict with White’s desire to built the sport’s appeal in the mainstream of sports. Heavyweights, in MMA as in boxing, are what the popular culture tend to gravitate towards. The typical casual fan can quickly name five heavyweight boxers, but how many welterweights can he name?

Lesnar experienced little trouble in dispatching Couture in the second round of their match for the title. After the win, though he essentially kept a civil tongue, Lesnar was not exactly the figure of grace, gratitude, or relief at having overcome the champion. In every interview, Lesnar comes off as angry, as though the world owes him a boon. Winning (even in pro wrestling) usually heals over bitterness. The closest he has ever come to seeming happy or pleased with a match result was when he scowled and mocked Herring after the last round of their match. In short, Lensar is playing the classic heel. He is playing the role of the “bad man,” the love-to-hate figure of scorn so endemic of the world of pro wrestling. The interesting thing is that the attitude crossed over to his MMA life like a weed in new soil. More interesting is that the response from MMA fans goes beyond the theatrical boos and hisses directed towards a WWE villain. The very act of playing a role in an MMA context is anathema to the sport’s pretentions of mainstream legitimacy.

In short, the fans hate Lesnar because he is a dick, and because he is playing the role of a dick. Is this “natural” Brock Lesnar behavior? Or is it a trait massaged by White to generate “heat” and interest? The real question, I suppose, does not concern Lesnar so much as it does White. How much are his motives governed by a Barnum-like desire to generate spectacle? And can his (I’m sure ) desire to grow the sport along lines of legitimacy and respect for athleticism endure his natural and healthy desire to grow the business along the lines of market realities that favor sugar over substance?

I suppose if 2024 we are watching Olympic MMA, we will know the answer.

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