Sunday, April 25, 2010

The MMA Files – Part 2 The Establishment Clause: Professional Boxing vs. Professional MMA

The world of pro boxing is a fairly convenient place to draw up the foundations of an argument for mainstream combat sport recognition. It is long established has a deep history, and a vast cast of characters. What then of a sport just coming into its late adolescence, like Mixed-Martial Arts? As a young sport, MMA is currently in the process of figuring out what it is going to be. Starting out as a freak-show in the hey-day of pay-per view in the early to mid-1990s, MMA grew into a legitimate sport by the turn of the century, thanks to there being serious athletes involved with the events alongside the chancers and circus geeks. Now, seventeen years after its founding, the Ultimate Fighting Championships has helped to establish the sport’s legitimacy, creating something more than a mere-hybrid combat sport. MMA is now a “style” of fighting unto itself. So much so, that traditional martial arts schools and boxing gyms have began to advertise MMA training on their shingles.

The boxing mainstream are not particularly impressed. Floyd Mayweather has famously dissed the sport, going so far as to say that MMA is a “fad,” and veteran boxing journalist and pro wrestling historian, Bert Sugar, also panned MMA as a flash in the pan; a sport fit only for those bored of pro wrestling’s antics. Time will tell, but the box office and sell-through numbers for UFC events don’t lie. Arena sell-outs, record breaking pay-per view events, and consistently high ratings for the UFC’s reality show, The Ultimate Fighter, all speak to the UFC’s commercial legitimacy, at least in the short-term.

That being said, MMA still has some distance to go before anyone forwards it for inclusion as a demo sport in the 2048 Olympiad. It bears repeating that boxing had to jump through a lot of hoops to become legitimate in the eyes of the general public. In its early days, boxing was a lot closer to human cockfighting than MMA ever was. Bare-knuckles, fights-to-the death, and dank basements where the rules of the day before the Queensbury rules of 1867. The 143 years since Queenbury have allowed a space for professional boxing to develop its mainstream legitimacy. MMA, thanks mainly to sanctioning infrastructure developed by and for boxing, has leapfrogged much of this glacial establishment process. It has, in essence, placed itself squarely in the same culture a professional boxing. Las Vegas is the UFC’s headquarters. It’s smaller cards are in casinos rather than arenas. Ring announcers in tuxes and pretty girls carrying round-number cards are the order of the day. Nonetheless, a vocal core of boxing devotees continue to minimize the successes professional MMA has enjoyed over the past decade.

Why is this? There is the usual upstart rap that goes with every new cultural product, especially a new pro sports venture. Truth to be told, they nearly all fail miserably. Indoor soccer leagues, the XFL, arena football, legitimate professional wrestling, these and others have all been tried, and one is wont to not get fooled again. Americans, and perhaps leisure-based cultures in general, are very conservative when it comes to what professional sports they are willing to watch during prime time. Even hockey, once the forth leg of America’s sports table, has fallen back to second tier status. Boxing fans like what they like, and they like the parameters of their culture. MMA is consciously horning in on that cultural space. And, as the UFC’s acquisition of former IBF champion, James Toney suggests, MMA may also threaten to steal away their stars.

Oddly enough, boxing seems to be the only combat sport that feels this need to be defensive. I don’t think we hear a lot from the K1 kickboxers or the Greco-Roman Olympians regarding the legitimacy of the fledgling sport. In fact, at least one MMA promotion, Strikeforce, has felt comfortable blending MMA matches with kickboxing contests on several of their cards. Boxing feels threatened because … well, they have never really had competition. The other combat sports have never caught on in the professional ranks in America the way boxing has. Professional wrestling, boxing’s clownish, cousin, has long since relinquished any claim to legitimacy and has even cut itself off from the genuine historical ties it shares with boxing via their historic tradition of co-promotion. Only MMA has displayed true credentials in the market as a competitor to boxing.. It is obvious that it can make money, therefore, critics must attack MMA as a kind of faddish non-sport. Usually this involves lobbing easy volleys at the fans themselves. They aren’t sports fans but “spectacle” watchers. The kind of people who rubber-neck freeway crash carnage and play ultra-violent video games. Truth to be told, MMA fandom certainly houses such rabble. But then again, are there not hockey fans who primary interest in the sport is the violence rather than skating or stick prowess?

And depending on the location, the venue, and the card in question, an MMA event may attract a lot of these people (made more surly by the access to beer). When televised, their numbers are signified by the rampant booing that can be heard when grappling and wrestling are involved in the match. They want to see punches. They want to see strikes. Frankly, they want to see an old timey boxing match! But these people are not the rank-and-file of MMA fans. They are casual fans, and indeed, probably casual sports fans. Ask any MMA blogger his or her opinion on the topic and you will get an essay on what a “real MMA fan” is all about. It has to do with appreciation of the balance of skills that go into making a well-rounded fighter. Strikes, kicks, take-downs, grappling, “dirty boxing,” transitions, defense, recovery, strategy. They will also talk about “dream” matches and how one fighter is up and coming or down and out or ready to make a comeback. They love the narratives and the drama. Long build up to the big match. The obscure under carder who might one day be someone.

In other words, there is something about passion here, isn’t there? A concern for the display and execution of athletic excellence in the direction of another athlete who may or may not be as prepared, as skilled, or as lucky as the other guy. The passion is something that a lot of “real boxing fans” have or have had for their sport, and it is something this upstart new sport, still in its adolescence, is generating in millions of people around the world.

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