Too many weeds in the grass roots of MMA
Mixed Martial Arts, No Holds Barred, Free Fighting or what ever it gets called has been “the fastest growing sport” for over twenty years now. The UFC has taken the mantle inside the mostly English speaking world as being the premier stage by which a fighter can aspire to. Getting there is harder than many realise. Certainly, elite level athletes and performers from other arenas are fast tracked to the highest level of MMA competition, Pride FC and K 1 in its heyday was not above such a spectacle of throwing together illogical mixed matches based on celebrity appeal. But for most of the regular fighters, the meat and bone of the sport they must grind hard among the dirt and sweat of the canvas to get noticed enough to be invited into the big time.
Australia had its fair share of early MMA fighters, fighters such as Chris Haseman, Larry Papadopoulos, Elvis Sinosic, Anthony Lange and Alex Cook among others represented the land down under in the arenas of mixed combat long before most Aussies even knew what a Jiu Jitsu was. After men such as these had tested their selves against the best on the planet, gained the experience and helped to inspire a new generation of fighter, into the 2000s Australia began to see a swelling of fighters at all levels as well as shows. Though Australia and New Zealand has its share of combatants make it onto the big time, longevity at a higher level seems to be elusive.
MMA shows began to blossom in each state, even those with the most restrictive regulatory bodies began to succumb as popularity and potential revenues began to sway their concerns. Soon MMA was everywhere. Gyms that had despised the grappling nature of MMA suddenly had a blue belt in BJJ running classes. Despite never having fought MMA, martial arts instructors that rallied against the ‘ill-disciplined barbarity’ of the sport were making big dollars by having MMA as part of their syllabus. Belts were awarded in MMA, not title belts but fabric multi level marketing schemes honouring would be participants a prize for their spent dollars.
Money was being made everywhere, except in the actual fighting. Regardless scores of fighters stuck at it, they fought once, twice a few times and some made it past ten with records being usually a mixed bag due to the complicated nature of the sport. Matchmaking was perilous and was seldom based on skill or concern for longevity but often on mere availability of fighters. It only got worse as the 2010s waned on. Promoters used BJJ rankings as a means to value MMA fighters, with a lack of real amateur competition it was hard to gauge a fighter’s traits. Those that entered were often doing so with the paint and glue drying on their fuselage, hardly ready for a dog fight let alone flight. But eagerness and a need to fill cards was often all it took. Yawning crowds and poorly developed talent failing terribly slowly etched into a theme, while those running shows and officiating boasted a good show despite having no contrast to compare such a conclusion with.
Despite the claims that MMA is the biggest thig since the last biggest thing, on many shows MMA main event fighters are paid less than what undercard fighters are on pro boxing shows. The career length of most MMA fighters is quite short as many simply enter the arena for a few fights, never to return. The sport is increasingly inserting itself into the common vernacular and despite that talent inside the cage has peaked and numbers of those interested in fighting are not as common as other combat sports. What could be inhibiting the growth and development at the grass roots of MMA?
In the past, when a new gym, one whose coaches or reputation had not been earned inside the arena, promoters and match makers would often ask a familiar, a respected opinion to have a look at a fighter before allowing them entry onto a show. I had to go through this, it was an interview process requiring third parties with credibility vouching for me before I had my debut fight. And in turn once I had gained a reputation inside the arena, I also was asked to vouch for fighters that I had either trained with or watched in training. Sometimes the promoter put them on despite concerns on my part, other times they were denied. This was the process. It is likely rarely done these days. Reputation use to matter, and because it is less relevant more and more fighters are rushed from the gym and into the arena with the knowledge that their opponent is as likely to be ill prepared as them. I unfortunately have found myself doing this as a coach in more recent outings.
Social media has almost taken over in the regard to engagement between talent and promotion. A promoter can look at two factors when a would be fighter requests a bout, actual footage that is shared on the platform. This is good, it can give one a keyhole into the living room of this persons training, provided the matchmaker-promoter has the eyes to see the difference between good or bad talent. The other factor, usually more telling one is how active and popular these people are on social media, meaning how much free promotion for the event and ticket sales can this person bring in. Talent be damned, often it’s a social media popularity contest not about fighting well. And if a deluded individual can seduce others into following and liking their account, then who is the promoter to deny them their opportunity, and guaranteed sales. A fast track onto a bigger regional show despite any real competition experience.
Some promoters will not take self nominations from a fighter, it must come from a coach. The gym will in turn nominate a fighter, sometimes a gym may have far too many fighters on a card with a terrible night of results. One would hope that valuable lessons could be learned as losing is part of the game. But sadly this is not the case for some and instead eagerly the gym will re nominate fighters on the next card and again, without any real lessons addressed the results can often be the same. Taking only nominations from a coach is for the most part wise, except most coaches are only that in name. And plenty of fighters are independent who attend gyms in a more nomadic nature. Many fighters take it upon themselves to train and prepare, with the coach being a guy coming along for the ride.
Amateurs or just an Unpaid Undercard?
If one was to attend an amateur boxing event they would be able to determine that they were watching amateurs. Not because the skill level is poor but because of the dress code, the rules and the lay out. Amateur boxing is a completely different animal to professional boxing. Success as an amateur does not ensure that one will go on to be a super star pro. It does however allow one to gain experience, as little or as much as they may. It is also a gateway to competition, usually the crowds are filled with family, friends and training partners with a few avid spectators interested in the sport. The crowds at professional shows are more there solely to be entertained. An amateur event is about the competition itself, while a professional one is usually about entertaining beer swigging spectators who have paid for tickets or a table.
Inside the amateur ranks a boxer can accumulate hundreds of fights, participate in tournaments and while the Olympics does help to inspire these athlete’s direction, it is not the end of their course. Boxing exists and does well despite the political arena of the Olympic games. The amateur arena could see teenagers with a few bouts facing veterans in their thirties with countless matches on their hip. The rules and nature of the sport usually limit the consequences of the potential for injury. Most of all the frequency of competition allows gyms to determine who is ready or not to compete. This often is a better measuring stick for readiness than any governing bodies, experienced coaches and a gyms reputation use to mean something. Amateur boxing has slumped with an excess of regulation, a dependency on grants and a general disinterest in boxing among what were traditionally supportive populations. It is still alive and well. And how an amateur performs even under those rules is generally a good indicator about their readiness to turn pro. Good amateurs tend to also organically generate heat, an interest and following that will follow them into the pro ranks. The stark difference between professional and amateur sports. Entertainment versus competition. Many promoters and governing bodies see otherwise. They want entertainment only.
MMA is nothing like this. It is near impossible in some government dominions to put on what is essentially a sparring day without fear of legal recourse. Instead it is some how better to force up and coming talent to compete on professional shows or in a professional atmosphere with a crowd that usually can not tell a difference between “pro” and “am” other than being told. In most MMA, amateur usually means that one is an unpaid undercard fighters. The ability to introduce interested fighters is inhibited because the platform is geared to spectacle and not as a sporting competition. Take an amateur wrestling competition or a sports karate tournament, most of those in attendance are competitors or familiars. Usually more than one match is occurring at once and experience and competition is more important than ticket sales and entertainment of the audience. Amateur competition should be in the morning on a weekend inside a gymnasium, where fun and competition is paramount. At present in some jurisdictions it is a Saturday night event held in a pub or large venue, tickets and alcohol are sold.
Should a MMA talent wish to remain amateur they cannot, often after a fight or few they are forced into the pro ranks, where they can either become fodder or decide that the few bucks is not worth it. Whereas in other combat sports-martial arts competitors compete a lot and do not really start to develop until they have had scores of matches. MMA does not allow the talent to develop at all. It cooks them too quickly and once they fail, injure or become overwhelmed they tend to disappear. I have seen this often. I have also witnessed first hand the reaction to a FILA (international wrestling body) sanctioned event being shut down because it had amateur MMA competition. Proper and by far safer amateur competition than what is occurring currently inside the same state. What the reaction came down to was not safety or concern but how much money could be extorted from the competitors and the event organisers. And this is usually the crux of it all.
Fighters come last
Governing bodies and event promoters often butt heads when it comes to their unique concerns. Both have their own goals and interests. The promoter wants to put on a show, sell tickets and hopefully make money doing so. MOST governing bodies want to use their credibility as currency to both sanction the event while also ensuring it follows safety guidelines for the talent involved, while also sometimes making money. The Government wants to get involved and insert its claws where it can, get its cut and claim it made it safer by ALLOWING the event to happen. And despite those interested parties butting heads and getting their cut, there is little left for the fighters. No input asked, no concerns listened to and for most of those competing no real money to be made, at least to satisfy dignity and risk. It is for the love of the sport though, we are often told (often by those who have never dared to enter mind you). The fighter is often the least listened to and concerned element when it comes to fight shows, this is widely known by all FIGHTERS. Those using the fighters for so many reasons and apparently concerned about them, never listen to or seek any guidance from them as to how a show or the sport can be improved. The talent is transitory after all and more will come and go. Longevity is for the others, not those doing the fighting.
The promoter with their need to sell tickets to justify their hard work, risk and organisation not to mention paying all involved need to sell tickets and gain sponsors, is under an immense focused pressure. It is in the selling of tickets that much of the wider public do not consider to be entirely out of their control. From each ticket sold, usually, the venue, ticketing agency and state government gets a cut leaving flakes of the crust and some of the pie for the promotion. This usually causes the promotion to increase the ticket price which in turn can deter many from wanting to come and watch the show. This is a real problem when you have up and coming talent and amateurs because most people do not want to pay a lot of money to watch lower tier talent, especially amateurs. The high ticket prices also does not relate to the fighters getting paid any better, because, usually, most fighters get little or none of that cut. Some shows offer incentives for fighters to get a piece of a ticket if it is sold with their name attached to online presales, this assumes that the websites are working. Recently I have observed that has been an issue. For the lower tier fighters and much of the main event talent, this is a more recent thing, at least consistently so.
Because of the need to sell tickets, unpaid amateurs are begged by promoters to push for ticket sales and to help promote the event. This seldom if at all occurs in other amateur sports. Those ‘professionals’ who fill the under card are lucky enough to get paid a couple of hundred dollars are also asked to push for sales and use their social media accounts to hawk as many sales. The focus on training and being a talented athlete is sometimes second to Vlogging and shilling for a promoter, who forgets that you are supposed to be a fighter first. The need to promote and entertain is of paramount importance for the fighters, despite being under card fillers for regional shows. Bigger gyms then in turn tend to find themselves invited onto shows not, necessarily because they have better fighters but because more ticket sales are usually a sure thing. These gyms sometimes being awarded a small piece of each ticket sold as an added incentive, or with all of their logos and team attire on display a platform to advertise. It follows the same formula that amateur theatre had, put on a show with a big cast because they will all invite friends and family along, thus ensuring more sales.
MMA is MMA and not a hybrid.
Since its recent popularity the modern-day version of Pankration and Vale Tudo has been wrongly considered a hybrid sport. This back to front view has both skewered the history of no holds barred bare hand fighting while also adding into the mix a degree of confusion for both fans and participants. Short of delving into a history lesson, no rules or limited rules combat predates most other combat sports. Including the variants of wrestling and boxing. It is in fact from these NHB origins that many of the more recent combat sports were born. The generic term Mixed Martial Arts has also added to the monstrosity of misunderstandings when it comes to free fighting. What was once used as a simple reference to soften harsher sounding monikers such as Submission Fighting, Few Rules Combat, No Holds Barred or Reality Fighting, the name ‘MMA’ stuck along with the gloves and ever swelling regulatory commissions who helped the label to become a fixture.
The belief that one can simply learn some boxing, throw in some BJJ and add a bit of Muay Thai is grossly ignorant and long term harmful for the sport and a fighter. While it is true that the modern inception of NHB was an infomercial to prove which martial art worked best under the setting, the sport has evolved for better and worse. The generic term MMA is seductive, someone can simply say “I train MMA” because a local multi-level marketing gym is selling a course or belts in it. Unlike a sport like rugby where one can only play/ed it and not “train” it or buy a ranking in it, MMA is tainted with the Martial Arts in its name and the MLM plans that blurs effectiveness and honesty. Purists, most who scoffed NHB twenty years ago now incorporate it because it attracts customers. Other sporting gyms such as BJJ and Kick Boxing have at times benefited from the popularity of MMA, using the UFC as a unpaid advert for all combat sports, and either of them attract those interested in learning what is perceived as being an aspect of MMA.
Many who practice in a sport or art seldom watch the higher echelons of their sports competition but clamour about to watch the latest UFC or Belator. All the while proclaiming beneath the comment section of their sports popular memetard account the apparent success of BJJ or Karate because a familiar move was used alongside millions of others in the arena of mixed combat. Promoters and commentators will spew out expressions of reference suggesting a fighter has ‘good jiu jitsu’ because he wins by submissions, yet he may have never trained a minute in that art or that they are a good wrestler because they can time a tackle well. It is this attachment to other arts that hinders both the purity of their own sport and most of all presents an ill-conceived argument that MMA is a Frankenstein monster of other martial arts. Despite the glaring and subtle differences experienced within. Unfortunately, this mindset permeates most levels of the sport, it is convenient and won’t be disappearing any time soon.
The style versus style argument is no longer the domain for MMA, to prove what works best should be addressed in No Holds Barred competition or under the respectable dojo challenges that use to occur in harder times. Soccer and Aussie Rules have far more in common than MMA does to its combat sport compatriots. It is in the understanding of each that we can see the differences. It is those differences that draws the distinctions. What makes it unique. BJJ is best for BJJ, MMA for MMA, Boxing for Boxing and so on. What is best for the street is usually determined by those with the mindset and abilities to survive real violence. All combat sports have elements that relate to real combat, but context is always needed. And it is this context that one needs to understand when they hope to translate their grappling only or striking only into a MMA bout.
Second place is no place
Because of all this confusion and mish mash nature of the game a would be talent will struggle to find a credible gym and coach that will get them beyond their first few fights. The biggest problem across the board for MMA is developing fighters and having deep pools of talent to consistently produce quality shows and allow both fighters and fans to appreciate what is occurring inside the cage. Boxing had its share of club and television fighters, guys who seldom won the opportunity to challenge for a world title yet became a familiar face and name for those paying to watch. They had a longevity in the ring because they were paid to come back and despite no social media were promoted wisely because it served all interests to have consistent ranks of fighters. Sports know what they are, boxing and wrestling for example. Most may hire the gym out to others at times but usually a boxing gym is for boxers, others may be tourists and visit it to sharpen their game, but it is a boxing first gym producing… boxers.
It is hard for this to happen in MMA because those gyms offering MMA classes tend to find that they are not as popular as BJJ Yoga, Cross Fit or Kick Boxing. This is perhaps cultural or the paradox of the swiss army knife, so much on offer and yet such limited utility. The machete on the other hand. Too many gyms for financial reasons (keeping doors open) are forced to be Swiss Army knives and offer far too much, diluting each segment and disregarding the focus of those interested in learning. This is the problem of the martial arts and combat sports they are often always clumped together far too easily. This is where it is really mixed martial arts as an enterprise and not as a singular sport. MMA and those wanting to learn the craft suffer to satisfy the generic nature of it all. I find this myself, having classes in specific aspects of fighting and some will come in just wanting to do kickboxing or boxing for striking segments, or for the fight wrestling they may only want to learn no Gi competition elements. As a coach one needs to be adaptive but at what stage does a baseball coach say no to those interested in just doing cricket training? It is hard to consistently develop talent when MMA comes second place all the time.
Many MMA fighters feel a need to have different coaches from various backgrounds to help them with their game. This seems obvious, go to the boxing coach for hands, kickboxing coach for kicks, wrestler for take downs and Jiu Jitsu guy for the ground. Sounds perfect. This then assumes that each of those understands the nuances of the cage, and they are advising for the positive of the fighter’s game plan. Furthermore, each of these can approach the training from their own perspective perhaps influencing the fighters game too much in one direction. Most of all it can forsake the mortar that keeps the bricks attached. MMA has so many nuances that do not exist inside the other games, they are important to practice because they are all a part of the beats and rhymes found inside the cage. Having advisors from differing sports is certainly handy, but having them as coaches can often be a detraction. One sometimes just needs a fight coach. Unfortunately, the state of MMA sees that these are few and far between so all of us must endure with the many heads of other sports, to make this one sort of work. Balance is key and being a machete for your own jungle is crucial, putting MMA first is what should be the fighters priority.
Fitness industry intrusion
A lot of fighters have been seduced by the alluring promises made by fitness gurus. Many of which have never competed in a sport with actual contacted competition. They know what works for them and assume that a degree in human motion and a facility crammed with machinery worthy of Ivan Drago that they can find a fitness solution for ensuring combative victory. Fighting is a skill, it is about many factors fitness and conditioning are certainly one of those factors and what works for a fighter can be determined by that fighter and the stage of their career. What is more important than fitness is efficiency. The ability to perform an action with economy of motion, so that it is fast, hard to read and uses up less energy. Often this is in direct opposition to much of the aesthetics driven fitness industry which is obsessed with burning kilojoules and excessive exertion. The best fighters burn up less energy while being able to do more. This does not mean that one should assume to just practice techniques and Tai Chi meditate their way to victory. Real conditioning is found in hard sparring.
A Rocky montage has its appeal, ripped muscles and a low body fat are sexy it is what helps to sell and puts one on the poster. Performance is often ignored by many who assume a fighter should look a certain way. Just because Roy Nelson looks like he could be found at a truck stop does not lessen his abilities in a fight, and just because a prime Arnold Schwarzenegger looks like he is cut from granite does not mean a flabby Roy Nelson would not end him quick. Perceptions for many seems more important than empiric reality. It is also easier to train hard, going for a run, lifting weights, flipping tyres all look great, net aesthetic results and leaves one feeling as though they have accomplished something. They can turn their minds off and just grind away, the memes and PTs all tell them to push through the pain and to go hard, so that must be right? No skills are developed, no refinement addressed instead gruelling sweaty work. That is fine if all you want is to be “fit” but that will not stop a violent being from walking through you inside a minute.
If some one is able to spar hard round in and round out, they barely gas but are at times being pinned easy or tagged occasionally by their sparring partners with the left hook, why would one want to mess with their fitness-conditioning? Why assume to tell them to go for a run or to do more weights when clearly that is not the issue. They can only get better at their craft, those truly hard to learn and develop elements of a game. By being more explosive or having better stamina is not going to solve tactical and technical deficiencies. Only a fitness person would seek to improve them by inserting themselves into the situation, often it is about fitting a limited world view to a complex reality than it is about finding a solution inside that reality. The truth is most fitness people know very little about actual combat and yet some how with this steaming pile of ignorance know enough to advise combat athletes how to achieve their goals.
Fitness experts will often find themselves in the camps of some of the best fighters in the World, helping them with their training. Often a fighter capable of going twelve rounds in boxing suddenly is fatiguing in the sixth or a fighter like James Toney having Tae Bo expert like Billy Blanks may have leaned his body shape up some but did not improve his skills. Trends will find their way inside many camps whether it is a training mask or a bouncing castle yet fighters stamina seldom improves and often shortens.
It is after all easier for some one to lift weights and go for lengthy runs while moaning about how throwing head kicks is hard. Never once did they attempt during their week to practice their kicks. The fitness industry only feeds into this, ignorant PTs with degrees in certified failure telling naïve clients how to punch poorly or that their bench press will relate to ground and pound. Perhaps many would be fighters and coaches should read more from the Tao of Jeet June Do and less Gunnar Peterson. The need for specialists sometimes has too an easy appeal for many fighters distracting them and training their bodies at times to do more than they need to. Many often wax lyrical about the old timers and how great they were, fighting for fifteen rounds in a boxing title match, where wars were raged during that period. No fitness coaches were found then, no experts in varying pseudo sciences about, just craftsman and their coaches. The sport certainly has changed, change for its own sake sometimes can be a sidestep or worse. Fitness people tend to want to be innovative and be on the cusp of a new trendy discovery, sometimes no matter how ancient it is the wheel still turns.
Legacy or Popularity
The success of MMA as a mainstream sport has produced its share of superstars. Talented athletes that make millions for themselves and millions more for their promotional masters. The actual fighting however is the least important element in their wealth. Connor McGregor and Ronda Rousey were two super stars who commanded high pay days and made more money in a single media appearances than most fighters make in their entire careers. This was not because they were the greatest fighters to walk the planet but because they had appeal and marketed themselves well. They played a heel or danced before the crowds, attracting the media and exciting the fans. Taking a leaf from the Sonnen play book they found wealth with their tongue and cheek popping smile or scowling grin. Adoring fans spit cash towards them, ensuring more publicity, loving each moment often those that do not occur inside the cage. The marketing itself is their entertainment, the fight a bonus. Young up and comers imitate this supposed template for success, the impressionable are allured to it. And the promoters and media tend to reward it. Ugly filth like Julian Wallace AKA Julz the Jakal can gain celebrity and pay days because by being a freak show with no talent with a toxic persona that oozes with an insecure ego, his is rewarded, sponsored and promoted. Held above other talent, regardless of actual fight records, because they attract the crowd and sell tickets.
On the other side of this Janus coin lurks in relative obscurity fighters like Gregad Mousasi who defeated some of the best fighters in the world, remained a top tier fighter and despite that is paid poorly considering his exploits and eventually dumped by the UFC. Perhaps a threat to money making celebrity fighters but likely as far as mainstream fans go, boring. Not because such a fighter is unfun to watch but because they were not blathering to the cameras, beating a hooker or threatening their opponents with a school yard whine. The truly talented are sometimes punished, while the most vulgar revered. This trickles down into the ranks and becomes a template to copy. Some promotions and athletes seek to emulate this formula. The ugly aspects of success that the popular UFC depicts are heralded more than the almost hidden traits of positive virtues. It is after all sports entertainment, this is what most of the paying public want. The power is inside their hands, yet they often wield it poorly.
Regardless of all the above MMA is still a combative competition. Its origins barely matter now. A sport should be about competition first. Not the competition to sell more tickets, to sell merchandise but to win the most fights. True sports fans want to see that. Fickle and quick to bore spectacle seekers will come and go. Those who love the sport will remain. As Bruce Buffer called these fans in 2002, “the brick”, without them there was no sport. These were the fans who existed in 1993 and still in some form watch in this day. They want to see fights and good fighters. They want to see talent on display, they are excited by even the ‘boring’ technical matches. These are the fans no longer being addressed, these are the fans who are no longer being sought. Some of these fans have gone elsewhere. But despite the ups and downs they stuck through it, the PPV bans, the dark days, the waning broadcasts, to the hyped up industry they remain. They are not gate breakers but when those fickle fans of the now disappear and find another extreme trend, the brick will hopefully remain. Then what will the promoters do? Locally and at a higher level it is yet to be seen.
Boxing remains popular. In barber shops and pubs real fans discuss fantasy match ups with a child like passion, boys lace up the gloves and climb inside the ropes for a fight or a lifetimes worth until they earn a trophy or medal. The professionals can either be a can, a journeyman, contender or champion based upon their talents and abilities. Provided they can get fights. Provided they can learn their craft early on. Provided they navigate the oceans of combat well. MMA is a series of lakes, it will remain that way so long as it treats itself as such. It is a cluttering of promotions, not a true sport. It is a hard for the talent to gain depth so long as they are inhibited by those interested parties who want to make the short term buck while forsaking the longevity of the sport. At the end of the day a fighter will fight anywhere, it is their strengths and weaknesses. Some of the best brawls occurred behind closed doors in a gym where the stakes were pride and honour. Though that is less common these days, the instinct remains. It is an instinct that should be cultivated for the better and allowed to flourish, not exploited or inhibited.
Kym Robinson, April 2018