Separating Overreactions from Legitimate Concerns in the MMA World

Anthony GannonContributor IIIJune 27, 2012

Photo by Yahoo Images
Photo by Yahoo Images

It’s human nature to overreact; to make more of things than they actually are, especially things that are important to us. MMA fans, like all sports fans, and all people for that matter, tend to be a little dramatic about the things that are most important to us.

In the MMA world, there are four things that immediately come to mind when thinking about colossal overreactions: mainstream acceptance, performance enhancing drugs, the poor FOX ratings, and officiating.

According to MMA fans, these things are doom incarnate and are eventually going to kill the sport.

Let’s take a practical look at these issues and try to deflate the overreaction melodrama behind them, and look at them for what they are: legitimate concerns that while important, do not pose a risk to the future of the sport.

Mainstream Acceptance

Long before Bud Light and FOX took an interest in the UFC, there was Mickey’s and Spike. And guess what? The UFC, and MMA in general, did just fine.

The desire for mainstream acceptance is understandable. What’s baffling is the obsession with it.

Aside from a sense of validation, the tangible benefit for fans is more free fights. Halfway through this year, because of the FOX deal, there have been 11 free events. Last year there were ten.

Photo by Yahoo Images
Photo by Yahoo Images

And that’s great. What MMA fan doesn’t love free fights? We’ve been getting hammered with pay-per-views for so long, the more free fights the better. But there would still be free fights without this mainstream FOX deal, just fewer of them.

And maybe that’s a good thing. Quality beats out quantity, and the more events that are on, the lower the quality.

There are always going to be networks that want in. The UFC pretty much made Spike. And likewise, the WEC made Versus. The FOX brand brings in more dollars, no doubt, but for fans, that is of little consequence.

I’m not arguing to maintain MMA’s marginal status. I’m just saying that it wasn’t so bad, and if this whole mainstream acceptance thing doesn’t work out, it’s not the end of the world, and it’s certainly not the end of MMA.

Performance Enhancing Drugs (PED’s)

Drugs are an unfortunate fact of life. The reason they exist is because there’s a demand for them. It really is that simple.

That being said, athletes who use performance enhancing drugs are, without question, cheating. But cheating is human nature.

We’re talking about a sport where the top athletes make millions of dollars. Whenever big money is involved in anything, cheating is a forgone conclusion for some, which are more than enough rotten apples to spoil the bunch.

Anyone living in the real world knows that PED’s are a reality in all sports, from high school football to the Olympics.

It’s nice to hold idealistic views about the nature of sport and competition. When you’re a kid it’s all about the sport. If you reach a high level in high school and college, it also becomes about the money.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with that. But that’s an incentive that could rationalize the cutting of corners. It’s easy to force the ends to justify the means when the payout is handsome.

It’s almost incomprehensible when a fighter fails a post-fight drug test. They know they’re going to be tested. So why do they do it? Because the reward outweighs the risk.

In 2007, Royce Gracie failed a drug test after defeating Kazushi Sakuraba. He was fined $2,500. No one knows for sure what Royce made off that fight, but rest assured it was a generous amount. And he was fined only $2,500. Not a bad cost/benefit outcome.

Josh Barnett has failed a few drug tests, and he just made a couple hundred thousand dollars in the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix.

Chael Sonnen failed one after his epic 2012 championship clash with Anderson Silva. Sonnen is fighting for the title again very shortly.

The list is long and distinguished.

The point is that until there’s a real disincentive to use PED’s, there will be no shortage of fighters who are willing to take that risk.

There’s a feeling that PED’s will damage the sport’s reputation. We’ve been discussing PED’s for the past few years, and the sport continues on. The only major damage will be to the athletes who take them.

Every professional sport suffers the stigma of PED’s, yet somehow they’ve managed to survive and thrive. No one runs away from baseball when the drug issue pops up. MMA may not be truly mainstream, but it’s entrenched enough to survive this.

FOX Ratings

After every UFC event on FOX, FX, or FUEL, the talk of the town is the disappointing ratings.

The UFC on FOX 3 posted a 1.5 household rating, and the pundits screamed of oversaturation and a lack of stars to beef up both pay per views and televised events.

They aren’t wrong about those things. What they are wrong about is the sky-is-falling scenario. The UFC is still pulling down solid ratings for these events. They’re just not spectacular.

The FOX deal is still in its infancy. Simply landing on FOX isn’t a magic wand that all of a sudden sends ratings into the stratosphere. It needs time to flourish.

Many casual fans are still not aware when there’s an event on regular television. The UFC is toeing a fine line between pumping their promotional resources into huge pay per view events and sub-par televised ones. Once they figure it out, they’ll get the eyeballs.

This is a long-term deal. The UFC has prospered because they play chess, not checkers.


MMA is a sport where decisions are decided by human beings. Human beings see things differently, interpret things differently, and have different priorities.

To some, a body kick is more devastating than a punch to the face. To others, it’s not.

We could enact specific judging criteria and we would still have bad decisions because human beings would be tasked with interpreting those criteria.

Razor-close fights that go to judges’ scorecards can not justifiably be considered bad decisions one way or the other. When it’s close, it can go either way.

Sure, we’ve seen really bad decisions that most people agree are bad, but those don’t happen too often.

Education is paramount. Judges need to be trained in the nuances of MMA, which differ tremendously from boxing or kickboxing. But even with more training, judging is an inherently subjective endeavor that will always bring about some controversy.

Referees are in the same boat, although sailing in much more treacherous waters.

Referees have to make split-second decisions. Is a fighter out? Is he intelligently defending himself? Is his arm about to be broken by his pride? These are just a few of the questions referees face.

Call a fight too soon and people get angry. Call it too late, same thing. It’s a thankless duty.

Dana White likes to say how Steve Mazzagatti is the worst referee in the business. And certainly, Mazzagatti has earned some of that negativity.

He allowed Jason McDonald to hammer-fist Joe Doerksen almost into a coma, but then ran across the cage and dove at Pablo Garza to rescue Fredson Paixao from unnecessary damage.

Things happen fast in the cage, and the right call is not always going to be made.

And if we’re to blame the referees for everything that goes wrong, then surely we must also praise them when things go right.

White is also big on boasting of the UFC’s record on fighter safety. There has never been a death or serious injury in the Octagon. That’s pretty amazing.

But why is that? Some of it can be attributed to rules and regulations, but some of that credit must also be given to that third person in the cage responsible for fighter safety: the referee.

The basic gist is this: MMA does have problems. Everyone and everything does. But these are manageable problems. Our sport is still young. There are many kinks that need to be worked out, but it will never be perfect.

These are issues that should indeed be worked on, but they’ll always be around, and regardless, so will MMA.


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