I realized something while watching UFC on Fox last Saturday night.
The co-main event between Rory MacDonald and Jake Ellenberger had just ended, with MacDonald named the winner by decision. I took to Twitter to voice my opinion on the fight, which was this: I thought it was a brilliant tactical performance by MacDonald, and an awful and uninspiring effort from Ellenberger.
The reaction was swift and vicious. Nine out of 10 respondents accused me of being an idiot. To be fair, I am sometimes an idiot, and I am fine with admitting this. Some accused me of trolling. A few people, with a total number that could probably be counted on one hand, agreed with me. They made me feel a little better, but not much.
And so I began to think...was MacDonald's performance really a smart, tactical one? Or, by virtue of not trying to hurt or finish Ellenberger, was MacDonald guilty of the same kind of listless effort as his opponent?
The larger question, and I think it's an important one: Is mixed martial arts primarily a sport, or is it entertainment for the masses?
There's no question that the UFC has used bits and pieces from the pay-per-view model created by Vince McMahon and applied to his WWF/WWE beginning in the 1980s. In the UFC, the biggest pay-per-view events are the ones that feature a grudge capable of capturing public imagination.
Tito Ortiz vs. Ken Shamrock. Brock Lesnar vs. Frank Mir. Rampage Jackson vs. Rashad Evans. They all have one thing in common: two combatants with charisma and a grudge that needs to be settled. They're also some of the UFC's biggest events in company history.
Even if we know deep down the animosity may not be quite as intense as it's portrayed, we're still able to suspend disbelief. We're moved enough to open up our wallets and give the UFC our money because we can't miss the moment when two fighters step in the cage to end their rivalry.
I understand that the name of the game, at least for Zuffa, is making money. And when a fan makes the decision to part with his hard-earned money, he expects to be entertained by the product he's paying for.
Granted it was not a PPV, but let's get this out of the way right now: MacDonald vs. Ellenberger was not an entertaining fight. It won't go down in the annals of UFC history alongside Forrest Griffin vs. Stephan Bonnar. It was a forgettable fight from an excitement aspect, and that's a shame, because it had so much potential.
But while I agree with the general consensus that it was not exciting, I will also say that I understood why MacDonald performed the way he did. And even though it wasn't the most thrilling thing to watch, there was a beauty in his performance.
Using a jab and front kick almost exclusively, MacDonald shut down one of the best welterweights in the game. He took him out of the fight in the very first round when Ellenberger realized he was going to get jabbed in the face any time he tried to close the distance. And that jab, well, it was a thing of beauty. It's such an underutilized technique in mixed martial arts, which is why it's so fascinating to see someone utilize it with such effectiveness.
Again, it wasn't the most exciting thing in the world. But can you blame MacDonald for doing what he had to do to get the win? He realized early that Ellenberger wasn't going to threaten him as long as he kept him on the outside with the jab. MacDonald also knew, because he's a smart fighter, that standing in the pocket and trading punches with Ellenberger would result in plenty of unneeded punishment and perhaps even a knockout.
Fans always want to see fighters working for the finish. I understand that notion completely. But I also realize the value of a game plan—of trying to survive 15 minutes in a cage with a power puncher who is attempting to take your head off. If you had a choice between standing and trading punches in order to thrill the fans or using a tool that your opponent has no answer for in order to avoid serious punishment, which would you choose?
Plenty of people will say they'd go for the finish. Some of them are even telling the truth. But most of them have never stepped in the cage with one of the top-ranked fighters in the world, with a winning streak and potential titles and riches on the line. Few of them will ever have to weigh the long-term consequences of trading haymakers for the simple purpose of entertaining the fans.
MacDonald's performance was safe and effective. It didn't earn him any accolades, and he's no closer to the championship after the bout. That much is true.
But MacDonald didn't tumble down the rankings, either. For better or worse, he is where he was before Saturday night, at least in terms of rankings. Perhaps he's lost a little shine in the eyes of the fans, but do you think he lost as much momentum as he would have by going in the cage and getting knocked out in violent fashion?
It's difficult to know just how much of MMA is sport and how much is entertainment. Is it better to be an entertaining fighter who's loved by the fans but never ascends to title opportunities because he keeps losing?
Or is winning the only thing that matters, even if you don't win any hearts and minds in the process?
Maybe it's a mixture of both. And perhaps Rory MacDonald will figure out that balance as he continues to grow and improve.
Even if he doesn't, I can't fault him for taking the path he did on Saturday night.