MMA would be wise to favor sport over gladiator showdowns
I'm old enough to remember baseball's 1970 All-Star Game. But not much of it. I vaguely recall Carl Yastrzemski having a bunch of hits and Roberto Clemente driving in a run late to send the contest into extra innings. Most of all, though, I remember how the game ended in the bottom of the 12th, with the homeward-bound baseball and a rumbling Pete Rose reaching American League catcher Ray Fosse at precisely the same moment. I remember the dusty collision. I remember Fosse tumbling backward, head over heels, as the ball bounced away. I remember Rose being celebrated by his teammates-for-a-day and cheered by his everyday home-park fans in Cincinnati.
This was an iconic baseball moment, playing right into Rose's "Charlie Hustle" mystique. To this day, whenever the game-deciding highlight is replayed, it's invariably noted that Fosse, who suffered a separated shoulder, was never again the same player. That observation, while heartrending for the catcher, is affixed to Rose like a badge of honor. A couple of years ago, when Major League Baseball asked fans to vote for the greatest plays ever in an All-Star Game, Rose bowling over Fosse was among its 16 nominated historical moments.
It's history, all right.
These days, when a baserunner knocks over a catcher, it's more likely viewed as cause for concern. The latest incident occurred in a Double A playoff last week in Erie, Pa., sending a catcher to the hospital for several days with concussion. The minor-league clip was all over SportsCenter and reignited panel-show debate that in recent years has come up every time there's been an ugly, injurious collision at home plate: Should that type of play be banned? Judging by the consensus opinion, it's only a matter of time before the powers that be in baseball rule that violent crashes are not part of the game.
Violent crashes are a part of the game of pro football, but not as much as they used to be. Watching the first weekend of NFL games, I was struck by how many missed tackles there were in the middle of the field. Sure, it was Week 1 and guys were rusty. But it's impossible to ignore the other factor at play. Even before the NFL's recent $765 million settlement with 4,500 former players who sued for medical assistance for conditions related to their playing days, safety concerns had been making football a wholly different game for defenders. Banning helmet-to-helmet contact was the right thing to do, of course, even if it forces tacklers to relearn proper techniques for bringing down a runner. Tighter enforcement of a rule that bars the smashing of a defenseless receiver also is wise, even though it has made defenders tentative as they take that split second to mentally process whether their current bead on an opponent is going to cost them 15 yards, a fine and perhaps even a suspension.
The buzz word in sports for the bulk of this young century, as well as the years leading up to it, has been "steroids." There's a new plague in town, though: concussions. The tide is turning against violence in sports.
How this relates to mixed martial arts should be obvious.
UFC president Dana White has famously said his goal is to make his fight promotion bigger than the NFL, bigger internationally than that other game called football. That's a tall, steep mountain to climb. The nearly two-year-old broadcast deal with the Fox network is a huge advance for MMA, as being promoted during NFL and Major League Baseball games injects the sport into the consciousness of fans who've never given it a thought. But realistically speaking, being on Fox makes the UFC no more than a tiny blip on the radar screen. It's difficult for those of us who follow this sport to grasp -- as we devote our days to the buildup to big fights, then the fights themselves, then the talk of splendid matchups to come -- but the world of sports does not revolve around the octagon. A great many sports junkies have no idea what MMA is. Some who do know, or think they know, are repulsed by it.
An uber-violent sport -- especially one in which the uninitiated, drawn in by their curiosity and watching for the first time, tend not to be armed with an understanding of what they're watching -- has the deck stacked against it in the current sports culture. Devoted MMA fans understand that a jiu-jitsu black belt lying on his back, with his opponent on top of him but in full guard, is not defenseless as punches and elbows come raining down. The guy on top might be the one in trouble, if he's careless in his positioning and leaves an arm or his neck exposed. To a casual observer, though, a choke hold is ruthless, and once the barbaric bloodshed starts staining the canvas, the "art" part of mixed martial arts tends to be obscured.
All of this is of little concern to MMA fans. If the noise at arenas is any indication, the bloodier and more rock-'em-sock-'em brutal, the better. But for UFC brass, seeking to raise the profile of the sport it has built into the behemoth of its little universe, there do appear to be conflicting interests at play. The way into the mainstream, it would seem, is to present MMA as a sporting event. But what appeals to the dyed-in-the-wool fan base is a fight. There's a difference.
Dana White and the loudest half of the Internet love to ridicule what they call "points fighters." Those are the mixed martial artists who use their multifaceted training to avoid getting into a Tank Abbott firefight and instead use their stick-and-move striking or domineering wrestling to control a bout and earn a judges' decision. Sure, 15 or 25 minutes of this is not going to get the blood boiling, but a win is a win is a win, right? When an NFL team, holding the lead midway through the fourth quarter, finds success in keeping the ball on the ground to run down the clock, no one but the uneducated ridicule the soon-to-be-winning coach for opting to not go for the immediate kill with a long, but risky, pass.
Is it even true that a fighter playing it safe is bad for business? The UFC proclaims Georges St-Pierre as its top pay-per-view draw. Well, GSP has won 11 bouts in a row, the last nine of which were defenses of his welterweight championship. His last six defenses have gone the distance. He's won on points. That happens in sports.
Finishes happen, too, and MMA fans and promoters would do well to adjust their expectations there as well. Just as officiating in all sports is constantly scrutinized and criticized, combat sports referees are going to be second-guessed, particularly when they choose to end a fight. He let the fighter take too much damage before jumping in! She waved off the bout while the fighter was still defending! In the end, one person's hand is raised. It's never the no-win ref's.
It's understandable when a losing fighter questions a stoppage. Losing sucks. It's predictable when fans are outraged. Losing out on more carnage sucks. But when the fight promotion itself goes that route, the folks in charge are missing the big picture. Sure, if Mario Yamasaki had jumped in while Alistair Overeem was pummeling a fallen Travis Browne with a couple dozen unanswered punches and knees last month on a Fox-televised fight in Boston, we'd have been deprived of seeing Browne's stunning comeback knockout victory. But if that's what has to happen now and then in the name of fighter safety, so be it.
Less than two weeks ago, at UFC 164 in Milwaukee, Anthony Pettis showed himself to be a champion and a sportsman. As he locked Benson Henderson in an armbar, he heard two things that referee Herb Dean did not: a pop in Henderson's elbow and the then-champion saying "tap, tap, tap." Pettis let go of the submission hold. He didn't wait for Dean to tell him to. And as a result, Henderson lives to fight another day ... a day that'll come much sooner than if the elbow were more severely damaged. That's sportsmanship. That's what happens in sports.
Some of the talk after the evening of fights, however, focused on the co-main event, Josh Barnett's first-round TKO of Frank Mir. Barnett had been all over Mir from the start, landing punches in the clinch, wobbling Frank and finally felling him with a knee to the face. Rob Hinds, not one of the more experienced referees in the game, immediately jumped in. And so did Dana White, on Twitter: "[Expletive] ridiculous stoppage!!!! The guys with experience make mistakes. That guy had no business being in the Co Main event!"
The stoppage might have been a tad early, although Mir did not even grab for a leg to defend himself. Is it possible that Frank would have recovered, if given time, and won the fight on the ground? Sure, he's a mat virtuoso, so it's possible. Anything is possible. It's also possible that the bloodthirsty Barnett would have sent him to the hospital. A ref has to make a snap judgment, and if he or she errs, better that it's on the side of safety.
That's what's best for the fighter being damaged, best for the one inflicting the damage as well. And in the big picture, it's what's good for the sport. If mixed martial arts wants to play with the big boys, it's going to have to adapt its game a little and play by the rules of the mainstream. It's not so much adapting the game, even. The rules already are in place. It's more a matter of adapting expectations. We go to the arena looking for a fight. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves that we're not there for a life-and-death gladiator showdown. We're there for a sporting event.