Without a doubt, our beloved MMA was a far cry from anything resembling sport in its infancy. In the beginning we had two men enter a cage, and swing their fists and feet wildly at one another, while Jiu-Jitsu was still some mystical enigma that was both confusing and frightening. Clearly this was not a spectacle that the general public could truly embrace.
However time went on and MMA continued its long and tiresome trek towards legitimacy. New tactics and weight classes were introduced, and training and strategy improved by leaps and bounds. We saw the era of the wrestler, personified by Mark Coleman, Strikers who could Sprawl, like Don Frye, Strikers who couldn’t stop a takedown but had the BJJ background to stay alive and flourish, like Marcos Ruas. Then came Frank Shamrock, who was proficient in all areas and ranges of MMA, and I believe our modern era of MMA began.
The sport became one where you could not survive by simply being good at just one thing, and so we began to see an influx of superior athletes, with superior skill sets. In turn, as the level of competition got higher and higher the idea of game planning became extremely prevalent. All this clearly heading away from the wild brawls that once existed as a dirty little secret for its viewers, into a legitimate sport that could be embraced.
Which brings us to today. We now live in a world where on any given night, any fighter can win, and any fighter can be defeated. We are now seeing a surge of fighters who have found ways to combat this ugly truth, and that is by simply avoiding a fight. Cosmetically it still looks like a fight. There are punches and kicks being thrown, takedowns being executed and defended, but the spirit of those techniques are different. While once these techniques were used to inflict damage and try to end the fight, now we are seeing a trend where instead they are used to score points, with an emphasis on not losing, rather than winning. Without argument these are effective strategies to win fights, and it moves us even further down the road to legitimate sport, but I question whether this is truly what’s best for the growth of MMA. After all curling is a legitimate sport too, but most of us couldn’t name one participant in the Olympics.
You can dress it up in any outfit you want, but at its core, MMA has always been about the fight. The only reason MMA survived the dark ages where the only material available had to be hunted down and downloaded, is because its raw, visceral nature gave fans something they had never seen before. This was two men, trained in a variety of disciplines, locked in a cage and told to fight. The rules, even today, are few. Sure you couldn’t bite, or headbutt, or eye gouge, but besides that, wherever the fight went, well, it went. It was a sport that provided so many avenues to victory that more often than not, fans would see fights decisively finished. This was in a time when fans of combat sports where conditioned to dread judges’ scorecards due to the horrible decisions seen in boxing bouts. This fear was compounded by the rise of defensive, and point based fighters. MMA was our release, our combat sports Nirvana. Whether knockout or submission, we knew that when the final bell rang, the man who had his hand raised deserved it a vast majority of the time.
Now of course time has progressed and we are surrounded by superb athletes with gifts and talents most of us can only dream of. I don’t suggest at all that we return to the bloody, groin-punching days of yore. We have fighters today that openly dislike striking their opponents, such as Demian Maia. However Maia always looks for the finish, even when it puts him in compromising positions. This is what I beg fighters to remember, not the style or technique of their predecessors, but the spirit. It is a fight. A technical, fight, yes, but a fight none the less.
Not every fight can be finished, but fans fell in love with a sport where the combatants were passionate, and at least tried every single second of 15 minutes to put their opponent away decisively. I for one, am afraid that this new trend of game planning for a decision, can only make fans forget what they once loved.