“The American Gangster or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Trash Talk”
October 8th, 2011. Houston, Texas. It’s another night of mixed martial arts action. Skills are displayed and titles decided. A middleweight fight has come to its conclusion – submission via arm-triangle choke. One of the commentators leaves his desk to conduct the usual post-fight interview. He steps into the octagon.
“… first of all, congratulations on a dominant performance. You imposed your skill set. You did everything you wanted to do. How happy are you with your performance tonight?”
These are pretty standard questions and comments. They’re designed to prompt a fighter into what to say post-fight, to help get his personality across to the viewing audience. People often thank their coaches, mention spouses watching at home, cite a higher power as their reason for success –
“Anderson Silva, you absolutely suck!”
Not your standard response. The crowd goes wild. The camera cuts to see Anderson Silva – the middleweight champion – looking nonplussed.
“Superbowl weekend, the biggest rematch in the history of the business, I’m calling you out Silva, but we’re upping the stakes: I beat you, you leave the division; you beat me, I will leave the UFC forever!”
With no further comments, he walks from the cage. Left with nothing other to say, the man left holding microphone concludes:
“Chael Sonnen, ladies and gentleman!”
Trash talking, talking shit, cutting a promo: the great gift to the world of promotion. Now I’m not claiming that professional wrestlers invented the idea of bad mouthing an opponent before a match. I think it’s a fair to say that it’s been a pretty common practice throughout history. It makes sense, as, when you think about it, you’re hardly going to praise a person you’re about to fight.
What I am saying is that pro wrestling – as a business structure – has nearly perfected the art of telling someone you don’t like them and that you’re going to kick their arse because of it.
This view is often expressed, implicitly, by sports fans in that anytime someone outside of the weird world of wrestling starts to talk the talk, they immediately accuse them of using pro wrestling tactics.
And here we reach the crux that is that sometimes people believe that the talking takes away from the action, that it cheapens the legitimate sport, particularly when it’s perceive as disingenuous. Despite its long involvement in combat (disregarding the sport aspect) some commentators believe that this style of interview is best left to the entertainers.
Why is this? Are they afraid to be tarred with the same brush as the “fake” wrestlers? Maybe, but that’s not really a legitimate concern to a fan. What is is that a fighter can jump the queue.
MMA is a business. It’s a professional pursuit. If there’s one fighter who can generate a lot of attention to themselves and help increase revenue, then they’re more likely to be spotlighted by the company, even if that fighter really isn’t as skilled as some of his peers. This means that a spot on the show is taken up by someone who perhaps isn’t the greatest example that the sport has to offer. Sometimes they even find themselves in world title matches.
This might seem like a non-problem to a lot of wrestling fans. The best guys are the most entertaining, and the people who are consistently at the top of the bill have displayed at least some skill in the art of rhetoric. Being able to talk the talk is as big a part as being able to walk the walk for wrestlers. If you don’t have it, then it’s natural that you’re not going to get as far. And why’s this a problem at all to the sports fans? Surely, because of the nature of the sport, fighters who aren’t up to snuff will be eliminated over time simply by being beaten. No matter how good the speaker is, it’s hard to promote a guy who never wins.
It’s because it forces some people to confront an uncomfortable truth: MMA fighters are entertainers too. People pay their money to watch them and be entertained in some way or another. Now I’ll concede that the ratio of skill on the microphone to skill in the ring/cage is different for fighters than it is to wrestlers, but a ratio exists for both.
An example: Demetrius “Mighty Mouse” Johnson. At the time of writing, he’s the current UFC flyweight champion, and at the time of writing, nearly nobody cares. He’s a world champion, considered one of the pound-for-pound bests, and perhaps is the greatest flyweight of all time, but when it comes to fight night, Johnson has always taken the approach that promoting a fight is not his job. He turns up, presents an amazing set of skills, and retains his world title, but he’s nowhere near as well known or perhaps as well paid as the challenger that’s willing to tell the number one guy in the division that he sucks and he’s willing to bet a retirement against him.
It’s still show business, whether you like it or not, I’m afraid.