Monsters Among Us
One of the most iconic moments in wrestling history is the moment that Hulk Hogan hoists Andre the Giant into the air and bodyslams him to the mat. Perhaps as equally as memorable is the stare off between the two at the start of the match, the herculean Hogan is made to seem mortal in the shadow of the Giant. It’s David versus Goliath in a pop art presentation. It’s pro wrestling.
The sport of MMA has come a long way in … well, presenting itself as a sport. Look at the UFC’s roster of fighters and you’ll see men and women whose attire does not differ greatly from one another – a trend set to continue with the coming of a sponsorship deal with Reebok – whose looks betray nothing of their fighting styles or backgrounds, aside from very specific tattoo designs that give such back-stories away. In the same way that boxers and muay thai fighters have agreed upon fighting attire, so too does mixed martial artists, though it was not always this way.
If you were to venture all the way back to UFC 1 (at the time of writing UFC 189 looms), then you’d discover an assortment of men of all different shapes and sizes, dressed in a variety of clothing choices, with very defined fighting backgrounds. There was a sumo wrestler, a kick boxer, a street fighter, a jiu-jitsu player, even a professional wrestler named Ken Shamrock – complete with trunks and boots.
This was when the contests were much closer to street fights, with significantly fewer rules. There were no weight classes. There were no rounds. If you didn’t finish the guy – knock out or submission – you did not win: judges did not play any part in this. As a result, you got something that resembled a chaotic, fighting video game, complete with characters that seemed larger than life, and almost unreal. It faced accusations of being human cockfighting. It faced accusations of being a freak show.
This was a four-hundred pound man versus a hundred and seventy pound man, and the little guy would really win! It was real life pro wrestling! At least it was.
Over time, for safety, and the appearance of legitimacy for the sport, time limits became implemented, new rules, judges, rounds, weight classes, weigh ins, etc. The freak show fights seemed to become a thing of older era, but as I’ve been pointing out in these series of ramblings, MMA has not ever – and I don’t think it really wants to either – truly broke away from its pro wrestling roots. Elements always persist.
In November of 2014, the US’s 2nd largest MMA promotion, Bellator, experimented with a new formula: in the main event stood Tito Ortiz and Stephan Bonnar. Two former UFC stars that, it is safe to say, have passed their athletic primes and would not be competitive at the top of the sport again. However, they continue to have name value with both the casual and hardcore MMA fans. That, and along with a pull a part brawl between the two in the lead up to the match, which included an unknown man wearing two masks (not kidding about that), means they are still able to draw a crowd well past their own personal peaks in performance.
And, would you believe it, the card was a success, averaging a 1.2 million viewership throughout and peaking at 2 million come the main event. They loaded the lower card with their next generation of talent and used the top tier as bait to lure in as many people as they could.
June 19th 2015 saw Bellator drop all pretence and set-up a good old fashioned freak show fight, starring Ken Shamrock of original UFC and pro wrestling fame, and Kimbo Slice of YouTube street fight video fame. A fight that people are actually now questioning whether it was for real or not. For our purposes, it really doesn’t matter if it was or wasn’t. The point is that a sure fire way for any mixed martial arts promotion to make some money is to abandon the sports and become entertainment, and they’re all well aware of that.
Hold your horses though, some of you might be saying (probably the more old fashioned of you based on that phrasing) that might be a good promotional tactic for some of the lower leagues in MMA, but what about the UFC? Have they not done away with all of this circus stuff and really strived towards making themselves a proper sport? Well, yes, but let me introduce you to Phil –
Waves were made in the entertainment world last year when former WWE champion and professional wrestling superstar CM Punk made the announcement that not only had he retired for good from the squared circle, but would be making the UFC’s octagon his new home. A man with no amateur or professional mixed martial arts experience was to make his debut in the largest mixed martial arts company in the world, and there’s already discussion as to whether he’ll be debuting in the main event or not due to his stardom.
This is unlike Brock Lesnar’s transition into the sport, as had he fought at least one professional fight before being signed and had an extensive amateur wrestling background before his professional wrestling days. CM Punk/Phil Brooks his neither of these, nor anything resembling them.
The UFC, the flagship company of mixed martial arts, will host a freak show fight at some point in the coming year. The company that is arguably leading the way in drug testing in all sports, has a major endorsement deal with Reebok, that is the face of the sport for many in the world, this company will be bowing to demands of entertainment.
I can’t wait for the faceoff.