Chris Colderley sent us a great article examining the state of mixed martial arts today, looking at how far the sport has come, along with some of the issues in matchmaking, title contention, and other areas, that need to be addressed to further move the sport to legitimacy.ÃƒÂ¿ Read More to view Chris’ article, entitled, “MMA Has Finally Become a Legitimate Sport. What Now?”
MMA has finally become a legitimate sport. What now?
In the 1970s, Virginia
Slims ran a series of advertisements for cigarettes that read, “Youve come a
long way baby!” At the turn of the century, the Ultimate Fighting Championship,
and mixed martial arts in general, might run the same sort of ads with a smiling
Tito Ortiz at the center.
In January 2001 the
Fertitta brothers bought the UFC and formed Zuffa, LLC. Just months later the
organization was sanctioned to hold events in both Nevada and New Jersey. The
organization also secured a deal for national cable penetration. The company
has a weekly television show in the U.K. and held UFC 38 there. In the United
States, Fox Sports has featured the UFC on the “Best Damn Sports Show, Period”
and Sunday Night Fights.
In June 2002, the Pride
Fighting Championships was officially granted a license by the Nevada athletic
commission. Yukino Kanda, Dream Stage Entertainments Vice President of Sales,
Marketing and Talent Relations, claims, “The U.S. audience for Pride Fighting
Championships is growing with every event and were thrilled with the worldwide
enjoyment of our sport.”
Championship and Pride Fighting Championship video games have been released or
slated for release in North America and Japan, and there is more MMA on video
and DVD than ever before, which gives the sport the opportunity to be seen by an
Despite many of the
positive developments in MMA, it is obvious that there are still many problems
in the sport:
The UFC had
to cancel two championship fights between Ortiz and Belfort because of pre-fight
the lightweight champion, left the UFC after a new contract couldnt be
Heavyweight Champion, Josh Barnett, tested positive for steroid use after
defeating Randy Couture at UFC: Worlds Collide. Barnett was suspended for six months
and stripped of the title.
Rodrigo “Minotauro” Nogueiras first PRIDE title
defense was delayed after the fighter hurt his back. His only fight for the
organization since winning the belt was a non-title match against Enson Inoue.
After his participation in a recent UFO event, President
Morishita has insinuated that the PRIDE Champion could “be stripped of the title
and not . . . allowed to fight.”
organizations have had trouble putting together complete cards because of
injuries, training time, and breakdowns in negotiations. Pride 20: Armed and
Ready, for example, could not deliver the standard 8 matches. Last minute
replacements were also needed for the UFC 38: Brawl at the Hall and Pride 21:
What does all this mean?
Perhaps it is just part of the inevitable ebb and flow that occurs in all
sporting events. The Patriots, after all, did win the Superbowl this year. At
the same time, these events could indicate that, despite overcoming the
obstacles of State Athletic Commissions and Cable Television companies, MMA is
entering another crisis stage.
Whos That Guy?
Two recent events, Pride
20 and the UFC 37, had serious problems putting together cards well in advance
because of injuries and contracts. Early reports for Prides April card, for
example, included Sam Greco versus Gilbert Yvel and Renzo Gracie against Kikuta.
Other names tossed around included Rodrigo Gracie, Jeremy Horn, Yuki Kondo, and
The UFC 37 had its own
delays. At several points, Chuck Liddell was reported to face Evan Tanner, Vitor
Belfort or Igor Zinoviev. Nothing was worked out and Liddell was left off the
card. The appearance of Rumina Sato was postponed because of lingering effects
from his fight with Gomi. B.J. Penns original opponent, Joe Hurley, and former
champion Dave Menne could not fight because of training injuries.
Everyone understands that
injuries and negotiation problems can arise at any time, and sometimes the best
intentions will not produce the desired results.
In Pride, fans witnessed
Arona versus Henderson and Sperry versus Rua,
but at the cost of watching Bob Sapp
dismantle Norihisa Yamamoto, Quinton Jackson
toss Masaaki Satake around the ring, and Rogerio Nogueira dispatch Yasuke
Imamura in mere seconds.
The UFC fared a little
better with replacements. In fact, some observers have suggested that the Aaron
Riley and Robbie Lawler match is the fight of the year thus far. Replacement
Ivan Salaverry was also extremely impressive in his defeat of Andrei Semenov.
In the long run, these
problems cannot help either organization. Delays in putting cards together
create their own tribulations. They interfere with the promotion of the event,
as well as fighters plans for preparation and training. its not only unfair
to the fighters involved, but it can be especially dangerous. Will we have to
watch yet another event where a replacement absorbs excessive punishment because
he is outclassed and will not tap?
In the end, fans are
left trying to figure why Paul Creighton is making his debut against BJ Penn,
why Pride Champions are fighting “non-title” matches, and why Otsuka and Satake
are in the same ring with championship contenders.
How Do You Figure?
Under the current system,
there are no clear criteria for establishing a number one contender or even a
champion, and there have been a series of questionable matches.
In the past few shows,
Pride has put on “Non-title” fights in the Heavyweight and Light Heavyweight
divisions. Even if Nogueira were healthy for Pride 21 its not clear who would
be the number one contender. Before his non-title fight against Inoue, the
Brazilian Top Team member soundly defeated contenders Mark Coleman and Heath
Herring. Any other possible contenders seem to have dropped off the charts:
Igor Vovchanchyn has recent losses to Heath Herring, Mario Sperry, and Tra
Telligman; Mark Kerr has 3 losses in his past four fights to Kazuyuki Fujita, Heath Herring,
and Igor Vovchanchyn.
Meanwhile, the UFC is faced
with the prospect of having no active champions at the lightweight, light
heavyweight, or heavyweight divisions. In the meantime, a fighter like Chuck
Liddell is forced to wait for the title shot that he completely deserves because
no credible matches can be established. Lightweight contender BJ Penn was
reduced to offering his potential purse just to get a rematch with Pulver
because he recognizes that titles are earned and lost in the ring. Pedro Rizzo,
the only fighter in the UFC who can claim to have defeated Josh Barnett, will
have to wait to get a title shot in favor of up and comer Ricco Rodriguez.
Embodied in all of the
championship problems, is the added controversy of whos the best, and whos
deserving. Under the current climate of exclusive contracts and bidding wars,
there has been a serious shortage of new talent, especially at the heavyweight
and light heavyweight divisions. Add to this the problem of who should fight on
each card. Currently there are no clear criteria for advancing to other shows,
moving up the ranks, or returning after a loss.
Consider, first, the case
of Sean Sherk. He made his debut against Tiki Ghosen at UFC 30 where he won by
TKO. Because UFC
rules allowed only one fighter per
manager, Sherk, who was managed by the same person as Pat Miletich and Matt
Hughes (Monte Cox), had to wait until UFC 36 to make his return.
Sherk currently has a record of 20-0 and is ranked 8th
by the Mixed Martial Arts Media Top Ten. Certainly he deserves a chance at the
championship. Sherk is scheduled to fight Benji Radach at UFC 39.
There is also Hayato
Sakurai, who lost to Matt Hughes at the UFC 36. Before the fight, he was
considered one of the top middleweights in the world, and many commentators
expected him to wrest the belt from Hughes. Clearly, Hughes won the fight, but
wheres Sakurai? Maybe he had a bad night, maybe he wasnt prepared for the
octagon, or maybe the better fighter beat him. If any of these are true,
Sakurai deserves a chance at redemption, and the fans deserve to see him fight
again. As it stands now, the obvious questions are how and when?
Prides matchmaking has
also posed several enigmas for the fans. Before his recent loss to Anderson
Silva, the self-proclaimed, “Brazilian Killa,” Alex Steibling, had won his last
six fights including a 16-man tournament in Venezuela. Did he deserve a chance
at Silvas title? The evidence suggests that he might deservedly be the top
contender. Instead Pride rolled out K-1 fighter,
Mirko Filipovic to face the champion in a modified rules, non-title match.
Amid all of this, Chuck
Liddell, who has defeated Jose Landi-Jons, Kevin Randleman, Guy Mezger,
Murilo Bustamante, Amar Suloev, and Vitor Belfort, cannot get a decent fight in
either organization. Some rumors have suggested that he will, in fact,
receive a chance at one of the championships in 2003.
The Genie in the Bottle, Pandoras Box, or Snakes and Ladders?
In light of all the
problems, and in spite of many of the exciting fights at recent cards, there is
enough impetus for reforms to the status quo.
One solution is to
establish a national or international committee to regulate and sanction
fights. Frank Shamrock has recently sent out a request for help in establishing
the framework for a national committee. The idea is that a system of
standardized rules could be established for the MMA industry. Certainly, these
steps could include a variety of things like fighter testing, records, and
purses. A national ranking system could even be established to help increase
transparency in the selection and matchmaking process.
The key problem here
lies with the concentration of power in the hands of a single agency. As
decision-making becomes the responsibility of a smaller number of people, the
chances for bias, corruption, and poor judgment increase. At the same time
there is the problem of establishing credible commitment and enforcement among
the various national and international fighting organizations. In the long run,
the MMA industry could face the same problem as boxing – “Alphabet Soup”
organizations all claiming to have the legitimate world champion. The
consequences are obvious: the boxing community is forced to deal with the
preposterousness of Lennox Lewis being stripped of his title for failing to face
a number one “pretender.”
A case can be made that
national or international organization might alleviate some of the problems in
the current malaise, but be careful. Once a genie is out of the bottle its
very difficult to get him back inside.
Another alternative is
to use the current ranking system established by the Mixed Martial Arts Media.
Under this system established by Josh Gross and Sean
Shelby, a group of approximately 20 writers from Brazil, Canada, Holland,
the United Kingdom and the United States establish top-ten ranks for each
division based on a ballot system of voting. In order to maintain independence,
voters cannot have any ties to an organization or
promoter. The system works well in providing fans, fighters, and promoters with
a picture of the top fighters in the world.
Again, the obvious
problem is finding a relatively small group of unbiased decision-makers to enter
their views. At the same time, even with the most solemn and reasoned choices,
the various organizations are under no obligation to follow or even recognize
the views of the MMAM.
Relying on the rankings
as a guide only leads to further confusion. Because each weight division has
only ten spots, it is difficult to set matches for relatively new fighters and
there is no impetus for the organizations to seek out new competitors or fresh
and exciting matches. There is also the problem of making valid comparisons
between the different ranks. A fighter who is ranked fourth is more deserving
of a title than someone ranked eighth. How much more deserving is open to
In the end, the process
remains up to the individual organizations, and fans are no better educated
about the selection and matchmaking process. Once the box is open, the number
of questions increases dramatically.
Snakes and Ladders
Another way to address
some of the current problems is to return to the old tournament system with
several modifications. Because of changes in the sport and the demands on
fighters, it is not feasible to have a one-night, winner-take-all tournament.
But the format could be adapted to place over a series of shows. The UFC, in
fact, used this system to establish the heavyweight champion after Randy Couture
vacated the belt in 1998. Prides Grand Prix, as well, boasted a similar
The use of the
tournament system is not limited to ordaining a champion. It might well be used
to establish rankings and contenders, and fill out cards with exciting, fresh
faces. Such a system could consist of two or three pools of four fighters per
weight class, and the respective champions. The pools would be broken down in
to A, B, C, etc. as necessary. Each pool would have two brackets with the
winners fighting to advance to next pool, and the losers of the opening matches
fighting to remain in the current pool. In short, a fighter with two wins in
the pool moves to the next level, the fighters with a win and a loss stay put,
while the fighter with two losses is bumped down. Of course, the winner of pool
A would be the number one contender, and the loser of the lowest pool would be
bumped. An example of the system is illustrated below.
Tournament Pool System
The snakes and ladders
system has several advantages over the status quo, as well as other proposals,
for the fans, the fighters, and the organizations.
First, the fans benefit
by seeing a series of meaningful fights between top contenders and up and coming
fighters. Fans would be able to follow fighters on a regular basis and keep up
with their progress. At the same time, the process of promotion would be
clearly established and the process of matchmaking on upcoming cards would be
Second, the fighters
would benefit by having a clearly defined path to the higher ranks, and
receiving a regular opportunity to compete. Even those who suffer a loss
because of a bad night or a controversial decision have, at least, one
opportunity for redemption. A regular schedule of matches would also alleviate
many of the current problems over scheduling and training.
organizations could benefit by bringing stability and predictability to the
process of scheduling, matchmaking, financing, and promotion. The tournament
system could be used to fill out upcoming cards, and the organizations could
promote fights by offering previews and fighter profiles PPV broadcasts. This
measure would to alleviate some of the problems with the development of cards as
well as establish a series of new, up and coming fighters. At the same time,
contracts could be established on the basis of a fighters rank and placement in
the pool system. Pool C fights, for example, would be worth $5000 to show and
$5000 to win. Each round would pay progressively higher rates.
Despite the current
concerns, MMA has successfully established a new, exciting sporting competition
in a highly competitive market. The questions of whether MMA events are
legitimate have dissipated with the rulings of key state athletic commissions
and the decisions of cable companies to put these competitions back on the air.
Concerns over the current status of the MMA industry no longer bring the
legitimacy of the sport into question. They are directed at making a good
A dojo near my house has
a proverb prominently displayed out front that reads, “The extra mile is never
crowded.” MMA has come a long way in the past few years, now its time to
tackle the extra mile.
-Chris Colderley is a freelance writer. He can
be contacted at
firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions or inquiries.