THE MMA TIGHT ROPE OF SPORTS/ENTERTAINMENT BEING WALKED
Way up there without a net offering cushion and safety, are the niche organizations delicately doing their best Wallendas of balancing sports and entertainment. The sports with the billion dollar deals insured from network television doesn’t have to make this walk on a regular basis, they have issues to deal with but such a percentage of the fan base they don’t have to venture near cliffs of flamboyancy.
Watch the MLB postseason, drama that is inherent not manufactured. The same with the NFL, college football and basketball, the NBA, golf and NASCAR. These are the big time sports grown with audiences who have followed since birth and understand there is no need for hyperbole, it’s real and natural in the competition in and of itself. That’s why millions tune in or show up and sponsors know they have a wide demographic on a silver platter to serve. Sure they have their characters, pretenders and general wackiness but those get weeded out of the real talent that continues to sprout up.
Pay-per-view is a different story and the storyline often has to be produced, honed and marketed to convince you to swipe that credit card, option out of an evening out to stay at home and turn on the event. The hero/villain, good guy/bad boy scenarios are a cinch sell. It’s as old as the movies, the rooting or booing interest that gives you a reason be it curious or committed.
This has played out over the last days in MMA. Strikeforce had to cancel a second straight card due to injuries involving middleweight champion Luke Rockhold and Olympic Silver Medalist Sara McMann. An injury to Frank Mir had left their heavyweight champ Daniel Cormier without an opponent and no one apparently wanted to fill the void. Showtime would have never shown a card without some star power draw, Strikeforce had none. This week on Inside MMA Cormier said he has not been told he would be on the next Strikeforce card that is promised to be “stacked.” He appeared rather apathetic about it, a harbinger of what is swirling around the group.
Stacked is an arbitrary term with two champs hurt, Gilbert Melendez in addition to Rockhold, and the most appealing fighter in the organization Ronda Rousey being speculated as the first female headliner for a UFC event in the future. For an organization that has played a hugely significant role in the development of the sport, questions about how much longer Strikeforce under the Zuffa umbrella can avoid the downpour that makes it simply a large chapter in the history book. With limited attention-grabbers it’s simple economics — demand exceeds supply.
Former UFC and Strikeforce champ Frank Shamrock conceded as much on Inside MMA this week. That the ceiling has been hit by the organization he has been a spokesman and a major advocate for. That ceiling being a strong second outfit to compete with the UFC.
The limited number of star attractions can’t even escape the powerhouse UFC to the point of a head-scratching matching of light heavyweight king Jon Jones now taking on Chael Sonnen next spring and just important, more so perhaps, both men coaching in TUF 17. The fight Jones had previously turned down is now on its way to reality. Reality is the operative word. It is our culture today where brashness pays off. A WWE mentality has permeated all walks of our Honey Boo Boo life. And if there is ever a division of kid fighters, she will be wooed by the UFC and others. It’s the sizzle more than the steak.
As much as MMA wants to distance itself from boxing, it can’t. For a brutal, individual sport there is one basic, narrow path. Some fighters will not pan out, other talented fighters just don’t have a style to appeal to the masses and some are injury prone or simply won’t take a challenge without months and months of preparation for their mind as much as their body.
Sonnen makes outrageous, unsubstantiated claims and has no regard or need of fact-checking explanations, but he is good copy with clever quotes that has found arguably one of the largest MMA fan followings. A one-time politician who has mastered spin and become a cross-over celebrity. He has reinvented himself over the last few years and capitalized on his best fight, the last minute defeat to Anderson Silva, parlaying that into a 27-12-1 (6-5 in the UFC) fighter who is a publicity magnet. In other words the perfect person who brings pizzazz to a championship bout regardless of credentials, who will liven things up for a polar opposite personality, the champion Jones.
It makes for good TV if not a good fight. His appearance should boost slipping TUF ratings and should assist PPV buys that otherwise wouldn’t come to just another guy trying to beat the seemingly unbeatable Jones. It’s the whole Silva meetings being played out in a higher weight class. A dominant champion who has no peers and no real threats on the horizon that creates the clamor needed to build interest because the champ himself isn’t the in-your-face media hound coveted by the tweet happy devotees.
The best example of this is the tweet offered up by the forgotten man of the moment, one of the all time greats in the sport, Dan Henderson, whose injury kept him for the scheduled meeting with Jones this year. Presumably he would be healthy again and ready to go but didn’t even qualify as a footnote when excuses about all those who had turned down a chance at Jones was the reason for the announced match up.
“I guess I should just quit training to win fights and to be exciting for the fans and just go to s— talking school,” the only MMA fighter to concurrently hold two titles in two different weight classes said into cyberspace. A dead-on, old-school explanation of the devolution in combative sports.
With a four fight win streak, including 7 of 8, with the Fight of the Year classic against Mauricio Rua in 2011, this would’ve been the unqualified great fight that has the true anticipation not needing faux posturing. A legend against a legend in the making. That’s the sports side. The other is the entertainment side that fans instead are offered.
Henderson has also tweeted he doesn’t begrudge Sonnen his shot. No one should. Sonnen is a world class wrestler and though lacking no major championship belt, except for the made up one he has worn for PR stunts, he has zeroed on better than anyone on what a tight roping walking sport/entertainment entity desires in a pinch.
Being centered and being balanced are not the same these days in MMA. It’s doubtful they ever will be again.
Watch Kenny Rice along with Bas Rutten LIVE every Monday night on Inside MMA, and check out Kenny’s new book “Not Hit Yet” an insider look at the MMA world in 2012, available at Amazon now
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