Editorial by Rami Genauer for MMAWeekly.com
Without a doubt, mixed martial arts is experiencing a meteoric rise in popularity unseen by any sport in recent memory. The current climate is one where organizations like the UFC can seemingly do no wrong. Every day brings more fans, more media coverage, and greater acceptance into the mainstream.
But how stable is MMA really? Perhaps the sport’s rise has been so sharp because it hasn’t really been tested. How will it fare in the face of tragedy, scandal, or both? What is the thing that presents the greatest danger to the continued ascent of mixed martial arts?
Such questions are not prudently ignored as histrionics, because much of MMA’s acceptance seems to lie merely on the surface. Underneath this veneer of acceptance lies a wealth of skepticism, criticism, and outright antipathy.
Mainstream media cover the UFC, but it’s obvious that many reporters begrudgingly cover MMA, layering their stories with tired clichés about the sports previous brutality. Why so much focus on conditions that haven’t existed for years? The implicit message is that many think the sport is still too brutal, despite rules and sanctioning. The broadcast deal with HBO is still not completed precisely because acceptance is not universal. You can be sure that debate is raging in newsrooms around the country about what to do with the UFC.
The fear is that, perched on a delicate point between continued success and failure, it would take just one incident for this whole enterprise to come crashing down. Conventional wisdom says that a death or serious injury during a match might be the thing to do it. The truth is, while a fighter health calamity would be a tremendous black eye for the sport and would undoubtedly make regulation more difficult in states that don’t currently sanction MMA, the sport is entrenched in important states like California, Nevada, and New Jersey. The athletic commissions in those states are well educated in the sport and are on board with MMA while fully aware of its dangers. It is highly unlikely that they would abandon the sport completely.
Media coverage in the aftermath would be terrible, and it would be a while before things calmed down. But the sport would survive. Fans are aware of the potential for disaster (some would say they are drawn to it), and their support for MMA is unlikely to wane even after a tragedy. NASCAR didn’t collapse after the death of Dale Earnhardt nor did the NFL crumble following the on-field paralyses of Mike Utley.
There is another threat, one that is more serious, as it attacks the very foundation on which MMA is built: Credibility. MMA has succeeded by straddling the line between boxing and the WWE. This positions the sport as thrilling, complex, action-packed, and 100% real. If that integrity was ever threatened, recovery might be impossible for a sport that the UFC bills with the tagline “As real as it gets.”
Recent developments have brought this danger to the fore. The news that Pride employees tried to bribe Quinton Jackson to lose his fight to Kazushi Sakuraba (a story corroborated by Jackson’s agent but denied by former Pride officials) damages the sport’s reputation. Admittedly, it is a minor story unlikely to have major impact on the future of MMA. Most hardcore fans have been skeptical of Pride’s business practices for years and most mainstream press couldn’t care less about competitive imbalance in a defunct foreign organization.
Allegations of bribery in the UFC would be far less benign. Simply put, bribery in the UFC would kill MMA in America. The minute that the public suspects that the action they are seeing is anything but real, they will question what cachet the sport has over wrestling or boxing. The casual fan will be lost.
Unlike many trends, which are sparked initially by media attention, MMA, as a phenomenon, has been built from the ground up; fans clamored about it so loudly that mainstream media had to take notice. A loss of faith on the part of the fan base would cut the legs out from underneath mixed martial arts.
As the sport’s profile grows it will only become a bigger gambling ticket. The more money that is wagered on fights the more interest someone will have in influencing a fight’s outcome. While no one knows precisely how much UFC fighters make above what is reported to the state athletic commissions, the fact is, many fighters are still forced to work regular jobs to make ends meet. How tempting might it be for a fighter staring at the high cost of training and a fight purse less than $10,000 to take a dive if approached?
The consequences of a bribery allegation would be dire. Given the insatiable appetite among media for UFC news in the current climate, such a story would generate huge reporting. More so, it would serve as confirmation that this is a degenerate activity, marked with the trappings of blood, crime, and sleaze. Worse than a serious injury or death in public, which can be seen as an isolated incident, the behind-the-scenes nature of a gambling scandal would cast suspicion over every fight in the sport, past, present, and future. How could we know which fight was an upset and which was something else?
The solution to this problem is not entirely clear. In the first case, the UFC should pay its fighters more, reducing the temptation to accept an offer from an unscrupulous gambler. Given what they’d stand to lose if a scandal were to come to light, they can call it an investment in motivational integrity. Even so, there’s a limit to what the UFC can do. Every major sport (and a whole bunch of minor ones) has dealt with a gambling scandal. But never has any sport had as much to lose.