Friday, February 9, 2007

MMA and Pro Wrestling

Interest in the world of mixed martial arts (MMA) has increased significantly in the last few years. It has reached a point where wrestling organizations are monitoring the pay-per-view numbers of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, and view it as a competitor in the pay-per-view arena. I’m sure that from time to time, some of my blog posts will examine the similarities and differences of MMA and pro wrestling. One topic that interests me is the lack of media coverage for MMA in the United States. Even professional wrestling was covered in papers in the early 20th century. Why can't you see UFC on SportsCenter? First, we need to take a quick look at how MMA reached its current level of popularity.

In the mid 1990s, a new combat sport was created by the Gracie family in Brazil, and quickly spread to the United States in the form of The Ultimate Fighting Championship, and to Japan as Pride Fighting Championship. The sport involved fighters from different styles all competing in the same tournament. Wrestlers fought boxers. Karate specialists fought Jiu Jitsu masters. The sport was quickly accepted in Japan, with most major news outlets carrying stories of the fights and the fighters. In the United States, however, the UFC was seen as barbaric, and quickly banned in most states. While the first tournaments were billed as having “No Rules”, there were rules against biting and groin strikes. The UFC decided to market the event as a gladiatorial spectacle, instead of a legitimate sporting event involving trained athletes. Unfortunately, the athletes in the first tournaments were not always that well trained, and some very vicious fights helped to create an image of the UFC that many people considered morally outrageous (especially to politicians).

On the brink of bankruptcy, the company was sold to Dana White and Frank and Lorenzo Ferttita in 2001. With new leadership and new rules, the company has seen a huge jump in popularity and acceptance, with pay-per-view buyrates matching all but the largest of WWE events.

So why do most mainstream media outlets refuse to cover the UFC in the United States, while they continue to cover boxing? Part of it has to do with the past conception of the UFC as a bloody spectacle, instead of a sporting event like boxing. I imagine part of it might also involve the press remembering the beginning of pro wrestling as a work. They see MMA as they saw pro wrestling before, and don't want to get caught reporting fixed outcomes like with wrestling in the early 20th century.

How do you all feel about MMA? Is it a fad? Will it gain the mainstream recognition that wrestling has not had since the late 90s? Will it affect wrestling in America?


Sam Ford said...

Kevin, thanks for your introductory primer on mixed martial arts. While we won't be talking about MMA significantly in this class, it is an interesting parallel to the world of professional wrestling. In one way, they can be grouped together. They share common formats, sometimes common ancestry, and even some of the same figures. On the other hand, they could be seen as complete opposites. In one, two people perform to make the illusion of violence, while the other is sporting competition. Of course, more people probably get hurt in pro wrestling than MMA becuase of the stunts and also the more frequent schedule.

As we delve into our readings, especially the ones we've been looking at over the past couple of days about the era in which "hookers" and "shooters" were more important, this link between MMA and pro wrestling is an interesting lens through which to look at an earlier wrestling era.

I don't know how much it will affect pro wrestling. It's not nearly as big a television force, but it's a bigger PPV draw, partly because UFC has much fewer PPVs per year than WWE. WWE would certainly increase their buy rates on PPVs if they cut the number down, but they are making much more money with their 16 or so PPVs a year.

Mike W. said...

I've slowly become interested in MMA over the years, but I don't follow it the way I do wrestling. That said, they have "characters" that I think show a direction that is attracting new viewers.

Tito Ortiz is a perfect wrestling heel - he's tough but not unbeatable, he has a massive ego problem, he's a California kid, and he has a popular adult film star for a girlfriend. The reason that it's easy to dislike him is because he has shown that he is everything he claims to be, and very few people have been able to put him in his place. His demeanor is also very lackadaisical; I find him to be the kind of heel that current pro wrestlers should aspire to be.

Chuck Liddell, on the other hand, has a kind of Steve Austin-like everyman about him. He's confident without being arrogant, but still an imperfect individual (that small paunch in his abdominal area gives him a lot more personality than I think many people realize).

Putting those two together in a match sold a whole lot of Pay Per Views, and with the exception of the match itself, top to bottom resembled a wrestling show in buildup, promotion, and execution. Is it a fad? I don't think so at all, as it's the kind of sport that's been around for thousands of years (just structured differently). Some promotions will succeed and fail, but that's the nature of the modern marketplace. As a competitive event, "MMA" will never go away, no matter what it's called.

Alex Maki said...

You ask why MMA isn't focused on in such media as newspapers or ESPN, but it's the same thing for professional wrestling. The only way for pro wrestling to make it in the newspapers these days is if they do a show in the area (and that's a BIG maybe). That's why WWE has resolved to using such people today as Kevin Federline and Donald Trump, or 10 years ago with Pamela Anderson and Jenny McCarthy. The media likes seeing celebrities outside their realm, and in the definitely outside their realm.

Peter "The Malcontent" Rauch said...

I think the barbarism angle accounts for most of the failure of MMA to click with the mainstream--while the UFC in particular has been working hard to combat this image (from what I've read, they seem to be adding rules like crazy in an attempt to sell it as a sporting event), the initial marketing seemed to go out of its way to present it as a modern-day gladiator show. That action movies (and, all right, videogames) had been dealing with the idea for some time probably didn't help matters--the thing that most differentiates a boxing match or a wrestling match from a scene from the Bloodsport series is that people die in the latter. This is one area where the issue of authenticity, so problematic in wrestling (and, to a lesser extent, boxing), actually seems to have hurt the UFC--I don't think anyone would mind if someone were to assure us that this was staged. Then again, as far as I know, nobody has died or been crippled in a UFC bout, so go figure.