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Across the Great Divide

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Another November weekend, another packed MMA schedule. UFC comes to us from England, it’s in primetime, and it’s airing free on Spike.

And I will likely not be watching.

That’s a bit of misdirection in service of this column, so I’ll clarify: I’ll certainly get to the fights Sunday morning on DVR. But Saturday night’s my birthday, and I’m going out on the town and… oh yeah… planning my night around the Pacquiao-Cotto fight. The boxing card.

It’s only fair that I afford you a minute here to light your pitchfork on fire. I’ll wait.

Back? Good.

I found myself defending MMA to boxing fans on the comment section of The Rumble this week, which is odd both because they have a tremendous staff of MMA writers and the author in question, Dave “Large” Larzelere, is my favorite boxing writer and unquestionably one of the best on the web. But reading about his struggle to get excited about the Fedor/Rogers card made me wonder if pulling fans over from the sweet science might be even harder than getting them off the street.

Marcus Davis made a successful transition from boxing to MMA. But can the fans?

To answer that question, we first need to take a look at why we watch MMA. For some, it’s because we like combat, the rush of powerful fighters brawling. That’s one that comes over easily enough from boxing, right?

But there’s more to combat than brutality. Dedicated boxing fans are used to looking for technique as well: the myriad punching angles of a Sugar Ray Robinson, the lightning footwork of a Muhammad Ali. It’s a major mental shift to see the beauty in something like Fedor’s wild sambo punches that throw as much arm as fist, or to appreciate the wide, takedown-stuffing bases that sap the power from shots.

To use an analogy: I like running. I like fencing. I like shooting! But you’re never going to get me to sit in front of a modern pentathlon marathon on Versus. There are going to be a large number of boxing fans who simply don’t like a grappling exhibition like we saw on Saturday night between Jake Shields and Jason Miller. And though their disciplines don’t have as vocal a fan base, I wonder if the large pocket of amateur wrestling (mostly located in the midwest and north-central US) and jiu-jitsu fans are bothered by strikers. I certainly know that the BJJ guys I know are far more interested in seeing a Demian Maia than they do a Chuck Liddell.

Of course, some of the lack of crossover appeal is wrapped up in the lack of mainstream starpower. For MMA fans there are plenty of “drop everything and watch” fighters but there isn’t a massive cultural force like Ali out there. Much ado was made of Georges St.-Pierre’s signing up to endorse Gatorade and how that’s a watershed moment for MMA, but the truth is, it’s only catching the sport up with beach volleyball, the WNBA, and facemasked hip-hop dancing.

Without a major crossover fighter, it’s easy for the two camps to become stratified. Why should boxing fans expend energy supporting a top MMA fighter when they need to fight to get mainstream recognition for supremely talented boxers like Pacquiao that are still underappreciated by U.S. fans?

MMA fans crossed over from boxing for different reasons: a desire for something different, perhaps. In many cases, I think it was disgust: disgust with the corruption and disorganization in a previously-proud sport. That’s one reason it’s so important for Zuffa and Strikeforce to draw in boxing fans in particular. A fanbase that understands where a sport has suffered is an important voice in making sure history doesn’t repeat itself.

I think boxing fans will come around, but it’s going to take time. After all, the Sport of Kings that most of the previous generation fell in love with is a long way removed from bare-knuckle, unlimited-round bouts of the Jack Johnson days. Likewise, there’s definitely going to be an adjustment period to a sport that has really only exploded on the scene in the past couple of years.

For now, the UFC card starts at 8 and you (and I) should be able to squeeze it in before seeing Pacman and Cotto go toe-to-toe.

See if you can’t get a few people to show up early.

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About Matt DeTura

  • Matthew T. Sussman

    “I like running. I like fencing. I like shooting! But you’re never going to get me to sit in front of a modern pentathlon marathon on Versus”

    But it sounds like you would play a shitload of Zelda.

    I always wondered how much MMA was trying to pander to boxing/wrestling fans. And the other way around, I’m sure “the original fightin’ sport” is trying to Bissingerize a new style of regularly-scheduled combat.