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FightNoob Vol. 1 – Why Watch MMA?

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FightNoob is a recurring series on Single Blog Takedown where we help new fans and neophytes understand the sport of mixed martial arts. This is the first edition.

So it's a Saturday night, and you're bored in the city. The neon lights of the local sports bar call out to you; beer is good, right? And besides, they usually have something good on. Is it Yanks-Sawx weekend? Again? Well, I suppose that's tolerable enough.

Walking in the door, you're staggered by the crush of cheering spectators. The place is packed. Occasionally there's a round of applause or a surprised "oooh" rippling through the crowd of onlookers. People are wearing t-shirts with strange slogans and intricate designs, and on almost every TV… hey, that's not baseball! It looks like… a cage? And two guys hitting each other, only wait, now they're grappling… now there's a referee… and now everybody's cheering at… hey, is that the guy from Fear Factor doing commentary? And somebody buys a round, and the bar explodes into sound again, but you stare quizzically down the barrel of a High Life.

It's a great night in the city! The only problem: you don't have a clue what the hell is going on.

Well, gentle reader, Single Blog Takedown is here to help. Welcome to FightNoob, our training camp for MMA fans. Right now, you may not be able to tell your Silvas apart, and you may believe that an "omoplata" is the special of the night at Shiro's Sushi. But when we're done with you, you'll be a lean, mean, fight-watching machine, able to impress your friends and lovers with at least a solid command of what's going on inside the cage. (We can't train you to fight, though. Sorry. You're gonna have to get hit in the face on your own a few times for that.)

Volume 1 – Why Watch MMA?

Maybe you're like our sample fan above. That first glimpse of a new and exciting sport intrigued you, but you're not sold yet; after all, you've heard some wild things about mixed martial arts. Let me see what I can do to convince you that you should join the fan ranks of one of the fastest-growing sports in America.

We'll start with a quick baseline. If you don't like the notion of two guys hitting each other, you won't like MMA. And that's fine! Tennis season lasts pretty much all year. But if you don't mind the raw conflict found in combat sports, it's time you gave mixed martial arts a try.

Another note: while some of the reasons to watch are in contrast with other combat sports – and the obvious comparison is boxing – I don't see why MMA and boxing fans can't get under a bigger tent. I've loved boxing for a long time and still do; I just happen to think MMA does a number of things right that boxing frequently misses. But you can watch both! That's allowed. It's in the rules.

So, prospective fan, fear not the strange men in the tall cage! Here are some reasons why mixed martial arts may be the sport for you.

It's a pure expression of competition.: Two guys go in. They fight. One wins. There's something viscerally understandable about that. I like to think it's in our DNA, but even if it's just something we humans came up with to entertain ourselves behind a plate of Buffalo wings, it's got quite a heritage. Since the 6th century B.C., the Greeks had "pankration", which literally meant "all powers." As a combination of boxing and grappling, the forebear to MMA was originated over two and a half millenia ago!

The sport was contested at the ancient Olympics starting in 648 BC. While it has yet to make a return to the Olympics (likely because nobody's yet devised a scoring system for it that can ensure, with 99.9% accuracy, that Roy Jones. Jr. loses) it's not out of the question to think it may be back there again some day.

It's not "human cockfighting" anymore.: Of course, modern MMA's history has not always been so noble. We've all heard the famous "human cockfighting" line from Senator McCain about the sport; and for a while, I admit, he had a point. Mixed martial arts, at one time, was bloodsport. It was contested until a man couldn't continue and had few rules and unsafe disparities in weight.

But McCain's line was uttered in 1996. Since 2000, sanctioned MMA fights have been contested under a system of unified rules that banned a number of dangerous strikes and holds and instituted judging and a system of rounds. Weight classes were implemented in 2001. Yes, MMA can be violent and bloody on occasion, but that's the risk in any combat sport. The huge strides MMA has made in safety and sportsmanship, often unknown to the casual fan (or worse, glossed over by a lazy media,) have brought MMA in line with other, more traditional combat sports. State athletic commissions, quick to ban MMA in 1996, are coming around: 41 states (and the District of Columbia) currently sanction professional mixed martial arts.

It's got variety.: Any boxing fan knows the old adage "styles make fights." The styles of mixed martial arts encompass a smorgasbord of schools and techniques, enough so that virtually no two fighters have the same skill set. Of course there are contrasts between the massive striking power in a heavyweight battle and the speed of lighter competitors at bantamweight. But beyond mere weight classes, there are a number of striking disciplines (like boxing, kickboxing, Muay Thai, and karate) and grappling disciplines (like wrestling, judo, jiu jitsu, and sambo) on display in every card.

You'll get the matches you want.: Sure, there are a few fights that escape the grasp of promoters; in particular, the world's top heavyweight is at odds with the UFC, so he won't likely face any of the competition there. But compared to other sports, matchmaking is a breeze given the power of the major promotions. With most of the best fighters under UFC's banner, the fights the fans want to see frequently get made, and other promotions have enough strength in some classes (like WEC in bantamweight or Strikeforce in the women's division) to make all the necessary matches to ensure that title belts aren't the meaningless exercise they tend to be in boxing.

Free is better.: Yes, most MMA promotions have a pay-per-view business model, but that doesn't mean you'll always have to shell out the cash to get great fights. UFC has a number of high-caliber events on Spike TV for free, including UFC Fight Nights, their reality competition The Ultimate Fighter (the first season of which produced one of the greatest MMA fights of all time, Forrest Griffin vs. Stephan Bonnar), and even the occasional major card (UFC 95 aired free, as likely will UFC 105 in November). Other promotions also embrace television; Strikeforce has a deal with Showtime to air their major events, WEC airs their events live on Versus, and the promotion with the most exciting finishes of 2009, Bellator, broadcasts on ESPN Deportes.

While some networks have made an effort to keep boxing alive on free and cable television (most notably ESPN's excellent stalwart, Friday Night Fights), MMA has fully embraced, at the promotional level, getting good product out to the masses. And for cheap PPV viewing there's always the local sports bar.

It's exciting.: This is the most important point of all. There are some snoozer matches, just like there are some boring ballgames. (After all, the Bengals do have to play the Browns twice a year). But the pace of MMA is fast; there's rarely anywhere to run to. Fighters are encouraged to finish their fights; promotions frequently award bonuses for fight, knockout, and submission of the night. And with so many styles, a fight can end at any time. A barrage of punches can leave you open for a flying knee. A dominant position can become a losing position if your opponent catches you in a tricky submission. One mistake is frequently all a good fighter needs to impose his will and score a W, and that's why every minute of action is must-see.

So. Convinced yet? Why not watch for yourself and decide?

Strikeforce has an excellent card Saturday on Showtime starting at 10:30 PM, and UFC will be counterprogramming on Spike from 7-11 with a marathon of their "100 Greatest Fights" specials, which is as good a primer as any. Even if you don't know what's going on, you'll get an idea of what good fights look like and maybe that'll leave you hungry to learn more.

If you are, come back next week and we'll help you clear up some common misconceptions about mixed martial arts. Further weeks will discuss promotions, rules, techniques, MMA history, and fighters to watch, among other topics.

Have no fear, fresh MMA fan! We want you around here. If you have any questions, email singleblogtakedown@gmail.com and I'll be happy to help you out.

Image from Sharkspage. Pankration reference material from Wikipedia. Count of sanctioned states for MMA from Elite MMA Referees.

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About Matt DeTura

  • Perhaps if each fight had some kind of motive, as in, Fighter A stole Fighter B’s lunch from the fridge, and in retaliation, Fighter B told police that Fighter A had a dead body in his car.

  • Or Fighter B came on Fighter A’s popular interview segment, and Fighter A bonked him on the head with a coconut? I’d watch that. Too.