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FightNoob Vol. 2 – MMA MMisconceptions

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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 second edition. Previous editions can be found right here.

Volume 2 – MMA MMisconceptions

MMA is a sport that has blossomed, almost overnight, into a billion-dollar industry. For all its successes, though, the sport frequently faces an uphill battle in the media. A combination of factors — what the sport used to be, lazy reporting in the mainstream media, and a significant generational gap, among others — have led to a variety of misinformation about the sport. In our second edition of FightNoob, we’re going to look at a number of things that you may want to think about differently if you want to be a fan of mixed martial arts.

Friendlier than you’d think.

FALSE: MMA is still human cockfighting.
Love your work, Senator McCain. Campaign finance reform? Brilliant. But among MMA fans, there’s still plenty of tooth-gnashing over your 1996 comments in which you compared MMA to a death match among roosters.

Thirteen years later, the sport has evolved significantly. The fighters are better trained. There are weight classes and rounds. There are better referees. Dangerous moves are outlawed. Safety measures have taken a significant jump. MMA has caught up to the rest of the competitive martial arts when it comes to protecting its greatest assets: the fighters. So before we take another step, let’s bury this 13-year old trope before it heads off to high school.

FALSE: MMA equals UFC. Or: “I’m going to the bar to watch Ultimate Fighting.”
Listen, when you’re tossing the ol’ pigskin around in the backyard with your kid, you’re not “playing NFL.” Calling all MMA “Ultimate Fighting” is like calling all baseball “Major Leaguing”; it simply doesn’t make sense. Mixed martial arts is a sport, UFC is a league. Beyond that, if you think the UFC is the only game in town, you’re missing out on some of the best fighters. They’re also located in Strikeforce, DREAM, WEC, Sengoku, Bellator, and a number of other quality MMA promotions. UFC is the biggest promotion, but certainly not the only power player. It didn’t hurt your brain too much in the 90s to acknowledge that there were great pro wrestlers in the WWF and WCW. Don’t lump all MMA under the same banner.

FALSE: That show down at The Roadhouse (or substitute local dive bar, strip club, or schoolyard) is legitimate MMA.
I’m all for supporting local talent, but this is a dangerous misconception. I was watching the Yahoo! chat for Strikeforce Saturday night and some yahoo suggested that “they should just let folks from the crowd fight to fill the card”. That is a monumentally stupid suggestion.

These sort of illegal, unlicensed shows are going to happen in the same way that anything that makes a buck can be harnessed. But those fights — between amateur, unskilled fighters — are dangerous brawls and the sort of thing that gives MMA a bad name. Without doctors and professionals around looking out for the fighters, or matchmakers making sure that the bouts are weighed and competitive, unsanctioned MMA is a good way to get somebody killed. It’s okay to support young local fighters, but if you’re really looking out for them, make sure they’re fighting under safe conditions.

FALSE: MMA fighters are making a lot of money.
Some are. But let’s set our expectations here and get a little perspective.

At the top of the sport — guys like Fedor, Silva, Lesnar, GSP — fighters can expect to make in the low six figures for a fight’s base pay, between $100K-$300K. Promotions frequently supplement those base pays with large win bonuses in addition to bonuses for Fight, Knockout, and Submission of the Night; but those are no guarantee since you’re up against every other fighter on the card for those. Meanwhile, if you look at the world of professional sports in general, an elite, world-class athlete like Alex Rodriguez or Kobe Bryant commands between 10 and 20 million dollars a year in salaries alone before endorsements. While boxers still command massive purses — Floyd Mayweather Jr. took home $20 million in purse last year — don’t expect to see an MMA fighter on Sports Illustrated‘s Fortunate 50 any time soon.

The pay disparity gets larger when you look at lesser-known fighters. Take last Sunday’s WEC 42, where Brian Bowles upset Miguel Torres. Torres was the biggest star in an admittedly smaller promotion, but most writers considered him a top-five pound-for-pound guy going in. Well, Torres only banked $26,000 for that main event fight. Bowles took home 28K, but that was after a 9K win bonus and a 10K knockout of the night bonus. His base pay for main eventing a big card on cable television? $9,000. Given that the minimum salary for an NFL rookie is over $300,000, you see that the undercard guys are just barely scraping by from fight money.

Of course, almost every fighter is supplementing fight income with sponsorship, although these are small in scale compared to major athlete shoe and clothing deals. Certain top-end fighters also will command part of the gate in commissions, depending on their contract with the promotion. But putting the money up against the beating you take, MMA is not a sport you go into if you’re an athlete just looking to cash in.

FALSE: If a fighter’s not undefeated, he’s not worth a damn.
This is a myth that has spread from boxing, where fighters often run up gaudy records against tomato cans before they’re thrust into the limelight of a major card. MMA records are far more realistic. There are a few big-name undefeated fighters: Lyoto Machida is 15-0, and most people forgive the loss in Fedor Emilianenko’s 30-1 (1) record given the bizarre circumstances that really should have given him a no contest or a DQ victory. But nobody’s going to say Anderson Silva, Georges St.-Pierre or B.J. Penn aren’t three of the world’s best fighters, and they have 11 losses between the three of them. With a number of tougher matches in an elite MMA fighter’s career (as well as a larger variety of styles to prepare for), losses are a given.

When judging a fighter’s record, look at a number of things: the quality of his competition, the impressiveness of his stoppages, and his recent results. That will give you a better idea of how he can expect to fare going forward.

FALSE: MMA is dangerously or excessively unsafe.
I had to choose my words carefully on this one. Only an idiot would claim that a sport where two full-sized competitors attempt to make the other unconscious is “safe”. The fact is, any martial art is a dangerous sport for participants.

But there are a number of sports that maintain social acceptability despite some level of dangerous, unsafe behavior. Football, hockey, boxing, auto racing, horse racing, skiing, bicycling, skateboarding, bull riding? All of these carry the risk of serious injury or fatality for participants. And — like MMA — all of them have made steps to increase safety. Yet MMA gets a bad rap.

My two cents? I think it’s the blood. Lots of exposed surfaces on knees and feet, in addition to the use of fingerless grappling gloves, mean that strikes to the face are much more likely to cause cuts than similar strikes from heavily-padded boxing gloves. And strikes to the face bleed, and with lots of grappling to spread the blood around and five-minute rounds instead of three, I don’t think anyone will contest that there’s more blood in MMA than boxing. Unfortunately, I think that means people jump to “dangerous” much more than they should.

As far as the old “safety of boxing vs. safety of MMA” argument goes, my take is this: if you’re comfortable with the safety of boxing, you should be comfortable with the safety of MMA. There are a number of differences between the sport that make an apples to apples comparison impossible. Size of gloves, padding, kicks, rules regarding elbows, knockdown limits, and the fact that not all MMA is striking: all of these make injury comparisons difficult. I’m sure there will be some dementia cases down the road, just as there have been in boxing. And I can sympathize with people who don’t have a taste for either sport. But for amount of railing the mainstream media does against the barbarism of MMA when they’ve covered boxing as a marquee sport since Joe Pulitzer (who, by the way, thought boxing was barbaric) was hawking papers… I just don’t see it.

Image from MSNBC.

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