The Shrinking Middle Ground in The World of MMA
Posted by Robert Winfree on 04.25.2014
With MMA cards swinging between thrilling matches like Donald Cerrone vs. Melvin Guillard to slow bouts like Jake Shields and Ed Herman on UFC 150, the middle ground is shrinking fast. 411's Robert Winfree looks at why that's a bad thing!
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MMA is my favorite sport. I am probably the only person I know who makes that claim. Plenty of people enjoy the sport, but I know few people who would rank it above baseball or football in terms of personal preference. One of the things that has attracted me to the sport is drama. MMA, or combat sports in general, have instant drama. I can sleep through your average American football game, wake up mid way through the fourth quarter and know everything I need to know about the game. I know the game will take four quarters, I know roughly how long the broadcast will go, when the only thing that matters is the end result the last quarter provides all the requisite information. Now I know why people love other sports, and I am not trying to find fault with them or with enjoyment of them. If you love football then by all means, continue to enjoy it.
Unfortunately MMA also has some of the highest variance in terms of enjoyment and presentation. MMA can go from an absolutely horrible fight to one that has the entire arena and the live audience cheering. At UFC 150 we had this exact scenario play out. The middle fight on the main card was an insomnia curing affair between Jake Shields and Ed Herman. Shields was able to constantly get Herman down, obtain a dominant position, and hold it for the duration. Fifteen minutes later Shields was awarded the unanimous decision and the crowd was returning from bathroom breaks, though the victory would be overturned following a failed drug test by Shields. What took place immediately following this sleep inducing outing? A fight that lasted all of 1:16 when Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone defeated Melvin Guillard. For that minute Guillard rocked Cerrone, Cerrone recovered and head kicked Guillard into unconsciousness. We went from a fight that turned out to be horribly forgettable to one that featured action and drama. MMA can turn up or down that fast.
It is this variance that also leads to some of the issues with the sport. The highs of MMA, be it a beautiful knockout blow or an all out back and forth war, are so lofty that anything less suffers from comparison. Some of it is just not that good, the UFC 156 "clash" between former light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira would have been bad under any circumstances but suffered even more because we had just watched Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva knockout Alistair Overeem in the third round of their fight. Nothing was going to be able to follow now lightweight champion Anthony Pettis knocking out Joe Lauzon with a head kick at UFC 144, and the fact that Hatsu Hioki and Bart Palaszweski had a decent outing following it just makes it less memorable than it would have been on its own. Last week Donald Cerrone and Edson Barboza stole the show when they fought at UFC on FOX 11. Barboza rocked Cerrone with some punches early, Cerrone survived, dropped Barboza with a stiff left jab and choked him out on the mat. As a fight it was easily the highlight of the night. Following that outing would have been tough, and unfortunately we were treated to a slightly better than amateur level grappling based fight between Miesha Tate and Liz Carmouche. Both women were there, they fought, Tate even tried to finish the fight in the third with a rear naked choke on a couple of occasions. Under slightly different circumstances the fight might have been well received, but they had to follow a fight that displayed the shocking quickness with which a fight can end.
Not every fight will be an all time classic, fights like the first fight between Dan Henderson and Mauricio "Shogun" Rua or the first fight between Michael Chandler and Eddie Alvarez are viewed in such high regard is because they are special. Fights like Jim Miller vs. Joe Lauzon, Jon Jones vs. Shogun Rua, or any of the fights between Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos are good to great fights. They don't move into all time classics, but they are watchable, fun, and provide fond memories to those who have seen them. Unfortunately there seems to be a steep cut off for MMA fights. I'm not even talking about the horrible stuff, like any given Ryan Jimmo fight, but just the run of the mill fights. Mike Pierce and Josh Koscheck, Mike Easton and Ivan Menjivar, or Fabricio Werdum and Travis Browne. Those aren't necessarily bad fights, but the fall onto the wrong side the theoretical line between good fights and everything else. They just seem worse by comparison because the good MMA fights can hit such incredible heights. If there were a mathematical scale for ranking MMA fights it wouldn't be a 1 to 1 scale, it would be closer to the richter scale where a 4.0 is ten times larger than a 3.0. In the world of MMA we are getting more and more events full of "just a fight" encounters. This isn't just the number of events the UFC is running, or the quality of the fighters performing, it's also a matter of comparison. We all know how great MMA can be, and because we've seen, felt, and heard those heights, anything less than the peak of the mountain seems much less thrilling.
With other sports, truly great encounters are a rarity and so many games/fights/matches fall into the "fair to middling" category that differentiating along those lines is easier. Other sports also have seasons that build to a final clash, combat sports don't follow that same trajectory most of the time. MMA doesn't have the same season long build to a finale, they run events nearly every week and so they live and die by the performance of the fighters, and this is a sport where the heights of athleticism, talent, action, and heart are incredibly lofty. Anything but the top of the mountain is nearly ground level.