Illustration: Ben Duffy/Sherdog.com
Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.
Why do you watch mixed martial arts? For that matter, why do you watch any sport? Whether you’re ignoring your date for a few seconds to catch the scores on the television behind the bar or planning a World Cup trip years in advance, consuming spectator sports is an endeavor that demands, at the very least, attention and a baseline amount of mental effort. At most, it can require exorbitant sacrifices of time and money. All of that says nothing of the emotional capital we invest, which exists parallel to and yet independent of the temporal and financial cost: Picture body-painted frat boys high-fiving at a college football game or, if you prefer, the “crying Jordan” meme of your choice.
Speaking only for myself, I know exactly what I want when I watch a sporting event. When I watch the NFL, I want the collection of worthless bums who comprise my fantasy team to act like they’ve thrown or caught a football before. If I’m at an NBA game, I want a fight to break out so that I can be reminded how hard it apparently is for 7-foot-tall people, even if they are world-class athletes, to throw decent punches. When I attend a Major League Baseball game, I just want the damned thing to be over before I finish the $8 beer in my hand. If there’s hockey on the television, I want to find the remote.
Silliness aside, except for full-time analysts and professional gamblers, we all watch sports for the same reason: to be entertained. There is a wide variance in what different people find entertaining. Ultimately though, there has to be some spark, some attraction, that makes a person willing to devote time -- or even commit to specific viewing times -- as well as money and mental bandwidth to what is a pure leisure activity.
This is especially crucial when it comes to mixed martial arts. This is not an easy sport to follow; as my colleague Anthony Walker summed up beautifully in his most recent column, watching all of the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s offerings is a complicated and expensive proposition, and the company’s new broadcast deal does not appear to be a move towards resolving that issue. I’d go a step further than Walker and say that if I didn’t know better, if I didn’t know that the UFC’s strategy is to keep irons in as many different fires as possible, I would think the organization was intentionally trying to make it difficult to access its product.
The UFC’s bizarre broadcast arrangements aside, even the most straightforward pay-per-view model imaginable would still make mixed martial arts more costly and complicated to follow than a major stick-and-ball sport. Add to that the fact that the UFC, while the dominant promotion in the sport, is far from the only important one, and the proposition of being a hardcore MMA fan becomes even more daunting. Even that only addresses the actual in-cage content; there’s the media side of things, as well. If you’re reading this article, you are by definition a big enough fan that you aren’t content with the scant coverage MMA receives in mainstream sports media. You want something more substantive than the 30-second hot takes ESPN and AM sports radio provide when our sport’s biggest star makes his comeback fight against a charter bus.
All of this brings me back to my original question: Why do you watch mixed martial arts? To be entertained, of course, but what about this sport entertains you? What are the things that make all the expense and hassle worth it to you? The sport has much to offer. If you long to see graceful, even elegant, movement employed in the pursuit of knocking another person senseless, witness the beautiful but brutal ballet of stylists like Edson Barboza and Stephen Thompson. If you enjoy the triumph of science over raw power, there’s plenty on tap; the modern incarnation of this sport started out as an infomercial for Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Enjoy Demian Maia while you can, and pray for the return of Dustin Hazelett. If you just crave a good scrap, if you root for the fighters who simply come forward and throw, MMA has blood and guts to spare. There’s a reason the “Just Bleed” guy has been a meme in this sport since UFC 15 but we’ve yet to see a “Just Circle Out, Don’t Back Straight Up” guy make an appearance.
I enjoy all of those things. They’re the essential elements that are present to some extent on just about every fight card, from “Event of the Year” candidates all the way down to some of the barely-above-WorldStar-level local cards I watch for the Sherdog Fight Finder. However, what really drives my personal MMA fandom, what entertains me sometimes to the point of inspiration, are moments of greatness. I keep coming back and keep watching because of individual moments of spectacular athletic achievement, human drama or genuine surprise that leave my mind buzzing, unable to sleep even though it’s 2 a.m. Great fighters are certainly part of that, but many great moments take place without two great fighters -- or even one -- in the cage.
I had no particular rooting interest in the Anderson Silva-Chael Sonnen title fight at UFC 117. I figured I knew the story on the mercurial “Spider” by that point in his career, and I actually enjoyed Sonnen’s chatter. My best hope for the event was that Sonnen had irritated Silva sufficiently to spur him on to a spectacular performance. The fight, of course, exceeded those hopes a hundredfold in what was arguably the greatest performance of Silva’s career and inarguably the best of Sonnen’s. My expectations were blown away, first that Sonnen was winning so overwhelmingly and then that Silva snatched victory away from him in such an improbable manner. The entire fight was electrifying.
There was one moment in Brock Lesnar’s fight against Shane Carwin at UFC 116 that will always stay with me. At the end of a 10-8 first round in which Carwin absolutely battered Lesnar and referee Josh Rosenthal could have stopped the fight at least once with no complaint from me, Carwin was visibly exhausted. Before the second round started, Lesnar grinned at Carwin from his corner. The camera cut to Carwin as he grinned back, somewhat less enthusiastically. An entire conversation, an entire story, was contained in that three- or four-second shot: Lesnar knew he was going to win, and Carwin knew Lesnar was going to win. You and I knew Lesnar was going to win. A few minutes later, he did. The smile was just a small, unexpected, great moment in a big fight.
I could spend all day here on Memory Lane, but it’s enough to point out that those moments can’t really be manufactured or scripted. They simply happen. They happen most often when the best are fighting the best and the stakes are high, but beyond good matchmaking, the issue can’t be forced. As much as I think surprise can make for a great moment, it’s worth noting that in both of my examples, the favored fighter won by stoppage. The path to the expected outcome can still be littered with unexpected twists and turns.
I’ve been dwelling on great moments this week mostly to try and sort out my own feelings about the announcement that Georges St. Pierre will be fighting Nate Diaz this summer, with the eventual goal of challenging for the lightweight title and thus becoming the first three-division champion in UFC history. My reaction was not even outrage or righteous indignation about “circus fights” or “more deserving contenders.” It was simply a shrug. It was hard to force myself to care one way or the other. St. Pierre is probably the greatest fighter ever, and he is not far from his physical prime. Why am I not excited to see him fight? In other words, why am I not entertained, or at least expecting not to be?
Part of the problem is that the booking feels so cynical and forced, even more so than the St. Pierre-Michael Bisping middleweight title fight last year. Here, St. Pierre is going to test the waters of the 155-pound division in what is, to put it mildly, a favorable style matchup for him. Assuming he wins, I have little doubt the UFC will time his title shot so that he has the easiest possible route to making history. Basically, the only way a St. Pierre-Diaz fight might deliver greatness would be if Diaz managed to pull off a spectacular upset against an opponent seemingly tailor-made to chew him up and spit him out.
Actually, never mind. I suddenly find myself caring about St. Pierre-Diaz. I don’t love it, definitely don’t like all of the ripples it will likely send through the division, but I believe I just bought in. May it deliver us a great moment or two.