Glee, Water Polo, adults collecting stuffed toy animals. The list of things I don’t ‘get’ is an ever-expanding one. Until recently the sport of mixed martial arts held about as much interest for me as bog snorkelling. The octagon in which fights take place appeared to merely be a stage for two men wearing cycling shorts to try to strangle each other. This lack of interest has nothing to do with finding the violence abhorrent, far from it. I have been a boxing fan since the 80s and have no problem with watching two consenting adults trying to knock lumps out of each other. No, the truth was that I found MMA boring.
As with so many things these days it was Twitter that acted as the catalyst for viewing the sport in a different light. Micro-blogging has introduced me to a wider world of MMA and the UFC. The UFC appears to be the pinnacle of mixed martial arts, the best of the best if you like, (with less Chris Penn and Eric Roberts, sadly). Conversations with people whose opinions I respect led to taking more of an interest in what many refer to as the fastest growing sport on the planet.
One of the main MMA tub-thumpers I had encountered on Twitter was sports writer Simon Head. Simon writes for, among others, the Mirror’s MMA blog and was extremely helpful in pointing me in the right direction when it came to learning about the UFC. One of the first things he showed me was a montage that is updated and shown before every big UFC event. When I first saw this clip I realised that there was a lot more to the sport than grappling on the floor, Greco-Roman style and it really got the ball rolling. Watching a few old fights shown on Five late at night just reiterated the fact that I had probably got it wrong about MMA. When I finally got round to subscribing to ESPN, (the UK’s broadcaster for UFC events) I was very excited to find out that, (with unintentionally perfect timing) I would be able to watch UFC 134, live from Rio De Janeiro.
From watching UFC president Dana White’s video blog to listening to the excellent ESPN UFC podcast with Gareth A. Davies I had tried to fill in some of the many blanks in my knowledge. When the time came to get up at 1:45 that morning I felt I had a somewhat better understanding of what to expect.
As the night progressed what impressed me most was the boxing skills of the combatants involved. This was a result of a daft assumption on my part that as all fights ended up on the ground, (they don’t) the training given over to boxing was minimal. One of the biggest surprises of the night for me was the fight between Brendan ‘The Hybrid’ Schaub and Antonio ‘Minotauro’ Nogueira. I had been led to belive that Schaub’s biggest chance of victory was to stay off the floor and hope to land some of his renowned big punches. It took just over 3 minutes to prove this theory wrong. ‘Big Nog’ Nogueira, a man whose record shows a love of submission holds turned the tables on Schaub and knocked him bandy with a huge left hook. Despite being only a little over 2 years older than me Nogueira looks old enough to be my Dad and he’d out Schaub-ed Schaub.
A lot is made in the mainstream media of the brutality of MMA. The term cage-fighting is often used to, in my opinion, paint a more dangerous picture of the UFC and its fellow organisations than necessary. That said, there is one aspect of the fights that took some getting used to. In boxing when a fighter goes down his opponent is sent to a neutral corner . It came as a slight shock each time a fighter in Rio pounced immediately on a fallen foe. It is a very well refereed sport though and the phrase ‘intelligently defend yourself’ is one I have heard repeatedly. If the referee thinks you are not defending yourself properly the bout is stopped. Only once was I genuinely concerned over a fighter’s wellbeing and that was when Forrest Griffin was stopped early by Shogun Rua after having his head bounced off the canvas by repeated hammer fists. Happily, Griffin was soon on his feet and seemed to show no lasting damage.
On we went to the main event of the evening, Silva vs Okami. There has been plenty written about Anderson Silva by far more qualified people than me. The best compliment I can give the middleweight champion is that, in victory it looked as though the fight ended exactly when Silva chose it to end. There was a consummate control innate in all elite sports men and women and it was a real joy to watch him fight. It seemed the perfect way to end my first real experience of watching an MMA show.
So that was it. I had watched and thoroughly enjoyed mixed martial arts for the first time. My initial was thought was, yes, but they can’t all be this good though. Can they? The answer it would appear is yes, it can. Judicious match making allied to a seemingly real desire to provide the fans with entertainment. These are just some of the driving forces behind this sport. Boxing is too often concerned with the ‘main event’. They use a big fight as a crutch to load weak bills on to, assuming that fans won’t want to bother with the smaller fights anyway. The UFC is proof that you can have a stacked card and it takes absolutely nothing away from the headline bout. In an era where boxing is losing fans hand over fist it could learn a lesson from Dana White and the not so new kids on the block.