It is a discussion that has been going on since the beginning of the modern MMA era. Is this truly a sport, or some type of freak show or spectacle? With the UFC 138 main event making it’s debut on FOX, I think it’s time we examined this question again. This weekend at the Honda Center in Anaheim, California, Cain Velasquez defends his heavyweight title for the first time against Junior Dos Santos in a match the UFC hopes will be the most watched MMA bout in it’s history.
I remember attending UFC 16 in March of 1998. It was an interesting and historic time. The UFC’s matchmaker was John Perreti, Joe Silva was only a consultant. Frank Shamrock was the headliner – we will get back to him in a minute. Frank had left the Lion’s Den, and there was some tension with Mikey Burnett and Jerry Bohlander on the card. Ken Shamrock had left the UFC for Pro Wrestling, but he attended this UFC to support Burnett and Bohlander. The brothers didn’t talk (I know they are only brothers by adoption).
The UFC was losing PPV outlets as ‘human cock fighting’ was the term being bandied about, that it was not a sport. The first time I heard the question asked ‘Spectacle or Sport?’ was to Ken Shamrock in a press conference that weekend.
Ken was adamant that it was more spectacle than sport. He insisted that there was an edge to ‘No Holds Barred’ and that it required a killer instinct that took it beyond the level of just a sport. It had a ‘life and death’ element.
People who agree with this theory pointed to the NHB debut of Frank Shamrock in Superbrawl where he took on John Lober as an example. Shamrock had competed extensively in Japan’s Pancrase organization, where limited striking (no punches, only open hand) and emphasis on ground fighting were paramount. Versus Lober, he got roughed up against a guy who was just meaner. When Shamrock avenged the loss to Lober, he clearly had added the killer instinct, that intangible that Ken Shamrock had talked about.
The UFC under Bob Meyrowitz floundered due to their inability to manage the marketing properly, and this idea that it was a spectacle and not a sport became entrenched.
Along came Zuffa who purchased the UFC from Meyrowitz, and they realized that acceptance as a sport was integral in what they would need to do.
The first event regulated by a Boxing Commission of note in the US was an IFC promoted show in NJ, but it cannot be disputed that the UFC under Dana White advanced the recognition of the sport with Athletic Commissions more than anyone. NHB was becoming MMA.
Then this past Friday, I watched the weigh ins for the Velasquez versus Dos Santos bout. What a spectacle! It really was a well done, well coordinated event that thousands of people saw live, and who know how many others saw it on the live streams. It was big time.
Spectacle or sport? The question is moot, it needs to be both things. The UFC has lifted the sport with a strong core of rules and regulations and a great deal of marketing aimed at establishing MMA as a sport. Then adding back the hype and spectacle in a classier way. The weigh ins were efficiently run, Rogan is good on the mike, the crowd was hyped. It was a classy event. The weigh ins for UFC 16 were held in the bathroom of the gym inside the hotel.
Because watching a bus drive off a cliff could be considered a spectacle. But so is watching the space shuttle take off.