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Saturday, December 17, 2005
I have not commented much in the last couple of years about what is now known as mixed martial arts. Frankly, I have neither watched many of its shows nor followed it that much of late, preferring to focus on combat sports which are more closely organized as sports ought to be, with all their defects. Even boxing, with all the crap I have been campaigning against relentlessly, is run more like a sport than the sum of all these scattered, individual, warring mixed martial arts promotions are, including the best-intentioned ones.
UFC, for its part, has largely built its new-found audience by positioning itself as a form of pro "wrestling" except that, of course, its contests are real. Yet it has mimicked the type of anti-social themes promulgated by the likes of WWE, especially in its so-called reality series, as if a real sport doesn't provide enough reality for real sports fans. Examples include endless trash-talking, ultimate disrespect for opponents including even urinating in a rival's bed, ad nauseam. It succeeded in retaining enough of the audience watching WWE's Monday night spectacle, with the first season of "The Ultimate Fighter" immediately following it on Spike TV, to get decent ratings.
That it had long ago sold the soul of the combat sports and the martial arts in the quest of Jerry Springer-like ratings didn't seem to matter much to its well-heeled owners. Remember, shortly after these guys took over, they tried to give us Carmen Electra as the group's spokesperson. The Carmen Electra Era was a short one, but it was one of the first chapters in the dumbing down of what was once a thinking fan's sport.
These are by no means new themes for me. So to keep folks on their toes, and to dig up an old chestnut in the season many listen to Nat King Cole crooning about them roasting on an open fire, here is a piece I wrote back on March 9, 1997, for the long-defunct newsletter Vale Tudo News, of which I was editor, in a time long lost and a galaxy far, far away:
SOME NO-HOLDS-BARRED ADVICE: RUN NO-HOLDS-BARRED FIGHTING LIKE A SPORT, NOT A SPECTACLE
by Eddie Goldman
Just when we thought the biggest legal battles for no-holds-barred fighting (NHB) were behind us, that unaccountable merry band of men and women known as politicians pulled a double-cross that was remarkable even for people with as few scruples or principles as them. Barely four months after signing into law near-unanimously passed legislation legalizing NHB in New York, Governor Pataki signed yet a new law, also almost unanimously passed, repealing that one, and making NHB illegal in the State of New York. Now we can safely send the kiddies back into the streets to play.
But let's face the hard facts. Scoundrels and no-counts as the politicians may be, this fiasco could never have happened without a series of major miscalculations on the part of many of the people who run the NHB companies. Most importantly, the public seems to be tiring of the present direction of NHB. Despite the enormous free publicity UFC XII got in the mainstream media because of the legal and political controversy, despite coming off a good show in UUFC2, and despite having a marketable showdown between the old and new stars of UFC in Severn and Coleman, a gimmick that works in every other sport, the reported buy rate was between .4 and .5, or flat, about the same as the last two shows.
For those who support the sport of NHB and want to see it prosper, it's time some issues be addressed promptly and properly. NHB has surely reached a decisive crossroads, and it is unclear just how much time it has left to reverse its present slide.
The single biggest weakness of the NHB companies -- all of them -- has been their failure to run consistently and thoroughly their promotions and NHB as a sport. This is not just a case of too much hype in their advertising, which we pointed out in issue #9 of VTN. In fact, their promotional materials have improved since then. No, the problems appear deeper.
The major NHB companies need to field cards involving athletes and only athletes. They must be professionals with real, and verifiable credentials. There are still too many stiffs with 98-0 and 200-0 records being passed off on us, like we're too dumb to figure out we're being lied to by the promoters. There is only one athlete in the world, to my knowledge, that in any type of combat sport, has anything even approaching that kind of astronomical record. That distinction belongs to none other than the three-time Olympic gold medalist Alexandre Karelin, undefeated in international Greco-Roman wrestling competition in the last 10 years or so.
The major league NHB promotions should not be presenting the equivalent of minor league talent on their pay-per-views. Those fighters can and do appear on many of the smaller, regional shows. For example, on the February 28 I.F.C. show, several of the fighters were introduced as making their professional NHB debut, and that is the way it should be. But if the $19.95 and up pay-per-views remain populated by guys who look like they are amateurs and maybe won a few club or bar fights, why should anyone expect the buy rates to do anything other than nosedive? And what the hell are guys like this doing fighting for supposedly major championships? Let fighters like these first accomplish something somewhere else first. This is the kind of Don King crap that is killing boxing. Let's leave such tactics for promoters like him.
If NHB is ever to be accepted as a sport, and not a spectacle that resembles pro wrestling, there must be independently-verified steroid testing implemented immediately. One well-known NHB competitor told me recently that at a major NHB show held not long ago, EVERY fighter was on the juice. I have heard similar stories from other insiders. Whatever the actual numbers, it's obvious to the naked eye that this has been at least more or less the case. Get rid of steroids. Now. Completely.
Another disaster waiting to happen is the conflict of interest involving those who work in a promotion and have an interest in a particular fighter or group of fighters. Also, similarly, there are those who represent both fighters in the same fight, or more than one fighter in the same tournament.
The rule should be simple: one manager, one fighter per fight or tournament or weight class, alternates included.
No wonder that both insiders and fans alike have been openly speculating on whether or not some NHB fights have had pre-determined finishes. This alone could cause the death of NHB.
How on earth can you convince an ill-educated public, a dim-witted press, and a bunch of money-hungry politicians that NHB is a legitimate sport deserving of the same sanctioning and tolerance as other sports, when it is being run like this?
There are also many pro and cons on such issues as time limits, judges, and rounds. The fact is that people have limited time to view spectator sports, and that most people want to see a winner and a loser wherever possible. Remember ABC's "Wide World of Sports" classic opening line about "The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat"? NHB must be run as a sport, and the appeal of sports is due in large part to the universal appeal that exciting drama holds for most people. Drama without conclusion and finality is incomplete and not satisfying. Without victory or defeat there is little thrill or agony, and, thus, little appeal.
These, I believe, are some of the reasons the buy rates for NHB have dropped, and remain at a record low point. Their marketing has been generally incapable of bringing in new fans, but they have been even more incapable of keeping the fans who had already shelled out some money to tune in. The problem, then, is in good part internal, and with the product that has been offered as of late.
It is thus unfortunate that some of the suits in the NHB world, in the wake of the New York fiasco, have begun a campaign of finger-pointing and painting rival promoters as "the enemy", "the bad guys", etc. The fact is, the New York legislation legalizing NHB was passed without public opinion first being changed. In fact, at the time it was passed, there were articles in the New York papers quoting New York legislators who were in general lamenting the fact that they were often voting on bills they had neither read nor understood, but just because their party leaders had instructed them to.
If half as much money that was spent on paying a lobbyist were spent on doing good public relations and familiarizing the public with the fighters, and showing that they were not a bunch of half-crazed, bloodthirsty killers, but a group of mainly disciplined and highly-skilled athletes, then maybe we all wouldn't be in this mess today.
But, it seems that the strategy of some of these suits was to keep the public in the dark as much as possible about the legal maneuverings going on in the inaccessible chambers of the State Capitol in Albany. So when the New York Times ran its now infamous front-page story on NHB coming to New York, this house of cards quickly collapsed. Had a serious attempt first been made to change public opinion, whatever political attacks were forthcoming would not have had such a devastating effect. This is also specifically why UFC expected to win its Federal Court case after the New York State Athletic Commission issued its ridiculous set of rules designed solely to sabotage UFC XII. They were telling everyone that it was a sure thing that they would win in court. Maybe they had read in a college textbook somewhere that courts and judges make decisions based on the merits of the facts, and what the law allows, and not how much raw power those on each side of the aisle bring with them. The courtroom is an octagon, too.
No, but the finger-pointing is intensifying, with everyone else to blame, including even the Mohawks who dared to run a NHB show in their own Nation that is partially inside New York's borders. It is easier to find enemies than to keep friends for some, and apparently not even yours truly is exempt from this exercise of "who lost New York?". You see, as I have written in these pages two months ago, and informed all of my various editors, producers, and publishers, I make a few bucks from working on the long-delayed Extreme Fighting page on the Penthouse web site. To some, but not the WBAI Program Director, or anyone else I must report to, this has become a problem. I'll just stand on my record of being one of the most vociferous defenders of NHB in the media, and that goes for all companies. Anyone that thinks that the mainstream media, that finances itself through advertising and investors, and that the journalism schools that fund themselves from grants from the many media giants, really separate fact from opinion, and really represent the unbiased search for truth, and not the interests of those who fund them, is naive at best. And anyone who thinks that a couple of bucks can get me to say or write something that I don't wholeheartedly believe, whether I may be right or wrong, just confesses that they are the ones whose butt is for sale. I'll just stand on what I have done in the light of day.
But make no mistake about it. The NHB press is partisan, as well. We support this sport and work to promote its health. We are not like most of the martial arts magazines. Those are mainly glossy-paged shoppers whose editorial content seems to be infomercials about the wonders available through the products and services of those who just happen to advertise on the adjoining pages. We, on the other hand, try to put the fans and fighters first. If we falter, you, the readers, should let us know.
It is to these ends that it has become time to raise these issues publicly. The very future of this sport of the future is at stake.
March 9, 1997