The UFC’s Reality Problem

  By Julian Reed

Truth. Truth can be an incredibly dangerous and risky proposition. Truth is what I believe will permanently ensure the UFC never attains mainstream recognition/appeal. Truth is what will prevent Mixed Martial Arts from being able to accrue the social currency and establishment that boxing has enjoyed (and continues to enjoy) for nearly a century. What do I mean by “truth”, you ask? In your face violence.

This is a reality the UFC can’t overcome, because it’s innately what the sport is. MMA is actually lless dangerous than both boxing and football. But, that doesn’t really matter. Truth. UFC violence looks as bad as what the results actually are. Other sports rarely have that problem.
       It’s sort of an ironic pejorative with the Ultimate Fighting Championship. America and people in general love violence. This has been true since the beginning of time. Vast majority of the most popular TV shows, movies, books and video games tend to feature a lot of violence and a lot of sex.

It goes without saying; violence and sex drive our culture. But in the presentation of truth, there’s a trick to presenting it (anything really, but violence in this case) in a way that is consumable to a mass diverse audience. The trick is, give the audience a portion of the truth coupled with illusions. The nature of that trick speaks to the omnipresent problem the UFC faces. People don’t want the truth. They (Most people) prefer to be fed the alternate reality that makes them feel better. The reality where there’s no consequence (At least one they need to concern themselves with) to the violence in their entertainment. Reality televisions popularity is at an all-time high. Not a coincidence. People like watching life unfold on television. Unfortunately, only the parts deemed interesting, and even though most understand there’s an underlying game show/puppeteer component to all of reality TV. Doesn’t matter. People would choose that over Cops or Vice (True reality television that highlights grim portions of the culture) any day of the week.  

For better or worse, there are no illusions with the UFC. There’s no way to sugarcoat, falsify or alter the reality that once two fighters enter the octagon and that cage door closes and locks, bad things are about to happen to at least one of the two combatants. The darkness, the grey, the violence associated with that reality is ultimately what the appeal of UFC is. Although (UFC President) Dana White and the managing body of the organization have implemented a series of rules and regulations in line with the Nevada Athletic Commission, it’s still a heavily violent and dangerous endeavor.

You can’t gouge eyes out, or pummel an unconscious opponent, but pretty much everything else under the sun is an available tool to you as a fighter. Elbows, kicks, knees, punches, submissions, Judo, Kickboxing, Muy Thai, Greco-Roman wrestling, Boxing, etc. As the league name intimates, Ultimate Fighting. This reality is a limitation, in my view.

As I alluded to earlier, America loves violence. But that’s only really half of the story. The truth is most people enjoy the illusion of violence. What I mean by that, a small sample consumption of violence. Just enough to wet the beak a little, allowing you to feel whatever you’re consuming is thus authentic as a result of the limited dosage (of violence) attached. Still don’t understand? Think of the NFL, for example. Though a myriad of factors contribute to its cemented cultural status and crown as the king of American professional sports leagues and television products, violence is a key factor. But the key to that is its limited violence. Anyone who watched the NFL ten years ago and now can easily discern the difference in the two versions. Today, fewer big hits and violent collisions then at any point in the history of the NFL. Unsurprisingly, that shift has contributed to an unprecedented amount of success for the NFL business. Unprecedented television ratings, unprecedented annual revenues and year over year growth. Less violence, more money. But the violence is still there. Just in a lessened role. That’s the key. People prefer their entertainment not be a guilty pleasure. Something you’re embarrassed to tell people you watch, or even just something so overt in what it is, it makes you feel like a bad person for enjoying it. Because of the window dressing, the majority of NFL fans can happily enjoy their sport in a bubble. The high degree of violence involved and the injuries never crossing their minds.
           The average person watching a football game isn’t cheering in joy as a free safety charges shoulder first into the knees of a tight end, snapping his ACL in the process. However, significant contingents of NFL viewers also resist the NFL becoming Canadian or Arena Football (Short on defense, heavy on offense). This is where the illusion comes in, and also speaks to the juggernaut success of the NFL as a television entity. Though the violence is there, increasingly, it isn’t highlighted or glorified. The broadcast focuses on the strategy, the glamorized quarterbacks, and the drama. Minimal camera cuts and focus on big hits, plays with injuries often are only shown once, etc. The way (any) an (insert any team) NFL game unfolds is dictated by how the quarterback performs, how the head coach handles crucial situations, and occasionally whether or not the defense makes a play. That’s what national news outlets, (local, regional, national) talk radio and websites are dissecting on a Monday after the NFL. To the massive benefit of the NFL shield, the heavy amount of risk/violence associated with football aren’t often apart of the daily conversation surrounding the sport. Although players have serious injuries and devastating post career effects, that’s not the focus. Unfortunately, that can never be the UFC’s reality.
             It goes without saying that there are levels to everything. There’s a certain amount of violence that’s acceptable to a large audience. Innately, the UFC product crosses the boundary. Despite that, it’s sort of a double standard. Boxing has been beloved for a century in the US. For a long time, it was far and away the most popular sport. Boxing also has a heavy amount of violence. But, there’s romanticism with boxing that UFC doesn’t have. Although the goal is to knockout your opponent, it’s deemed “the sweet science”. Like the NFL, level of violence attached falls in the acceptable range. People revel in the personalities and technical aspects of the sport. Though many fighters have had numerous surgeries and post career trauma, you as the viewer don’t see any of that when you click onto a boxing match on a random Saturday. Image. This concept hooks into the thesis of this piece. Truth is the UFC’s great enemy.
                Without the social acceptance and romanticism afforded to other sports and leagues, UFC is left as the odd man out. With no positive emotional attachment for the majority of potential viewers, when someone has their first consumption of UFC, it’s difficult for the reaction to not be negative. Often, they’re instantly put off by the degree of overt violence. Again, UFC as a product doesn’t offer window dressing. There’s no way to gradually ease someone into the Ultimate Fighting Championship. You’re either a person who can enjoy it for what it is, or not. I don’t know too many casual UFC fans. There’s a reason for that. It’s a polarizing sport. Until a few weeks ago, its biggest most transcendent star (Ronda Rousey) was a fairly new UFC fighter who finished opponents in a minute or less. That’s an important factor. Her style of winning allowed casual viewers to enjoy the sport without much of what the sport is attached. People reveled in the dominance and knockouts. Fast finishes means very little violence. Very little blood and gore. This served as a perfect storm to her breakout popularity and success. But with a recent disastrous defeat at the hands of Holly Holm, that ship is nearly set to sail. And yet again, the UFC is left holding the proverbial bag.  
                It should come as no surprise; the UFC can’t suddenly become Water Polo. There’s no way to mask the fact that a guy just got kicked directly in his face and knocked out cold. That happened. The UFC is truth, for better or worse. Despite that, what was once banned from PPV and widely considered (particularly in Congress) human cock fighting has come a long way. For those not keeping score at home, there was a time under different ownership/management that the UFC didn’t even have rules or structure. Free from weight classes and regulations, two guys would enter a makeshift cage and have varying styles of brawls. To the credit of Dana White, they’ve made it into a legitimate sport with rules and structure.

They’ve got it on PPV and free TV. It’s never going to be boxing. It’s never going to be the entertainment of choice for the average Joe’s family or x grandmother in Tacoma on a Tuesday, and that’s okay. As a culture, we have to come to terms with that, and learn to appreciate it for what it is. What it is, a home for incredible athletes, courage and passion. Passion and courage that run so deep, men and women who participate risk their lives every time they walk in the octagon because they love what they do. Whether or not you’re into UFC as entertainment, easy quality to respect. The UFC is here to stay. In what capacity that is remains up in the air.


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