UFC popularity: good or bad for Martial Arts? (With insights from a current fighter)

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Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is the fastest-growing sport on earth and that is essentially due to its main promoter, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). By 2001 the sport had a bad reputation and was banned in 36 states of the USA, including New York. In this same year the Fertitta brothers and Dana White took over the UFC determined to make a big change.

Zuffa acquired the UFC for $2 million by then, and after 15 years of hard work and great promotion they sold it for $4.2 billion last year. To make this happen, the team that managed the UFC had to make many changes regarding the rules of the sport, the contracts of the athletes and the way in which it was promoted.

Since the first acquisition was made, the UFC went on to buy other MMA competitions, such as the Japanese “Pride Fighting Championships”, “World Extreme Cagefighting” and “Strikeforce”. Hence making themselves the most dominant organisation in the MMA world. This way, it was easier for both fans and athletes to focus on one major competition.

This popularity boost of the UFC was the key factor for the growth of MMA. Gyms and clubs also benefited from it since more and more people started to practice this sport with the dream of becoming a superstar fighter.

The UFC went from being called “human cockfighting” by John McCain (Republican Senator) to become a legitimate sport which is broadcasted worldwide. However, as it usually happens, popularity comes with a price, although in this particular case, it may not be evident.

The discrepancy between the image of MMA and the actual values of each martial art is what I consider to be the downside of UFC popularity.

Despite bringing huge awareness to the sport, there are lots of people who think of it as a violent and bloody competition and not much more. That is actually due to the way in which the sport is promoted since most viral videos are related to trash talking and powerful knock-outs.

Nevertheless, that is just a small part of what Martial Arts bring to the table. Most of these disciplines, that together form Mixed Martial Arts, have a set of values which are transferrable to other areas of our lives.

If we take, for instance, Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu – two of the most used Martial Arts in the UFC – we conclude that their values are very different from what the public image that the sport portrays.

Taking a look at some of the biggest organisations in these two sports, this is what I have found: respect, tradition, excellence, fair play and honour can be considered some of the values of Muay Thai. As to Jiu Jitsu, there is brotherhood (to commit to a common goal above individual selfish needs), expansion and integrity.

Now, all that trash talking doesn’t transmit a load of respect, fair play or integrity, does it?

On the flip side, how could MMA be promoted and have grown as successfully as it has without the violence and trash talking? If the values of the Martial Arts were promoted instead, then, perhaps, it wouldn’t have grown as much.

After having talked with Pedro Nieuwenhuyzen, who has already been Kickboxing European Champion and is currently a Muay-Thai fighter, here are his insights on this subject: “Mixed Martial Arts reflects certain values that are strong. Discipline, integrity, respect, honor are a few to name when speaking of true MMA practitioners and people who are deep in the fighting community and ideology. It is not about violence or hurting people that makes a MMA athlete who he is. He trains and works hard day in and day out to become the best disciple of MMA.

But, entertainment is a big factor and therefore many fighters have learned that promoting themselves through confrontation and extreme personas makes it more interesting for the public to watch and follow. At the end of the day, these extremes of showmanship work because it builds up expectancy for the crowd. Most individuals like Conor McGregor adopt a persona in the ring that they are not outside. He has learned that the business end and the entertainment end of combat sports is very important.”

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