In 2002 the World Wrestling Federation (A.K.A WWF) lost the court case, and the ensuing appeals to the cute pandas and had to re-invent itself. True, It was a change of one letter, which doesn’t sound like much, but I’d like to point out a couple of things that followed very closely:
The F (for “Federation”) became an E (for “Entertainment”)
The “wrestlers/Fighters” became “Superstars”
The female “wrestlers/Fighters” became “Divas”
Notice the significance? Not only did Vince McMahon change the name of this organization, but the terminology and jargon. That was done, in accordance with the fact that this promotion is in fact an Entertainment business, with superstars and divas as… well… stars.
The pro-wrestling terms “Mark” (coming from the carnival days – the mark of a deception/trick etc. a person “buying” the act) and “Smark” (“smart mark”, a guy who knew the whole thing is staged) quickly disappeared, and everyone began to openly discuss the “entertainment” aspect of the business as the factor directing it.
When Brock Lesnar joined the UFC in 2008, the majority of the MMA fanbase – pardon my French – lost their shit.
“Get back to fake wrestling!” was the sentiment. “We don’t need your WWE $h!t!”
See, MMA fans became ones because they wanted to see real competition between skilled fighters who actually used the different martial arts to prove superiority.
Fast forward to present day (Mid 2017 more or less):
The “Biggest fight in combat sport history” is between a Mixed Martial Artist and a retired Boxing legend.
The next biggest fight according to general fans vocal opinion – a 3rd encounter between two fighters who never seemed to have anything to prove to each other. Well, other than who can back his trash-talk better.
Already scheduled is a fight between current MW champion, Michael Bisping (who to this day defended his belt against a 45 year old almost retired legend and another 40 year old legend who came back from a horrible injury) and the legendary WW champion and all-time best – Georges St. Pierre (who is coming back from a 4 year break).
When some of us MMA fans pointed out that the direction UFC is heading in is far from where we think they should, we were met with a cold shower of responses “educating” us about the business.
“Conor makes a gazillion in a month”, “No one wants to watch Demetrious Johnson win another fight”, “Bisping doesn’t sell PPVs” and so on and so forth.
During the last couple of years, UFC (for the most part) went through a very significant transformation.
From the leading MMA promotion, attracting the best talent in order to provide consistently improving level of competition, thus becoming more popular, what we see now is an organization obsessed with making money in any way possible.
Fights are booked – so it seems – more frequently based on crowd demands and less on achievements or reason.
Fighters (seeing where the wind blows) understandably increase their “PR” or “Promo” work to get ahead.
I don’t know about you, but it really is starting to look like more of an “entertainment” business than a fighter’s promotion.
Which brings me back to 2008.
What happens is that the very same people who were ready to go after Brock Lesnar with tourches and pitchforks, chasing him back to his “WWE $h!t”, are now criticizing others for showing their dismay with this direction of entertainment first and sports/competition/MMA later.
As I wrote in various forums, for me, “This fight won’t make as much money as the other” is not a satisfactory reason. Call me crazy, but I still like MMA because I love watching two skilled individuals test themselves against each other. I know…
“Shut up already! You’re going to watch anyway!” Sure I will (Read my confession), what else is there to do? But I do think we deserve a more level headed approach. One where the important business decisions take more than just the bottom line into account.
Let WWE lead with “fake feuds” and “promos” and let’s focus on what we’re here to do. Sure, color your fights with whatever “background” and there’s always some trash-talking to do. But this is martial arts we’re here to watch and I, for one, still remember that it’s about respect. Respect for one’s self, for the arts and for the fans. What can I say?
When it comes to MMA I’m a “mark”.
The world of MMA (read: UFC) was blessed by two individuals in recent years. The first was Ronda Rousey, who was since put back in perspective and likely retired. The second one is of course, Conor McGregor. It’s almost tempting to call him the more significant of the two, since I believe he brought bigger figures in terms of money and main stream exposure, but… the creation of women divisions in UFC is far from being something to sneeze at, and as Dana likes to say, we have Rousey to thank for that.
So at this point I’d like to thank Ronda and move on to Conor. But I want to look at this today through a small comparison of sorts. Well, maybe comparison isn’t the word. Perhaps perspective? Or simply observation? Let me know, once you finish reading.
While the Ronda and Conor fest was playing, another story developed. That of UFC Light-heavyweight champion, Jon Jones. This of course, got some attention and generated debate, but it was far from being on par with Conor’s journey to win titles in both Featherweight and Lightweight divisions, and no where close to his latest adventure into the boxing ring, to fight the legendary Floyd Mayweather.
For years, I’ve been thinking about what happens in that gap between sports, entertainment and money. That, and the reasons behind what makes one individual more popular, more appealing, more successful than the other.
I think the best example of what I’m talking about, is the differences between Jon Jones and Conor McGregor. Two of the most successful fighters in history. One, a guy who captured titles in two different weight classes within a year! The other, rising through the then stacked LHW ranks to win the title, then proceeding to clear out the division in devastating fashion.
In any sane universe, Jon Jones would be the more intriguing person. If one was to make a movie about a fighter, I don’t think it’s even a fair fight.
Don’t get me wrong, Conor fans. First, I’m one of you. This isn’t a knock on Conor, but Conor is pretty much what you see is what you get, and have been that way from the start (see old interviews and snippets in YouTube. Conor was Conor, is Conor, always will be).
Jones, on the other hand, is a guy I believe we know very little about. We may think we know a lot, after all, he’s been in the headlines quite often, but I think Jon let us in on very little, and most of it completely unintended. But we will get to that.
Conor is the guy you’d go out for drinks with, no doubt. An endless string of puns and punch lines go down very well with a few pints. Not to mention the ladies, right? But all in all, there are no real ups and downs, no surprises.
So why is it then, that the more intriguing guy, not to mention, the one that sticks to his sport and defends his belt, the guy who for the most part “does his job” is the less successful one?
I could say that it has to do with drugs and car accidents, but I think this is not the reason. No, I think the difference is manipulation. And I mean that in the most positive of ways.
If we look at Conor’s story, we see a guy who went in a direct line from a new signee, to contender, to champion. A little hitch in the first Diaz fight, then back to ascension. And though, I won’t claim his title shots weren’t earned through competition and achievements, I will say that his goals were met (and likely exceeded) in no small part, by manipulating fans, media and UFC at the same time. By goals (for clarity) I mean more than the belts. I include the big bucks, and from what I understand, the upcoming movie and likely plenty more spin off benefits. And GOOD for him! This isn’t a socialist manifesto.
Jon Jones, on the other hand – and this is where I see the big gap – was manipulated by effects of the success he experienced. Of course, Jones does not have the amount of natural charisma and self-confidence that Conor does, but he made it by himself to that starting point, from which there really could’ve been no limit to what he could achieve. When he reached it, though, instead of taking command of the situation, like Conor (who he looks up to), he let the circumstances (read: people around him, his ego and who knows what else) manipulate him so badly he strayed far from the path. Is it too far for him to make it right? We will know with time, but he can only blame himself.
I’m not the only one of course, to notice that. It seems like these days, there’s a formula for success in this business and it involves social media and other media. No wonder then, that guys like Ferguson, who were never overly chatty, increase their awareness to the strengths of social media and try to emulate (if not embarrassingly imitate) Conor’s blueprint.
The problem is… if you’re not Conor, it’s very difficult to be Conor-like. I cringe every time some Tom, Dick or Harry grabs the mic after a successful fight and tries to “cut a promo”.
I guess, like in so many other lines of business, some of us have it. Some of us don’t. We need to be able to use what we have and learn what we can.
But the bottom line of this post is that, regardless of how success is achieved in MMA, it seems like manipulation has to be part of your arsenal.
Is that a good thing?
A bad thing?
This is a subject for future (and some past) posts. But feel free to put in your 2 cents (or more).