I’ve made my opinion clear, regarding the differences between WWE/Pro-Wrestling and MMA and where each one should live. We talked a lot about the role of trash-talk in the hyping up of fights, and PPV sales generation. But we didn’t look hard enough at, how effective trash talk was through the years, and more importantly in the present. So, I decided to see what is the correlation between: The volume of trash talk a fighter puts out, the quality of said trash talk (There are levels to this game), their general level as a fighter and popularity. Before we dive in, here are some comments about this experiment:
Volume: How often a fighter trash-talks or does self-promo work.
Quality: How much sense the things a fighter says make, wit, bite, validity.
Overall quality: How good is the fighter, based on his record, performances and achievements.
Popularity: How much is the person celebrated, how much s/he contributes to sales and popularity of the sport.
General comments: This is not a scientific work, and what statistics and information I got is largely available to all of you. This is a pretty subjective exercise, but I tried to stay as unbiased as possible. Still, if you suspect I have a strong opinion on the matter, you are correct. Also, I will only consider legit top 10 fighters in their respective weight.
(Thank you Yaron, Ofir and Atsmon for reminiscing with me, bringing up some legendary trash talk, in preparation for this post!)
Tale Of The Tape:
Conor is, in my humble opinion, the most talented and successful trash talker – slash – persona in MMA history. Not a very bold statement, which in itself is the proof in the pudding. Conor spoke often, spoke well, for the most part kept it classy (within the realm of insults) and backed up his bragging very convincingly, until he didn’t. When Conor lost to Nate, and to Khabib, he wasn’t “exposed” as a “bad fighter”, we only saw that there are holes to his game, and that perhaps his heart was not in it enough at times. Conor is also the best seller in UFC/MMA history, with no real threat on the horizon.
Tale Of The Tape:
Lesnar didn’t speak very often, but spoke loudly, and did not suck at this. His experience as a pro-wrestler came in handy, in the way he handled the mic, and himself in the cage. Especially following his wins. Lesnar is likely the number 2 best seller, and we can definitely attribute this to his crossover fanbase. Brock brought many viewers to the sport, and if anything, he deserves the respect for that. As a fighter he was seriously compromised by Cain, and did not really get back from that.
Tale Of The Tape:
Georges did most of his talk in the cage. He spoke very little in terms of hype, and when he did try his hand at it, came off a bit goofy. The famous “I’m not impressed with your performance” was so Canadian of him, and he even apologized for that. It’s not his game. On the other hand, GSP was an actual draw – mostly, but not only in Canada – and for his time, was considered a sort of a golden eggs laying goose. You either watched him, hoping to see him lose, or watched to see him destroy another hyped-up opponent. But you watched. Georges is one of the GOATs.
Tale Of The Tape:
Ronda was not a very slick trash talker, and most of what she threw at the mic were Diaz level brags. However, Ronda provided the goods, with a very impressive run, and had the luxury of having the full support of UFC marketing machine. Her achievements in the cage, and constant exposure brought her mainstream attention, and drew people to the sport. It’s hard to quantify, and I don’t think she was as big of a draw as Conor or Brock (The other 2 who can lay claim to drawing people in), but she made an impact.
Tale Of The Tape:
Jones’ trash talk was almost exclusively saved for Daniel Cormier. It was sharp, it was aimed for the jugular, and – even a big DC fan as myself must admit – for the most part, was backed by facts, as irritating as that was at times. Jon is one of the best fighters ever, and it’s very likely that his life choices had hurt his popularity and drawing power. His PPVs are still some of the most anticipated ones, but I don’t recall numbers quite as high as some of the above (please correct me if I’m wrong).
Tale Of The Tape:
While DC is a smooth talker, with a quick reply at the ready, he did lose the trash talk battle with Jones, simply on the basis of losing the respective fights. He can hold the moral grounds, but Jones – for inexplicable reasons – remains the fan favorite in this battle. DC is very popular, but could be so much more (as is the case in general) without losses to Jones.
Tale Of The Tape:
The count is not smooth. He is witty, quick, creative and in your face. Bisping won, way more often than he lost, never looked terrible (expect that one time…) and has never succumbed to any verbal assault. He’ll always have the last word in an argument, even if it’s two words. You know. FU. Michael sold out events in England, and even if you don’t want to admit it, when the stakes were high – trash talk wise – you showed up just to see him eat crow (Where were you when Hendo landed that bomb?) There is no denying his skills, his heart and his endurance. Mike is legend.
Tale Of The Tape:
The diazes (Nick mostly) were always bitter. They have their style, they never apologized for it – quite the contrary – and in many cases also said things with some validity. Their command of the English language made them appealing for a far smaller crowd than they might’ve been able to engage otherwise, and the negative, whiny tone of said talk did not serve them well. Constantly criticizing the system, the organization, their opponents, and never owning their mistakes. Someone took them down? it wasn’t because they couldn’t defend it, it’s because of the pro wrestling rules. A fight didn’t go their way? The opponent didn’t fight to their advantage, everybody’s on steroids. It doesn’t sell much. Both brothers are very skilled, but seem to have gotten stuck in their comfort zone, which I believe, prevented them from achieving real greatness.
Tale Of The Tape:
Colby Covington is actually not a bad guy… I just saw a video that puts a stamp on what was suspected – it’s all an act. Colby decided to adopt the role of the heel, and takes it to the absolute limit, and then a couple of steps further. A very impressive run, culminating in a win over Robbie Lawler, in such a fashion that makes a title shot pretty much a done deal. Colby talks a lot. Colby talks a lot of nonsense, maintain a really trashy image, and treats fighters with very little respect. Can anyone tell me that this made him a huge seller? I do not see any supporting data. Yes, MMA fans and Trump family members talk about him, but beyond that…
Tale Of The Tape:
Perhaps the one guy in the list who made the most out of pure imagery. Kudos to Chael for talking his way into some big fights. He has a way with words, though sometimes there’s no real sense in what he says. He is loud and confident, knows how to play to his strengths, and j-u-s-t good enough to be taken seriously sometimes, or at least semi-legit in others. The thing with Chael is that he didn’t really back his talk up. There is just a gap between what he claims to be able to do, and what he actually did.
As I mentioned, this is not a scientific experiment. But I think my thesis holds water. Trash talk does not sell. Especially, if it is not strongly linked to performance in the cage. We can see a guy like GSP selling out arenas with close to no talk, Rousey bringing eyeballs to the screen with little talk. We can see big trash talkers achieving less than stellar popularity, and at the very top, we have a person who came with a built-in following on the one hand, and group of people who wanted to see him fall on the other, as well as the one person who did it just-right.
My recommendation remains – as writers say “Show, don’t tell”. If you are not Conor McGregor (hint: you are not) just show up, fight, give us the performance that will make us care, and we will come. We will pay money to see good fights.
Or as Aerosmith, so eloquently put it – Shut up and dance!
Ogres may be like onions, but so are we, people. You know – Layers. Our lives unfold (at least without the persuasion of Alcohol of other un-inhibitor agents) slowly, as we get to know each other. We introduce ourselves by name, sometimes by country of origin, our profession, family situation, and other generalities. As our connection to each other deepens, more layers may shed, and we talk about elements of our belief system (though, some of it, likely leaks through our behaviors before), opinions on current events, or other topics, which continues to expose the core. Somewhere in this process, we talk about what we like. It’s this kind of conversation that makes some people raise a brow, when I share some of my more serious interests.
“Oh, you write? How interesting. What do you write about?”
“Yeah, what kind of music do you like?”
“Wait, what? M.M.What? is that the cage fighting? Hey, I know Conor McGregor!”
At this point, some conversations seem to peter out. I thought about this for a while, and even to my brain, which is engaged in the general love of these three areas of interest, it did feel somewhat random. Literature and music are related as arts, but what about the people punching each other in the face?
Well, I could state the obvious (and I will) – M.M.A stands for Mixed Martial Arts. But this is not satisfactory. While musicians and writers create some “product” through their artistic process, the fighters merely meet inside the cage and try to beat each other, then leave. So, where’s the connection? Where is the deep meaning, that drew me, and kept my otherwise distracted mind engaged?
It started crystalizing, as I left the house for a walk the other day. I was more than a little irritated with the music (if you can call it that) my kids were playing on the computer. I won’t name names, but it was one of the more recent pretty faces, in skimpy clothing, bumping to some catchy, repeating computer-generated groove. I put on my earphones and hit play as soon as I closed the door behind me. Good, old Soundgarden for the rescue.
Bear with me people, I will walk you through my process.
As I listened to the wonderful progression of “Blow up the outside world”, I mused about what makes me like the musicians I do, as opposed to the ones I am not a fan of. And as I waited for a light to turn green, an internal one flash inside my head. It’s the tools of the trade.
Which musicians do I like? I can list many, but the point is – what do they all have in common? Well, the ones at the upper part of my list are musicians who write lyrics, play an instrument (or 5), sing and perform. I am not a huge fan of many “performers”, as in singers with great voices who “just” sing. Don’t get me wrong, I respect a great voice, but this alone does not me, a fan make.
This immediately resonated with the writer me. What makes a good story? Surely, it’s more than a good plot. It’s more than a relatable character. More than proper spelling. A good story is made, by using – there it is again – the tools of the trade.
And just like that, I found the connection. A mixed martial artist is another person, who needs to have the tools of his trade in order to perform well.
True. Art is not a competition – as opposed to MMA – but they are all arts. A writer, a musician and a mixed martial artist all present something pleasing by bringing all their capabilities, talents, training and passion to the table. If the musician plays the right chords, but sings out of key, or if the writer tells a plausible story about a flat and boring character, or if the fighter shows up with the skills but is out of shape… we will likely be disappointed with the outcome. But if they connect everything – and it doesn’t have to be perfect – we are almost guaranteed some fun.
This was a nice little moment of satisfaction, in being able to identify something that links some of my main interests, logically. But it also started me thinking about the next question – can I use this?
Can I draw from what I’m learning of martial arts, and apply it to another? Can my appreciation to the martial artist inform my writing? Not just as subject matter, but as applicable knowledge?
Well, I begin by asking what does a good MMA fighter need? Skills in striking, wrestling, BJJ (That’s Brazilian Jiu Jitsu! Git yer head outta the gutter). He needs stamina, mental strength, discipline, patience. Practice is a must. I will stop here. I’m sure there’s more, even if the list as it stands is enough to deter anyone from even attempting…
The focus of this exercise is the writing itself. Not the writer (I hope we already agreed there are parallels between the three professionals). So, what can we take from this list of skills, capabilities and habits, in order to help a story work? I’ll start with patience. The reader may not have it, but patience is the ability to act when appropriate, and wait when necessary. It’s in the pacing of the story. We don’t want to spill it all in one hurried stream of consciousness (well, not in a novel I’d say) on the one hand, but we also don’t want to keep the reader waiting for something to happen.
But the story needs to move forward, right? Just like a fighter who wants to win. Here is where some other skills come into play. The first thing that pops to mind is the art of the takedown. Sometimes you want to “floor” the reader. There are ways to do it. One is to sneak up on him with great speed, changing the level of your approach, grabbing him and putting him on his back. Other ways to do it is by using the great striking skill call “fake”. A jab might do the trick too. The idea is to let the story throw your reader slightly off. Not off the story, but a little off guard. A red herring is a tried and tested fake. slowly, teasing action, foreshadowing, is like taking jabs, preparing the ground for a good power shot. This also helps with pacing, so it’s a win-win situation.
What about Jiu Jitsu? There are a few things it could teach us. One of them is the shift of the power balance. If the story has your hero on his back, trying to avoid submitting to the antagonistic forces of the story, there’s a way you can help him turn the tables. The magic is in the steps. Normally, the fighters don’t just trade places. There’s always a struggle, both of force but also – even more so – technique. If you want to escape a dangerous position, and reverse the balance of power, you have to know the steps, and execute them one by one. Sometimes it will work, and sometimes it may fail, as your opponent may (and likely should) be at least as skilled and powerful as you. Let your character learn these skills. In fact, it’s a must if you want a character that develop over time. A white belt will rarely sweep a black belt without proper training and practice. This is also where mental strength comes into play. Your character may not be very strong in the beginning, and even if he doesn’t end as a very strong character, he will need to “toughen up” some, in order to handle the multiple obstacles, you put in his way.
So, there you go. I love music, literature and mixed martial arts. Not only does it make perfect sense, I can even apply lessons I take from one and implement in the other.