MMA: It’s a sport and it’s entertainment

“Fighting is in our DNA.” When a fight breaks out, we all look. The energy, the excitement, the emotions; the technique, the fighters—there is…

By: Roxanne Modafferi | 4 years ago
MMA: It’s a sport and it’s entertainment
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

“Fighting is in our DNA.”

When a fight breaks out, we all look. The energy, the excitement, the emotions; the technique, the fighters—there is so much that calls our attention.

Mixed Martial Arts has evolved a lot over time, but one thing hasn’t changed: it’s always been a mix of sports and entertainment. I’m undecided what percentage I want to assign to each (maybe just 50/50?). I assume many fans don’t really think of these things, because for them, it’s 100% entertainment. However, fighters absolutely need to. Our paychecks come from fans paying to see us fight, and how actively fans want to be involved with mixed martial arts.

MMA, formerly known as ‘vale tudo’ or no-holds-barred (NHB), has been sold as an athletic competition where combatants look to knock out, submit, or outpoint their opponents. As the competition has evolved, fighters must daily train their bodies to do the tasks, and their minds to withstand not only the fight itself, but also all the stress, anxiety, and pressure leading up to their bout. Every day fighters focus on training, training, training. We do physical conditioning exercises like jumps, to build explosive power. We lift heavy weights, to be able to lift our opponents at weird angles and slam them back to the ground. During the actual fight, if an athlete lands more strikes or dominates on the ground, they’re likely to get the decision victory.

Roxy’s display shelf.

Sure, the violence is entertaining, the cool spinning *bleep* is fantastic, but if someone viewers think of as their friend is fighting, they’ll obviously be more emotionally invested than watching someone they don’t know. Therefore, promotions want fans to get to know the fighters. As an MMA fan, analyze yourself: when you watch MMA, do you watch all the video interviews leading up to the fight? Do you read all the written articles on every single one of the fighters? Do you only follow the news about the stars with the biggest name and drama, or only people you know personally? How much MMA merchandise do you have? Have you cried when your favorite fighter lost?

Before I fought, I used to try and keep up with the people on the main card who were hyped. But these days, I’ve been in the fight game for so long now that I’ve stopped caring about anyone except my fighter friends, teammates, or whoever is in the same weight class as me.

Promotion Impacts Perception

In PRIDE, the emphasis was definitely on entertainment value! This could mean hot, technical match ups, like Dan Henderson vs. Wanderlei Silva—or PRIDE 10’s Kazushi Sakuraba vs. Renzo Gracie. But the organization was also just as famous for putting on ‘freak show’ fights. Bouts disregarding weight classes, rankings, and styles; putting an emphasis on heart, look, and uniqueness.

Bob Sapp’s infamous pile driver.

‘The Beast’ Bob Sapp against Antônio Rodrigo Nogueira was one of the promotion’s most famous examples. The 320 lb former American Football player, Pro Wrestler, and pro fighter fought the Brazilian, despite a weight difference of 127 pounds. Sapp slammed and pummeled Nogueira repeatedly until he gassed out, allowing a battered Nogueria to armbar him. It was an epic battle of strength, heart, and – eventually – technique.

And there were bouts like ‘Giant’ Silva vs Minowaman. #bravery

The promotion hired Lenne Hardt as their ring announcer, who screamed out and trilled fighters’ names, and became known to many as the ‘crazy PRIDE lady.’ Smoke billowed out during the opening ceremony. A giant statue of a hand rotated on stage. Fighters were encouraged to have crazy walk-outs. Jason ‘Mayhem’ Miller hired dancing girls to accompany him.

Ratings were very high. PRIDE had a great TV deal and the stadiums were packed… R.I.P., PRIDE never die.

Professional Fighters League (PFL) advertises itself as a “True Sport Format,” and may be the closest to pure sport in terms of how the tournaments are put together.

Points are given to the fighters for various factors, which then add up and decide the next opponent in a tournament-style set-up. The first place winner then gets a whopping prize of one million dollars.

A win equals three points, a draw gives you one, a loss is zero. A first round stoppage gets you three bonus points, second round two points, and third round finish gets one. An example would be, a first round TKO win gets you six points. One of my teammates fought the same guy twice in a row, just due to how the points added up. It’s broadcast on ESPN 2 (which is a paying subscription), and ESPN +, which is an online streaming subscription channel. I’m not quite sure where ratings stand at this point.

The UFC is a great big mix of sports and entertainment, and I’ve tried to comprehend it’s workings for years. On the sports side of things, the fighters talk about their training, preparation, and stylistic match ups. Coaches are interviewed. Highlight videos show interesting moves or especially violent knockouts where athletic performance is highlighted. The UFC Performance Institute was built for fighters to get complimentary physical training, rehabilitation, meals, and recovery.

On the entertainment side, the UFC also has “UFC Embedded” video clips of the popular fighters during fight week leading up to the fight, at home, or training. Major media sites get interviews with the stars to hear what they have to say. Trash talk is encouraged and emphasized to drum up interest. Unique hobbies and personality points of fighters are highlighted. Commercials are shown on TV, the internet, and billboards on the sides of roads and highways.

UFC Rankings are decided upon by a panel of journalists who vote. Rankings play a role in match making but do not automatically decide things. Who fights who? It’s fair that the winners should move up in ranking to fight someone else highly ranked. But which person?

Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

There are hundreds of fighters champing at the bit to fight, but only so many spots on cards. It seems like some fighters can fight whenever they want, because they make the company millions of dollars. Oh, Derrick Lewis just said, “My balls was hot.” We all wanna see him/ hear him again soon, so we’ll give him a fight on an upcoming card—rather than stick in a lesser-known fighter with a less outstanding personality, who has been waiting longer.

That’s the correct business decision, right? If there is hype, the business should exploit that. We can all guess who will talk smack with who, and build up hype. And that will, in turn, sell a lot of tickets. That being said, I think the UFC does a great job of allowing fighters to work their way to a title shot based on the quality of their performances.

Are you not entertained?

I honestly don’t give a lot of thought to ‘entertaining the fans’ going into a fight, although I hear other fighters say in interviews that’s their goal. I just wanna win. Thankfully, my fighting style is entertaining, so don’t have to worry about ‘trying.’ I march forward with urgency (sometimes too much urgency) and try to hit my opponent in the face before taking them down and smashing my elbows into their forehead. I’ve been told that’s pretty entertaining.

What I really want is to win and make friends with my fans! All of them. I try to reply to people’s comments and ALWAYS to people’s messages. If you’re nice to me, I’ll be nice back. I am ‘The Happy Warrior,’ after all. I don’t have hundreds of thousands of followers like other girls who post sexy bikini pictures (I only post cosplay pics. My Kitana wasn’t bad, though, if I may say so myself). However, I have a lot of fans who are nerds, fans of anime, sci-fi, Star Wars, and Jiu-Jitsu. I hope entertain them a lot with my social media posts, because I certainly entertain myself!

I’ve started giving people a reassuring thumbs up, like one of my favorite anime heroes ‘All Might.’
Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Interacting with fans is always important! It doesn’t even matter how, when it comes to entertainment value. As Ronda Rousey once said, “Hate me or love me, you’re gonna watch me.” If fighters are rude to fans and make them dislike us, they’ll still tune in hoping to see us lose.

Thus, social media – and media in general – is a major portion of the entertainment part of our job—and lots of fighters choose to ignore it. Yeah, we’re doing a sport, but there’s so much competition to get fights. You’ve gotta be more interesting than your fellow fighters. Some grudgingly admit social media is necessary, but don’t want to put the effort in. Others hate it. Some love it, and post everything they eat for breakfast, lunch, dinner, plus their sweaty faces while jogging down the street every day.

Luckily for the former, social media isn’t a requirement, but always encouraged by promotions. Hundreds of thousands of followers can also land a fighter sponsorships for companies who have products that they want seen by hundreds of thousands of eyes every week. Clothing, meal prep, and recently CBD oil is popular.

DON’T STOP THE FIGHT! Let them fall!

I also want to mention the speed at which a fight is stopped. It’s gotten faster and faster over the years. I’m old school—I want to see a fighter fall down, basically knocked out, or covered in blood from a cut before a ref stops the fight. This is battle to me. Maybe it’s part of the ‘evolution of MMA from a brawl to sports’ and I started fighting in the ‘battle’ era. I HATE when a fighter is still on their feet, wobbling around, trying to stay in it, trying to have a warrior spirit, and the ref waves off the fight. Let them fall! They’re still standing! How could you take that away from them? What about their strong hearts?

I say, let them fall. This is a dangerous, fighting sport, not ballet. Brain damage? I know, I signed a waiver. Let me fight.

Thankfully, this never happened to me. I’ve never gotten overwhelmed on my feet, and the only two times I got knocked out were by powerbomb slams. The first time, I was out and stopped moving, so there was never a doubt. The second time, against Jessica Rakoczy on the Ultimate Fighter – Season 18, I tried to climb back to my feet. But I was so dizzy, I wobbled and fell down again. I am very grateful to my ref at the time, Chris Tiogni, who saw me struggle, but let me try. As my opponent rushed over, then he stopped it.

I think as MMA has become more and more mainstream over the years, the fan-base has expanded to ‘casual viewers’; fans who might tune in if an event were on TV, but might not bother to order a pay-per-view. Blood pouring out of open wounds and brutality isn’t exactly family dinner-table appropriate.

May not pair well with light conversation about everyone’s day.
Photo by Denise Truscello/WireImage

Refs say “our job is to protect the fighter,” but think about it. We’re trying to pummel each other into unconsciousness.

Everything may be 100% about entertainment for the fan. But, for the fighter, I think we should consider social media and day-to-day presentation as part of our ‘entertainment’ job. And then, let that go on fight day, and focus on the sporting aspect. Some are able to keep it up and do a special dance, or strut, or talk smack in the ring. We have to juggle a lot, and aren’t always given guidance on how to go about doing it.

And, since I’m actually an extremely talented artist, I decided to include a cute little pie chart with my thoughts. I think I’ve got it about right.

Incredibly detailed sports vs. entertainment diagram.

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About the author
Roxanne Modafferi
Roxanne Modafferi

Roxanne Modafferi is a former UFC fighter with 19 years of MMA experience. She’s fought for titles in the UFC, Strikeforce, and Invicta. A jiujitsu blackbelt, she teaches jiujitsu at the gym, and English in the classroom. Roxanne has self-published three books in addition to contributing articles for this site. In her free time, she watches anime and plays video games (Twisted Metal, Skyrim, etc).

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