Frank Shamrock: “MMA Isn’t A Sport. Not Yet.”
By Cameron Conaway
I recently had an hour-long Skype session with MMA legend Frank Shamrock. What was meant to be a conversation about Muay Thai training facilities here in Thailand quickly veered off-topic as the former UFC and Strikeforce middleweight champion and I spoke about the recent, landmark UFC/FOX network TV deal, and all the hype in the MMA world about how this officially makes MMA mainstream, on par with the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL.
“But it’s not just like those sports,” said Shamrock. “I love MMA. I credit it with saving my life. I think it can and will change the world for the better. But is it a sport? I don’t think so.
“As dear as it is to me,” Shamrock continued, “MMA is still this thing in between sport and spectacle. No, MMA isn’t a sport. Not yet.”
For the most part, gone are the days of critics referring to MMA as “human cockfighting.” Even ESPN covers it now. We in the MMA industry – fans included – have worked damn hard for years to increase the mainstream media’s understanding of and, subsequent respect for, MMA.
Whether it’s through our writing, the conversations we have with others or the interviews we conduct, many of us have spent years of our lives fighting without pay for mixed martial arts to become an official sport – not just an awesome contest, but a sport with a capital “S.”
In our pursuit, we’ve become heavily invested in and ultra-sensitive to the complexity of techniques, the subtleties of science involved in applying those techniques and the evolution and difficulty of training sessions. We’ve developed the realization that MMA fighters are the greatest athletes in the world. However, perhaps in our closeness to the sport, we’ve lost our ability to view it as if we were watching it for the first time.
Taking MMA To School
In 2007, during my senior year as a college undergrad, I gave a campus-wide presentation on MMA. I spoke passionately for over an hour about MMA’s history and about why I believe it is a sport. I even supplemented my speech with video clips.
During a Q-and-A session afterwards, a woman stood up and said, “I’m sorry, but all I see is two dudes rolling on the ground. It’s like a testosterone-fest with all the tattoos and screaming announcers and curse words. I just don’t see how that’s a sport.”
I fired back at the woman, “With all due respect, they were rolling in order to get leglocks, a move that could make the other fighter have to tap-out. The techniques they were using during that ‘rolling around’ took them well over ten years to master. I don’t think it’s fair to judge something until you understand something.”
The audience grew quiet. This woman couldn’t see what I saw and it seemed an impossible task to show her. Similarly, I was fresh off my debut fight, a fight I trained five years for, and I couldn’t see her perspective either.
Attitude Reflects Leadership
“So,” I said to Shamrock, “…not yet?”
“Not yet,” he responded. “Look, true sports have a serious level of professionalism. The athletes have to answer to somebody. The owners of the sport carry themselves in…a professional manner. It won’t get there unless some serious changes at the top are made.”
I thought of how Kobe Bryant was recently fined $100,000 for throwing a towel and calling the referee a “faggot.” I thought of the NBA’s commissioner David Stern, then of the NFL’s former commissioner Paul Tagliabue and of the current commissioner Roger Goodell. Then I thought of Dana White.
“There’s certainly a difference,” I said to Shamrock. “The leaders, the chief representatives of a sport should not have to be bleeped-out seemingly half the time they are on television.” Then I thought of how anyone at the top will be hated on – rightly or wrongly.
Remember what Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison said of Goodell in July? “If that man was on fire and I had to piss to put him out, I wouldn’t do it. I hate him and will never respect him.”
I was too hesitant to agree with Frank. To say out loud, “MMA is not a sport” – it felt wrong and totally against everything I believed in and fought for. I needed time to reflect. But I also realized that I look at it and see it far differently than those who haven’t watched it before, than those who haven’t stepped into a cage.
“I’d never let my young daughter watch this stuff,” Frank said. “Would you let your kids watch this?”
“I don’t think I would,” I said. “Not until they were much, much older.”
“That’s my point exactly,” Shamrock said. “But get this. I’d actually let her watch boxing. There’s a difference in professionalism.”
Shamrock was getting at something much deeper than surface debates like, “Is golf a sport?” or even “Is cheerleading a sport?”
Of course MMA is a sport. But it’s the capital “S” that Shamrock and the rest of us should be in pursuit of. The capital “S” that only professionalism provides.
Not pornstars selling their DVD’s in the audience, or F-bombs being thrown out constantly, with no second thoughts or apologies. But something that better embraces the principals of the individual martial arts that make up MMA. It seems that, while mixed martial arts embraces all the techniques of every martial art, it threw much of the respect and character-building aspects of the disciplines it is comprised of, by the wayside.
There have been great representatives in the sport both in the UFC and outside of it. But, I have to agree with Shamrock. MMA is not a Sport. It almost is, but not quite yet.
There are two ways to go from here: Either through MMA, our entire culture redefines what makes a sport, or, more likely, the UFC sidles away from its over-the-top sex and violence-themed sub-culture and moves into something more, as Shamrock said, “professional.”
Judging by the UFC and FOX Sports Media Group press conference two weeks ago, I believe the monumental partnership between the two entities will not just showcase MMA to more people (as we’re all excited about), but also will re-integrate some of the honor and integrity it has lost, so that the sport could become professional enough to go mainstream. What was lost when the “mixed” was added, will finally be mixed back in.
Cameron Conaway is a former MMA fighter turned award-winning poet and writer.