Opinion: MMA and the Cost of Progress
By Jesse Heitz
While watching UFC 147’s main event the other night, in which Rich “Ace” Franklin bested fellow MMA icon, Wanderlei “The Axe Murderer” Silva, I was left in a state of contemplation.
While his second fight with Franklin was competitive and entertaining to be sure, one wonders how much Wanderlei has left in the tank. As an ardent fan of the Wand’s, I sincerely hope that he can add a whole host of spectacular knockouts to his already extensive highlight reel, and many more wins to his distinguished career record.
The sport’s legendary berserker is soon-to-be 36. He’s been fighting professionally for nearly 16 years, absorbing a level of punishment, all for the adoration of countless fans, that a human being probably shouldn’t be subjected to. Whether he has a few fights, or a few more years of fighting left in him, the reality is that the clock is running. The only question that remains is how much sand is left in the hourglass of his incredible career?
It is here where the disheartening thoughts begin to stir. Wanderlei is among the last of his generation. A generation that while they didn’t found the sport, they established it, they guided it through the dark ages of obscurity into the mainstream. Retired are the likes of: Randy “The Natural” Couture, Chuck “The Iceman” Liddell, Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic, and most recently, Fedor “The Last Emperor” Emelianenko. Meanwhile, Wanderlei and the remnants of his generation of fighters are edging ever closer to retirement. Tito Ortiz, Matt Hughes, BJ Penn, Kazushi Sakuraba, “Rampage” Jackson, are all ostensibly on the last leg of their storied careers.
The sport is rapidly evolving, expanding into new markets that were thought unreachable a mere decade ago. Yet, at the same time the sport is losing what could be considered its most valuable asset, the undeniable charisma and character of the sport’s second generation of fighters. We tuned in religiously and cheered violently at not only the multitude of fights that these giants of the sport participated in, but for the individual fighter himself.
For each of these fighters we didn’t just cheer for the simple things like Wanderlei’s wild brawling, Chuck’s vaunted counter-striking, or Randy’s ground-and-pound, we cheered for the man. All of them a distinct personality, wearing their passion for the sport on their sleeves. Each who expressed themselves differently on the microphone and in the cage or ring. From Wanderlei’s menacing stare-down to Tito’s gravedigger, we found every aspect of the fighter, not the least of which was their varied fighting styles, to be distinct. From dispositions that ranged from apparent violent rage to cold and sedated, none of these men were the same.
MMA was once a sport dominated by personality. Today’s fighter landscape seems to be more uniform. While fighters’ in-cage abilities have undoubtedly increased, it seems that everyone who makes it to the big show is an: NCAA All-American, BJJ Black Belt, and perhaps even a kickboxing champion. While it could be argued that the current generation of fighters are overwhelmingly well-rounded in the realm of fisticuffs, there’s one area in which they fall short of their predecessors. That area is character.
Perhaps I’m just too dated, but I just can’t seem to get hooked into fights like I used to nearly a decade ago. It’s not for lack of action or great fights. I attribute it to a lack of distinct personality. Outside of the old guard like Wanderlei and company, it seems difficult to become an avid fan of the modern generation, at least to the point where I would wholeheartedly hop on their bandwagon, or war-wagon in MMA forum parlance.
While I’m ecstatic about the great strides the sport has made, and the evolution of fighters’ skill sets, I’m left longing for the days in which the old guard ruled the sport in a grandiose fashion. I suppose I mourn the retirement of the generation of fighters that introduced me to the sport in the same way that my predecessor generation of fans mourned the retirement of the sport’s founders.
I can only hold out the hope that the old guard can outmaneuver father time a little bit longer, showing the young pups in the sport that some old dogs can still hunt.