With the possible exception of planking, MMA has been the fastest growing sport in the world for the last few years. Now that early growth period has passed and the promotional cannibalism has subsided we have one very full diner left at the table, Zuffa. Owners of the UFC, they have aggressively asserted their dominance in America and are now crusading around the world to preach the good word. In the internet age companies can be here today and MySpace tomorrow in a matter of months so the Zuffa expansion has not been staggering in its speed. For a sporting promotion however, their development of the UFC has been gobsmackingly competent. The private business has consolidated its position and methodically softened the edges of its product to make it a more friendly viewing experience. So it has been with a cartoonish double-take that that we observers watched the UFC present an underwhelming 2012.
Injuries blighted the entire year. The promotion spent the last twelve months listening to more reasons why people couldn’t take part than a gym teacher at fat camp. The list of unfortunates is so long its simpler to express it in a different way. Of the fights intended by the UFC this year over a quarter of them have been scuppered by the doctors note. Of course in a sport that takes such rabid preparation injuries will always crop up from time to time but with the UFC making extra effort to put on more shows across more networks and in more countries those absences and alterations are much more visible. In such a young sport with potentially a short hop between first fight and title shot it can be said that in 2012 the UFC spread their talent a little too thinly.
One of the more unsettling undercurrents of 2012 is the continuation of high profile drugs suspensions and dubious use of testosterone replacement therapy. The UFC would argue they can only do so much to prevent performance enhancing drugs contaminating the sport and each fighter is responsible for their own actions. However the UFC are in a difficult position, in their early days when convincing the public to pay attention they were seen as a possible successor to boxing. The UFC understood the power of this media angle and flirted with it outrageously. The fresh, no nonsense immediacy and in your face attitude of the UFC definitely drew some fans away from Boxing and came as a sharp shock to the comatose sweet science. A fair few people were lured to the UFC with the suggestion of “boxing's good old days”, a wistful nirvana that everyone bought into as we got to watch great fights between great (apparently clean) fighters.
Yet as the rose-tinted spectacles started to slip it became clear that a fair few drug users had crashed the party. Every sport goes through this problem once the exposure and financial rewards reach a tipping point. The big riddle for the UFC is that they are, in essence, the sport of MMA. Like the NFL, NBA and NHL they are the only show in town. Yet unlike the other abbreviations they seem to try and absolve themselves of responsibility when the time comes to punish cheats, preferring to let the state athletic commissions (et al) hand out the only penalty, which means those guilty of drugs violations have returned to the UFC to continue punching people in the head. A characteristic more suited to the disorganised world of boxing and not the newer, more honourable and robust UFC.
Unfortunately this hasn’t been the only old trait of boxing to cross contaminate. As fighters and the business of freestyle combat become more homogeneous the fights themselves are no longer what they used to be. Macro has now become micro. Fights are less often won with a flurry of mindless aggression and more often now ended with an athletic checkmate (a brief passage of finely tuned boxing or jujitsu). Truthfully, no matter how much more skilful it is, this is against the grain of what the company wishes to see. Fighters are encouraged to be flashy and go for it. Those who can't or chose strategy over entertainment do so at their own risk. In the UFC game of snakes and ladders the snakes are more punitive for those unwilling to mug for the camera. Once you are out of favour at the UFC it has become increasingly clear that the cards are stacked against you. Bucking the ethos of their earlier years the UFC's meritocracy structure is now being distorted. With the pressure of pay-per-view and network deals bearing down upon Zuffa, sandbagging those fighters who are strangers to the highlight reel is becoming more overt.
One example which encapsulates both of the problems I mentioned above is Chael Sonnen. An accomplished wrestler and trash talker, Chael ascended to the sharp end of the middleweight division dishing out hard fought ground and pound performances. Through sheer gritty determined hard work he rightly earned himself a shot at the champion Anderson Silva, which he duly lost from a seemingly insurmountable points lead akin to a last minute plot twist of a hammy American daytime soap. Pre-fight Chael had promised a lot of things, and although he could never live up to his claims he did shock a great many with his competitiveness against the greatest fighter the sport has ever seen. The problem was that after the fight Chael was banned from competition by the state athletic commission due the findings of a post-fight drug test. Returning over a year later the UFC, unperturbed by this indiscretion, thrust Chael right back into the mix and after two wins he fought Anderson Silva once more (and lost a second time, this time emphatically).
This run of events spanned 2010 to 2012. What we didn’t realised was that over this time UFC high command had fallen for Sonnen's entertaining mouth despite his ultimate sporting failure. This seemed an innocuous crush until it was announced this year that Sonnen will step up to fight light heavyweight champion Jon Jones in April 2013 despite no genuine pedigree at the weight. Chael Sonnen had talked his way into a title fight from nowhere. Although there were extenuating circumstances (an injury to another Jones opponent and a reality TV show to cast), if I find this decision unusual and disappointing I can only guess how those fighters politely waiting in line reacted. This fight is the strongest example of pomp over product since Randy Couture fought a bouncy castle shaped like James Toney in 2010. Yes, the boxer James Toney.
Overall in the UFC as a whole there is a greater sea change. A generational shift is occurring. A much younger, more formidable school of fighters are establishing themselves. They have studied under their idols and jettisoned anything superfluous. They are the first class of learn it to use it athletes to enter the sport. It's no longer acceptable to carry a little fat into your fight, if you aren’t cutting to make a weight limit then you are not maximising any advantage. Old school fighters would become experts at certain martial arts disciplines and then fill in the gaps as they went along, the new breed start in the cage. It is the intention of these individuals to raise the level of professionalism and dedication until some of their competitors drown. The first to fall prey to this tactic have been MMA's old guard unable to acclimatise to this hostile new environment. Unfortunately for the UFC a lot of the old guard are those personalities who helped build the the sport into what it is today. It will be hard for both the UFC to let them go and for the fighters themselves to identify when their time is over.
Luckily for the UFC the gentle shuffle towards boxing’s plateau can be rectified with relatively little effort. In 2013 it seems the stars have aligned and the UFC have been blessed with an almost unavoidable opportunity to return to their old ways, the best fighting the best. Amongst the current title holders there are three fighters without peer and these three guys are pound for pound the best in the world. Luckily for us they are in adjoining weight divisions. Georges St Pierre (welterweight champion), Anderson Silva (middleweight champion) and Jon Jones (light heavyweight champion). The fans talk of St Pierre moving up to face Silva has already begun, so has the chatter about who would win between Silva and Jones. These would be legendary contests, defining moments for the UFC. Hold on though, Zuffa aren’t going to shoot at the open goal just yet. So far the UFC have lined up lesser bouts for two of the three fighters early 2013.
St Pierre is 31 years old and is at the peak of his powers, Silva (the super-fights linchpin) is 37 and is undoubtedly looking for a few mega-fights before he retires and Jon Jones is 25 and is comparatively new to this level of appreciation. Clearly their career paths are all quite different but at this moment in time they are in the same conversation. Of all the similarities to boxing that the UFC should wish to avoid there can be none bigger than great fights that never where. Manny Pacquiao was 34, a year younger than Floyd Mayweather when his luster faded. Now the Pac-man Mayweather super-fight is lost, because they delayed. These windows of opportunity will only remain for a brief time. As great as Anderson Silva is, and he is great, nobody can predict the future. At 37 already when will youth, vigour or just a bit of luck catchup with Silva. Every delay is another round of Russian roulette. Lets hope We can talk about St Pierre or Jones vs Silva in the same breath as Ali vs Frazier rather than in the same breath as Pacquiao vs Mayweather, Bowe vs Lewis, Morales vs Marquez, Leonard vs Pryor etc etc.