Save Liddell a Dance

By Luke Thomas Sep 9, 2009
I’ll give a warning now: This opinion piece doesn’t delve into heady material. In fact, what I’m about to argue should be obvious. “Should” being the operative word.

Were it not for the countless negative responses I’ve received, I’d never pen such a piece. But across a multitude of platforms word of former UFC light heavyweight champion Chuck Liddell appearing on the upcoming ninth season of ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” has produced strange rejection. Alas, the innumerable if confusing “this makes MMA look bad” along with the “who cares about Dancing With The Stars?” memes have become impossible to ignore.

“Dancing with the Stars” revolves around an activity I care little about on a network I don’t normally watch with participants I cannot recognize. But that’s precisely the point: I’m a 30-year-old male. One, my viewing habits are atypical even for my demographic and two, the MMA industry already knows how to capture my attention. What about everyone else? Where are they and why don’t they watch more MMA?

If the universe were men 18-34, Dana White would likely be our president. He, the UFC and the entire MMA industry have drilled the well of this portion of society to great effect. They know them, their habits, their purchasing power, their likes and dislikes and more. But they’ve been so successful, they’ve reached the limits.

The next level of sporting conversation and cultural integration for MMA extends meaningfully into other demographics besides young men. Building a fan base in sectors of society beyond MMA’s bedrock will always prove difficult and will take time, but getting those outsiders to be aware of, unbiased and unafraid of MMA is actually very doable. There won’t be a single effort or eureka moment for demos unaccustomed to watching MMA where they all turn into supporters en masse. That’s more of a slow burn, but all the more reason to take opportunities when they present themselves. Enter Chuck Liddell on a reality show about celebrities and professional dancers competing for viewer votes.

The reality is that while the news of Liddell being a part of the upcoming DWTS cast has been met with snickers and dismissals, every fan who wants MMA to penetrate further into the mainstream should welcome this move with open arms.

The stumbling block often issued against this idea -- namely, that the marriage between a dance competition and MMA is not natural and therefore meaningless -- should be discounted. DWTS is good precisely because it doesn’t force Liddell to adhere to outdated conceptions of fight sport participants. Those who fear fighting or are unaccustomed to viewing it as sport ultimately believe fighters are static characters who can do nothing but their occupation. Liddell is being given an opportunity unlike what he’s received in B-movies and HBO’s “Entourage”: the chance to demonstrate what else he can do and maybe a little human personality along the way.

Then there is the issue of DWTS’ size. For starters, DWTS isn’t just a big show; it’s positively gigantic. In fact, DWTS is actually a worldwide phenomenon with various permutations in dozens of countries, much like its rival in Fox’s “American Idol.” And if that pedigree doesn’t impress you, the performance should: The show’s recent ratings upswing since a 2007 semi-slump has some wondering if it will overtake the reliable yet slightly declining “American Idol” as the most-watched program in all of television.

In ratings numbers, that translates to a season eight opener of 22.5 million viewers, an all-time record for premieres on DWTS. By comparison, that’s more than three times the number of viewers for the highest-rated MMA program on network television. The show also demonstrated some audience loyalty and reliable programming through the course of that season and finished strong with 20.1 million viewers during the finale. It should also be noted that DWTS is a program airing on ABC, a station currently dominating the television markets and ratings in the young adults 18-49 year-old demographic (not to mention 12 years old and up) in programming far beyond DWTS.

The notion that Liddell will be performing to nothing but violence-averse, doe-eyed and otherwise unsuspecting women who will gain nothing from his appearance save revulsion is patently false. We are talking about ABC, not Lifetime television. While this isn’t the Affliction T-shirt, stand-em-up-ref hoi polloi so commonly understood to be the archetypal MMA fan, the truth is the effort required to convert women and older men is not nearly as onerous as advertised. It takes muscle and time, but it can be done. So while the enormous DWTS audience isn’t the fountain of youth that MMA can use to build an enduring fan base, the well is hardly dry.

Skeptics could point toward the forgettable appearances of boxers Evander Holyfield and Floyd Mayweather, Jr. as evidence that Liddell’s appearance may do little or nothing to assuage fears about MMA or create UFC converts. That’s not a bad argument but hardly seems worth testing over the present plan to give Liddell a spin to a new, expansive audience. In all likelihood, Liddell’s appearance won’t affect attitudes about MMA much one way or the other while only the Iceman himself will receive any appreciable benefit. But all of this hardly amounts to any reason not to have Liddell on the show.

And as gangbusters as I expect the ratings to be for the upcoming season of Spike TV's "The Ultimate Fighter," that show will never even sniff what DWTS can do in a slump on an off night. It won’t reach deeper into circles of mainstream society either. Admittedly, there are structural impediments given that Spike TV is a cable channel whereas ABC is not. But that doesn’t matter: Dana White’s antics and Kimbo Slice’s menacing aura won’t do much for disarming the hesitant. Chuck Liddell smiling and charming after pulling off a decent Merengue on a Monday night might.

The idea that Liddell or MMA have no such place within those who don’t more naturally acclimate to fight sport is a symptom of bad thinking prevalent among today’s fans and experts. A core problem in contemporary MMA discussion is the constant vocalization of its limits: MMA is a niche sport. And because it’s a niche sport -- a niche that’s partly carved out of those with an appetite for violence -- there will always be a ceiling on how far it can climb. As it stands, the sport is popular if somewhat socially repudiated. So not only do many find the business of fight sport unsavory, the head start in cultural integration other sports enjoy makes any prospect of catching up further unlikely.

And while that’s all indisputable, there’s an apathetic fatalism infecting the entire enterprise. MMA in any form isn’t likely to ever rival the NFL in size, scope or popularity. But what are the parameters of “niche”? Where do they begin and end and how wide a swathe of the mainstream do they cut? The truth is no one knows. The problem with invoking the “MMA is a niche sport” idea as axiomatic is that it ultimately becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of lowered expectations and fosters a culture of easy satisfaction.

That MMA will likely never rival American football in the States is both a true and irrelevant statement. That it may never rival football only tells us about where the limits of MMA will eventually end but not where we can precisely push them. In reality, MMA might be able to close the gap more than we ever considered. Unless we explore all avenues to healthy growth, we’ll actually never identify where the true ceiling lies. If nothing else, Liddell’s inclusion on DWTS is something of a trial balloon to see how far we are and how far we can go.

So, let Liddell dance. Or let him cook. Or let him marry a millionaire. Maybe even let him sing karaoke or hand bike across a moat. It doesn’t matter. If more than 20 million viewers in mainstream demographics are going to watch him do it while they decide that maybe neither he nor his occupation are that bad, then that’s a win MMA can ill afford to pass up.

Luke Thomas is the Editor-in-Chief of BloodyElbow.com. He is also the host of MMA Nation on 106.7 The Fan FM in Washington, D.C.
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