The Bottom Line: A Silver Lining for MMA

By Todd Martin Aug 22, 2017

Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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It is shaping up to be a deflating night for mixed martial arts and its fans. Rather than compete in his sport and defend a championship for the first time, MMA’s biggest star is fighting in a different sport against one of its all-time greats this Saturday at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. Nothing’s for sure in a fist fight, but Conor McGregor is getting paid tens of millions of dollars to be the fall guy for Floyd Mayweather to improve to 50-0 and everybody knows it.

When the discipline-versus-discipline gimmick has been used in the past, it was almost always one sport trying to satisfy its fans against a competitor from a different world. Japanese pro wrestling fans rooted for Antonio Inoki against fighters from other disciplines in worked bouts. Pride Fighting Championships brought in inexperienced stars from different martial arts to lose against the fan favorites from Pride. Randy Couture submitting James Toney was enjoyable for MMA fans who chanted “UFC” as it was going on.

That isn’t really the case here. Mayweather is boxing’s biggest villain. Boxing fans have paid to see more popular stars like Manny Pacquiao, Saul “Canelo” Alvarez and Oscar De La Hoya try to beat Mayweather for years. Boxing fans aren’t rallying behind Mayweather to defeat the MMA fighter because they dislike McGregor. They aren’t rooting for McGregor, either, because they more than any other group don’t give the Irishman any chance to win. Why root for someone in whom they don’t have an emotional investment and someone they don’t think can win anyway?

Thus there is a strange dynamic at play for this fight. The people most invested in the fight, as evidenced by the betting patterns and promotional tour reactions, are fans of McGregor and MMA. Yet, the whole thing is a setup, with a stacked deck for those people to be disappointed. There are few entertainment events where the people most excited going in are also the people far and away most likely to be disappointed on the way out.

Making matters worse for MMA fans is all the people likely to be watching that aren’t combat sports fans in the first place. Those people are less likely than boxing fans or MMA fans to recognize how much the rules dictate how these sorts of fights go; although, it’s not much of a secret given how much that point has been hammered by the mainstream media. They’re less likely to know all about Mayweather’s style and the likelihood that the fight ends up settling into a dull rhythm.

The most likely take home points at the end of the night for the massive casual fan base will be: (1) what a waste of $100 that was; (2) a pox on both the MMA and boxing houses for getting my money; and (3) the MMA guy sure didn’t put up much of a fight against the boxing guy. After shelling out big money to see their big star in all likelihood lose in a different sport, the cherry on the sundae for MMA fans will be answering negative questions about it from their friends.

If there’s some solace for devoted MMA fans, it’s that the reasons the event has a very good chance of being a disappointing stinker are elements that typically aren’t present with MMA. Mayweather’s signature is his defense, but MMA doesn’t lend itself to defensive specialists nearly as well as boxing. Between smaller gloves and more ways to win, not going on the offensive can be a very risky strategy. The tide turns much more often than it does in boxing. That lends itself to excitement, and in MMA, awful fights are much less common than great ones.

This element of unpredictability also means MMA has far fewer obvious blowouts. Few Ultimate Fighting Championship bouts have odds that are much longer than 4-to-1 or 5-to-1, while boxing is filled with major fights with a 15-to-1 or 25-to-1 favorite. Mayweather-McGregor is tighter than that, but that’s a reflection of the public mood much more than the considered perception of the probabilities. MMA thrives on its even matchmaking.

Another positive trait of most major MMA events is the depth of the cards. If the main event doesn’t deliver, there are a bunch of other significant, competitive fights and there are almost always highlights that stand out among them. The Mayweather-McGregor undercard is better than many boxing undercards, with fighters like Gervonta Davis and Badou Jack present, but it’s still a far cry from what you get with most major MMA cards; and there isn’t the same fan anticipation and history. Mayweather-McGregor will sink or swim on the main event, which is a big problem when the main event has a good chance of being not terribly entertaining.

At the end of the card, if you’re getting badgered about the show being a waste of money and McGregor purportedly not being any good, there’s a simple response. It may not satisfy anyone on the night of Mayweather-McGregor, but it will resonate to those paying attention when the next major MMA event comes around: The show would have been better if it was MMA.

Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and AXS-TV’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Bryan Alvarez at WrestlingObserver.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. He received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.

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