The Mechanics of MMA’s Improvement

By Luke Thomas Jul 7, 2009
Is the recent history of the UFC and MMA all about growth?

As the MMA community approaches a manufactured if helpful sign post in UFC 100 this weekend, both fans and pundits alike have been reciting the origins and significant moments in the sport’s brief history. A common meme that seems to consistently ascend over the others in the course of conversation has appeared, dealing with the “growth of the sport.”

One often hears “huge” or how “large” MMA has become. And why wouldn’t you? Everything is bigger. The purses are larger, the crowds have swollen, the divisions are deeper, the territory of fertile MMA land has expanded and the number of competitors has exploded. Clearly, MMA is bigger now than it once was.

The problem? Growth isn’t MMA’s only story.

The notion of improvement is an equally important angle to the development of the UFC and MMA over the last 15 years. We need look no further than the UFC 100 card for evidence of it.

The UFC 100 event may not even be the most significant of the summer, but in terms of what the arrangement and composition of the card tells us about where the sport precisely is amidst the change it has experienced, the card is strangely informative. Like an archaeologist examining an artifact to determine its origin and what those origins mean, examining the UFC 100 card allows us to reflect on the changes to the sport besides pure aggrandizement.

From a macro perspective, the UFC 100 card tells us the sport has critical albeit informal support structures and systems that are fundamentally part of and necessary for success. Over the course of its existence, MMA has consistently and thoroughly systematized and organized itself. This evolution has helped improve performance and product while making tasks more efficient, simple and deliverable.

These informal but necessary systems and support structures sound vague, but the truth is there are examples all around us. In fact, the UFC 100 fight card sheds light on a number of these hugely important but often invisible arrangements.

Let’s leave aside the issue of the fight card being an organizing component that itself has undergone its own process of improvement. Let’s look at the fighters on the card.

What we can clearly see is there are (and to varying degrees have existed for quite some time) now informal systems for prospective talent to be fed into the professional circuit. Specifically, competitive wrestlers have carved out a special niche. Former elite wrestlers like Mark Coleman, Dan Henderson, Matt Grice and CB Dollaway remind us that there are clear channels and entry points for former wrestling competitors to try their hand at competition under watchful eye and guidance at gyms and fight camps. The success and size of the operation speaks for itself.

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Bisping is proof of action.
Gyms and fight camps, of course, are also evidence of MMA’s self-organization. Aspiring fighters looking to improve their skill and performance eventually figured out that working in packs (with some hierarchy) worked wonders. The practice became systemized and spread like wild fire. In fact, even the packs themselves change out members and combinations for maximum effect. Fighters like Georges St. Pierre -- who consistently works with a steady diet of reliable regulars and fresh blood -- are a testament to that success of that development.

Fighters like Jon Jones, fighting Jake O’Brien on the UFC 100 undercard, demonstrate there are now directly employed methods and best practices to grooming budding talent. Jones may not prefer to fight when no one on television can see him, but the practice of putting him there against a suitable opponent that offers the right kind of test at this moment in his career is a practice borne from experience and now much more widely used.

The center of the system, the UFC, has also determined and used novel ways of mining and promoting the next generation of talent with its vast resources. Fighters like Mac Danzig and Michael Bisping -- seasons six and three winners of “The Ultimate Fighter,” respectively -- as well as Stephan Bonnar are living proof of the efficacy of the organized, systemic efforts the UFC has developed to find new talent. Through a process of recruiting, testing, culling and promoting along with staggered but organized timing and media campaigns, “The Ultimate Fighter” is a perfect example of the emergent order Zuffa has helped create.

The sport (and more approximately the UFC in this case) has also become much better at discovering and poaching talent from abroad. Five of the 10 main card competitors at UFC 100 are originally from other countries. Globalization with its shrinking of distances both physically and culturally has played a role as well. Korean and Korean-Japanese fighters Dong Hyun Kim and Yoshihiro Akiyama, exceptionally valuable commodities for more local promotions, are finding greener pastures elsewhere.

Larger than life figures like Brock Lesnar prove the sport (again, mostly the UFC) has more effectively determined how to properly promote itself, “properly” being the key word. Over time, the sport not only expanded efforts to attract the attention of noteworthy figures beyond the community but also figured out effective methods of integration.

The reality is this: While the point I’m pushing does not work with the tidiest of definitions, MMA (or rather the wide network of communities that comprise the sport) is successful because it has become a complex adaptive system. It has disparate elements working together, and the system can change and improve by learning from one another or an outside source. The UFC 100 card may not necessarily be the most exemplary in terms of talent or meaningful fights, but it is a product of its time. I hesitate to call this the “Golden Era” of MMA, but it is fair to say the current iteration of the sport is far more advanced and sophisticated in nearly every conceivable dimension than the iteration we knew 15 years ago. It’s not just a difference in degree; it’s also a difference in kind.

When we reflect on how MMA or the UFC has changed on the eve of UFC 100, remember “growth” only tells half the story. What’s made that growth remarkable and so successful is not its sheer size but how it has been fashioned, molded and refined through many efforts at self-organization.

The truth is that the engine of progress is self-organization. What has made MMA and the UFC so special is that from broad vantage points, one can say both have quite clearly improved. Not just in the talent of the fighters, but in every way. Yes, the UFC experienced a clear moment of decline, as did Pride and countless other leagues. There have been bubbles and there will be more. But incrementally, the scope and quality of the sport appears to be improving. As the sport attracts new members to the community, the existing members have discovered and employed new ways to make the support structures and the sport itself even better. That’s progress. We are now at the stage where some of those best practices aren’t just being used; they’re being spread and made systemic across the sport.

So, take a second look at the UFC 100 fight card. Look closely and see what it tells you about where the sport is today and how far it has come from where it began. That’s when you realize UFC 100 isn’t a moment to dismiss or undermine. It’s a time to celebrate.

Luke Thomas is the Editor-in-Chief of the MMA blog
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