MMA’s Grudging Promotion

By Todd Martin Apr 19, 2012

At UFC 145 on Saturday at Philips Arena in Atlanta, the Ultimate Fighting Championship hopes to draw one of its biggest pay-per-view buy rates in years.

UFC 145 “Jones vs. Evans” has become a hotly anticipated event for a number of obvious reasons. Two of the top 205-pound fighters in the world will square off for the UFC light heavyweight championship in the main event. Plus, fight fans are hungry for a major event following a now unusually long two-month delay between UFC pay-per-views. However, the focal point of the promotion centers on the personal issues between the two fighters. Jon Jones-Rashad Evans represents an old fashioned grudge match.

Bad blood has always played a key role in combat sports. Muhammad Ali recognized that a grudge component to his fights would help draw fans, so he directed hurricanes of taunts and insults at countless foes. It led to some of boxing’s most legendary bouts and created decades of resentment in the process. Ali himself was inspired by professional wrestling, a genre where matches without personal issues are the exception rather than the rule. Even in the Brazilian vale tudo scene, the fights that generated the most attention and interest were typically between feuding parties, such as Waldemar Santana taking on his former training partners in the Gracie family.

MMA has been no different. The bout that kept Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta invested in the potential of the UFC during lean times was a grudge match between Ken Shamrock and Tito Ortiz; a heated personal rivalry between Josh Koscheck and Chris Leben fueled the early ratings success of the UFC on Spike TV; Ortiz’s personal feuds with Shamrock and Chuck Liddell produced the most significant pay-per-view buy rates of the UFC’s 2006 boom; the war of words between Brock Lesnar and Frank Mir led to the promotion’s high-water mark to date at UFC 100; the biggest buy rate of the past few years not involving Lesnar was a grudge match between Evans and Quinton Jackson.

Heated rivalries are part of the fabric of the UFC, and Jones-Evans will be neither the first nor the last fight to be sold as a confrontation between two men who simply do not like each other. Looking back at the history of these types of fights lends insight into why they continue to captivate the public.

Why Grudge Matches?

Jon Jones File Photo

Jones capitalized on Evans’ misfortune.
There are those who criticize the continued promotion of personal issues in MMA, feeling it to be a sideshow distracting from the basic appeal of athletic competition, and there is something to be said for this point of view. Rivalries are often, to some degree, manufactured and we, at times, let ourselves get caught up in them knowing at heart that we are being sold a bill of goods. However, there is something intrinsically appealing about a very personal backstory to a fight.

At the heart of a grudge match’s appeal to fight fans is the way it links them to the fighters. Team sports are fundamentally tribal. Fans support their local team against teams from other cities. It creates a simple and natural rooting interest that endures year in and year out. Individual sports are different, as the connection between athlete and fan needs to be continually rekindled.

A natural rooting interest is created with fighters who happen to be from a certain country or area. Thus, many of MMA’s hottest rivalries have involved the local hero battling the foreign

Kazushi Sakuraba represented Japan against the Gracies and Wanderlei Silva, while Georges St. Pierre represents Canada against a host of welterweight foes. Still, the local star remains the exception rather than the rule. The vast majority of fighters in the sport are not going to be from the same place as any individual fan. Grudge matches provide a basic moral tale for fans to embrace a fighter as their own.

Not everyone can relate to competing at a world-class level in an individual sport, but most of us can relate to feeling betrayed by a friend; most of us can relate to dealing with someone who appears to be full of himself and deserves to be taken down a notch; most of us can relate to someone saying something bad about us. We tune in, not only for the fight but for the morality play that we have created in our own heads.

While many of MMA’s biggest grudge matches have involved fans taking sides in a well-defined moral dispute, sometimes the audience is intrigued by simple and undefined anger. This is a hallmark of Nick Diaz’s career. Diaz will not often explain why he does not like his opponent, but his rage is evident just the same. His fights often are personal and heated, even if there is not any root cause for a dispute other than the fact that two fighters signed to compete against one another.

That points to another enduring appeal of personal issues: it fosters the sense that there is going to be a wild fight during which anything can happen. Even if fans did not have a rooting interest, Shamrock-Don Frye and Phil Baroni-Matt Lindland were crazy romps where neither competitor was willing to concede defeat. Whether true or not, the anger made it seem as though the fighters would go to greater lengths to win.

Observers often have unrealistic expectations of fights based on pre-fight hype. Evans-Jackson was promoted as a heated war, but Evans executed a smart game plan and secured a decision win. The mutual dislike between Ricardo Arona and Silva did not alter Arona’s typically conservative game plans when fighting “The Axe Murderer” in Pride Fighting Championships. Fighters know what they need to do to win fights and usually are not going to deviate from the best strategy possible.

Of course, sometimes the pre-fight hype does influence the actual contest. Donald Cerrone worked himself into a frenzy for his fight with Nate Diaz, which led to his wildly charging into crisp counterpunching and resulted in his defeat at UFC 141. Miesha Tate likely risked serious injury, in part, because she did not want to give Ronda Rousey the satisfaction of a tapout. That extra effort is a significant part of the appeal of bitter rivalries, when the rivalry is as strong as it seems.

Real or Not?

Greg Jackson File Photo

Jackson was caught in the middle
for a time.
When a major fight is promoted as a grudge match, fans, for the most part, want to believe the issue being pushed is real. Fighters are usually trying to sell their fights and generate interest, but there is a difference between amplifying negative feelings and manufacturing anger. Both frequently occur.

Certain fighters have spent much of their careers promoting personal issues that were not so personal. Frank Shamrock, one of MMA’s best trash talkers, played the role of antagonist to a wide array of opponents throughout his career. When the fights were over, he usually greeted his foe with a smile and a hug. Then the next opponent came along, and the trash talk commenced again. It led to some of the biggest non-UFC fights of the past five years, while leaving behind few lingering hard feelings.

St. Pierre does not talk a lot of trash, but he has spent a career playing the role of aggrieved party against a series of antagonists.

His fights with Josh Koscheck and Matt Serra were promoted as serious grudge matches, but St. Pierre made it clear afterwards that he knew his opponents were simply trying to make the fights as eagerly anticipated as possible. The flipside of this acknowledgement was that many questioned just how angered St. Pierre really was by Nick Diaz’s antics following his win over B.J. Penn at UFC 137.

Sometimes, the issue is more genuine for one party than the other. When Dan Hardy embarked on an Internet trash-talking campaign to promote his fight with Marcus Davis, it was clear the English fighter took it as a game. Davis took it as something altogether different. He was furious with Hardy before and after the fight, going so far as to say on Twitter after their encounter that he hoped the mohawked welterweight would die of AIDS. Hardy instigated the personal issue, but at some point fighters have to recognize fight promotion for what it is.

A mixture of real anger and fight promotion has been present throughout Ortiz’s career. After Ortiz and Ken Shamrock fought for a third time, the UFC hall of famer sought out Ortiz to embrace his rival and congratulate him on the money they made together. Ortiz seemed to want to have little to do with the scene but reluctantly acquiesced.

The shoe was on the other foot when Ortiz fought Liddell. Ortiz often spoke of “The Iceman” as a friend after their fights, while the usually unexcitable Liddell made it clear he would like nothing better than to punch Ortiz in the face again. The rivalry between Ortiz and Liddell serves as perhaps the best comparison for Jones and Evans: training partners who grew apart because only one could hold the UFC light heavyweight title.

Jones vs. Evans

Rashad Evans File Photo

Evans has done nothing to dilute
his dislike for Jones.
The bout between Jones and Evans does not have a clearly defined protagonist and antagonist. Crowds have frequently sided against Evans throughout his MMA career, but, in this instance, he does not make a natural villain. It was Jones who broke their pact not to fight and ended up with the trainer, camp, title shot and championship that Evans once held. The situation has become messy, as personal conflicts tend to be.

UFC’s “Primetime” series for Jones-Evans, in contrast to many past editions, has been presented in a way to encourage fans to choose whichever side they want. The story of the fight remains mostly unwritten, and the perception of the two fighters very well could shift over time. It is hard to say how the relationship between Jones and Evans will end up.

Ali-Joe Frazier remains a classic example of a rivalry where perceptions shifted radically over time. At first, Ali was the villain to many for his outspoken political beliefs, with Frazier as the default hero. Over time, Ali became a widely celebrated icon and Frazier thus became the default villain.

Then there was another shift, with many becoming more sympathetic to Frazier, the victim of extremely harsh taunts by Ali and framed as something he was not. While those perceptions shifted over time, their fights did not. The outcome of Jones-Evans will remain unchanged.

What amplifies Jones-Evans beyond a simple grudge match is the centrality of the UFC championship to the dispute. While personal issues among champion and challenger are not uncommon, in this case there would be no dispute if not for the title. It was the light heavyweight crown that tore apart Jones and Evans. It ended up taking precedence over their friendship and will also take precedence over their feud. Each man would like to shut up the other, but even more important is proving himself the best. The stakes could not be higher, which is why the anticipation for this one is so great.
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