Opinion: Mainstream Media Pundits Don't Write Fighting History

By Jordan Breen Jan 6, 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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We're a week removed from Ronda Rousey getting demolished by Amanda Nunes in 48 seconds and people are still talking about it. Lots and lots of people, including a lot of people that should be asking questions instead of offering statements.

It's understandable that anyone who saw Nunes punch Rousey silly in barely three quarters of a minute would feel some type of way, nevermind that we're firmly in the era of hyperbolic hot taking across all walks of life, not just sports media or media on the whole. However, owing to Ronda Rousey's mainstream, crossover celebrity status and how truly one-sided and humiliating her knockout at the hands of Nunes was, it was inevitable that some folks who aren't exactly “MMA people” to put it mildly, would overplay their hand and say some abjectly stupid things. But, lovers of cagefighting, contemplation and sanity, it's no reason to get upset, because I come bearing good news: their opinions don't matter on any level.

These past few days, I've had questions in my inbox and on social media about what Rousey's MMA legacy will be; all of these concerns seem entirely predicated on a debate between America's favorite willful contrarian Skip Bayless, former all-time great NFL tight end Shannon Sharpe and character-actor-turned-hip-hop-dad Michael Rapaport on Fox Sports 1's “Undisputed” program. Admittedly, sports talking heads and random celebrities have weighed in on Rousey's plight, but we'll focus this critique on what seems to be the real flashpoint for most of the offended MMA populace.

Bayless, a man who previously entertained the notion of Rousey beating Floyd Mayweather Jr. under MMA rules, said she not great and only “first.” Sharpe said she was overrated. Rapaport somehow viewed Rousey as proof of white privilege and said she was never any good at all. “Three famous men say things out loud around a table” would be a generous appraisal of this conversation, which again, was televised content.

Anyone can identify that these three opinions, and in general, those of mainstream sports talking heads or variable other famous people, are not going to be well-informed. However, that's not what's at stake: there seem to be some people in the MMA world -- fighters, media, fans alike -- who think these opinions are worthy of legitimate critique, as though they have a real capacity to form public opinion and crystallize legacy. They don't.

See, combat sports are a funny beast. It's not the 1920's any more, and prizefighting, in all of its forms, has taken on a niche nature. To passionately and knowledgeably follow MMA, boxing or kickboxing is a unique investment of time and resources. More than that, the interpretation of those sports is up to that close reading and contemplation. Sure, fighters have wins and losses on their records, but it's not the same as a stick-and-ball sport; the historical greatness of prizefighters is based on the questions “Who have you beaten and how did you do it?” And, to ask the question “Who have you beaten?” is in turn to ask who all those fighters had beaten, and how did they do it; it's like a fractal sort of regression.

I don't want to overstep and say that the historiography of prizefighting requires more nuance than other sports, but I do think it's easier to hold the most basic, bar room-style conversations about football or basketball for instance -- who will or would win, who is or was better -- than about MMA. Even if your conversational partner isn't that well-schooled or sophisticated, they may know some key, relevant stats, have a general grasp on a league or team or player's championship history; for instance, a guy who just plays fantasy sports annually with his friends and maybe watches a game or two a week may be able to craft an intelligible argument as to why, say, Tom Brady is the best quarterback ever, why Eric Lindros belongs in the Hockey Hall of Fame, or something similar.

The way people are exposed to and consume prizefighting, especially in 2017, is simply so vastly different from other sports. Sure, hardcore fans may bemoan the sacrifices they make to take in even just the breadth of the UFC product, but for the most casual, mainstream fight fans -- the people with a Rousey hot take, the people responsible for a UFC pay-per-view that does over 750,000 buys -- are individuals watching maybe two or three events a year tops, and who knows how many specific fights on those individual cards. The only time contemporary prizefighting attracts this kind of attention is for some truly special athletes, like your Rouseys or McGregors, but probably the best example in our modern sports culture is the aforementioned Floyd Mayweather.

Owing to his truly legendary skills, Mayweather has stayed on top of boxing, at least as a draw, for over a decade now. With every passing fight, regardless of opponent quality, Mayweather naturally became a bigger and bigger phenomenon to the point where non-boxing media began to cover his bouts, which spawns non-boxing journalists giving inane opinions on television and emboldening folks who have seen one or two Mayweather fights to have deeply convicted opinions about the man's legacy that they simply must share online. Hell, Skip Bayless has made trolling Mayweather a cause célèbre over the last few years: in addition to the Rousey-Mayweather silliness, Bayless also boldly proclaimed Manny Pacquiao would top Floyd, and thinks Conor McGregor could possibly beat him in a boxing match.

None of these takes on Mayweather ever matter. Mayweather's place in boxing history, for better or worse, will not be written by a bunch of screaming cable TV performers who haven't seen either of his fights with Jose Luis Castillo. The history and folklore of fighting is self-referential, esoteric and not made easier by records, statistics and championships and so non-diehards tend to lack even bits of wisdom that “in-the-know” individuals take as fact. Most American sports fans aren't hockey fans, but they could probably all tell you Wayne Gretzky's considered the greatest hockey player ever. Ask the same person who the greatest boxer is, they'll say Muhammad Ali, not Sugar Ray Robinson. Ask them who the greatest mixed martial artist ever is -- MMA nerds have seemingly become comfortable with a Jon Jones-Georges St. Pierre-Anderson Silva debate -- you're more likely to hear Royce Gracie or Chuck Liddell. Don't even bother asking about Fedor Emelianenko.

Simply put, any debate requires facts and prizefighting's version of “facts” is a complex matrix of people beating the hell out of each other for decades that requires some skillful interpretation that comes from familiarity with the sport. You can't just add up how many Super Bowls someone won and “make the case” for their greatness or look at someone's playoff winning percentage and say they were a “choke artist” or similar tropes.

To be clear, I'm not saying it's easy to have encyclopedic knowledge and deep understanding of other sports, as that's obviously not true, but there's a reason ESPN and FS1 can throw random actors and musicians on television to talk non-prizefighting sports and (usually) not have it be a total trainwreck; your average “sports person” is going to have a better grip on the Golden State Warriors offense than Conor McGregor's offense due to the different in constant mainstream exposure and media distillation.

I have to imagine that FS1 roundly lambasting Rousey in this way -- keep in mind, Fox is still the UFC's television sweetheart for now -- is some proof that new UFC overlord Ari Emanuel wants to gives broadcast partners more control and for better or worse, embroil the UFC in the “embrace debate” ethos that Zuffa very much shied away from with hits product. It's notable that ESPN, perhaps the UFC's next broadcast home, was far more forgiving of its post-UFC 207 coverage of Rousey, re-emphasizing her role as a trailblazer and pioneer in the sport.

Bad news first: the “embrace debate” mentality may be a clever ruse to inject the UFC into more cable sports programming and keep the product at the forefront of non-hardcores' minds, but it ain't exactly gonna be “The MMA Beat,” it's going to be former football players and Troy Aikman's No. 1 enemy screeching at each other without any requisite knowledge on the topic. And the good news? Well, I already told you from this essay's outset: their opinions don't matter.

Skip Bayless says Rousey wasn't great, she was “first,” as though women's MMA hasn't been developing since Japanese pro-wrestling outfits experimented with it in the mid-1990's, like this April won't be the 15 years since Jeff Osbourne staged HookNShoot's “Revolution,” the first all-women's MMA card in the West. Gina Carano, poster child for two separate, important MMA promotions in EliteXC and Strikeforce, apparently never existed. Opinions like this do not sway history because they're at direct loggerheads with it; no one could attempt to argue what Bayless did to anyone with any legitimate knowledge of women's MMA and it's not as though he would have the ammunition to refute it.

And, lest we forget about about Shannon Sharpe, let history's finest undersized tight end be a reminder that you can get a potentially correct answer with the wrong equation. Was Rousey overrated? Yes, absolutely. By who? By exactly the sort of clueless media class now taking her to the sewer. Sharpe literally said this while sitting beside a guy, his co-host, who entertained the idea of Rousey armbarring Floyd Mayweather. In late 2015, Rousey topped Serena Williams in an ESPN.com poll, “The Greatest Female Athlete Ever.” Ever.

There's a reason that many people, myself included, always reckoned Amanda Nunes could be Rousey's toughest challenger from the moment she signed with the UFC, long before Holly Holm kicked her block off. More than that, there's a reason why the MMA world clamored for years to have Rousey fight Cris Cyborg and it wasn't just that Rousey had so easily dispatched the best of her division up until Holm. The only people who thought Rousey was indestructible was a mainstream sports pundit class that doesn't actually watch fights, so as ironic as it be, it's no surprise that members of that cadre would be the first to claim her career was mostly smoke and mirrors.

Rousey's career arc and its denouement illustrate how nuance escapes the non-MMA pundits who seek to wax poetic on it. I think it's more than likely that Rousey will be remembered as historically overrated, but it will be entirely on account of her mainstream popularity, which hinged on a bunch of non-fight people projecting their own symbolism and fantasies onto her. But, you can still be simultaneously overrated by unsophisticated masses and wholly brilliant, which Rousey was. To say nothing of her drawing power, which will always be a massive part of her role in this sport's history, Rousey's four-year clean-up of the 135-pound division was unprecedented in its both quality and dominance, not even sniffed at by Megumi Fujii's six-year unbeaten run.

MMA and other prizefighting sports can create these sorts of confusing legacies, that require contemplation and a historical framework to unpack and that's just fine. For fighters, especially transcendent individuals like Rousey, it's still fight people who constitute the historical record. I find it incredibly hard to believe that a serious fight fan 10, 20 or 50 years from now, who goes back and watches Rousey's whole career, is going to come off thinking she was a fraud.

If we are to remember Rousey as “overrated,” it won't be that the MMA world overvalued the merit of her wins, that the woman she beat were no good, that she wasn't actually a sensational grappler. It won't be because of the judicious words of a Skip Bayless and or a Shannon Sharpe, or anything to do with Rousey at all. It will be due to the fact the the MMA world will remember the hyperbolic fawning of the mainstream sports media over Rousey during her height and the ilk of Bayless and Sharpe joining a conversation that they weren't a part of it in the first place.
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