Success is so relative, so open for interpretation. Expectations are almost always defined by circumstance. Before we know it, change is upon us once again.
With those changes come new goals. If we are lucky enough to achieve them, the destination never appears as we imagined it would.
Being an early fan, journalist or participant in the world of mixed martial arts was akin to growing up during the upstart of punk rock or hip-hop. Unlike the masses, we always believed in the talent and the integrity of the activity.
But an internal struggle remained constant between the rebellious nature of the engagement and our secret desire to be, if not necessarily accepted, most assuredly recognized.
Ah, those innocent times spent on Milwaukee’s deep south side, digging through the miscellaneous rental section of the world-renowned RSE Video to find old UFC or Pride events on VHS. I would imagine what it would be like if I could actually see these athletes in real time, on the big stage, with the kind of support that an NFL or NBA team had behind it.
There was always a benchmark, a next step to reach.
The first UFC event took place in November 1993, but by the time 1996 had rolled around public consumption for no-holds-barred fighting (NHB) shifted. Lawmakers and moralists had found a convenient scapegoat, and while keeping pornography readily available on Pay-Per-View, our beloved combat sport had been pulled from all but the darkest reaches of the internet.
As a supporter, the obvious next step was to rally for our place in the spectrum of choice. Through the hard work of many, and in the shadows of 9-11, fighters were finally again granted the opportunity to express themselves, and the UFC reappeared on Pay-Per-View in late September of 2001.
Benchmark one, check.
Next, we would need some sort of cable television exposure. Not PPV.
Fox Sports’ "The best Damn Sports Show Period" did just that in 2002, by airing a tape-delayed fight.
Benchmark two, check.
Now regular cable television exposure was within grasp. Enter Spike TV’s "The Ultimate Fighter" reality show, which through the help of being presented directly after the WWF’s Monday Night Raw, drew massive ratings and exposure to an entirely new audience.
Benchmark three, check.
Network TV. All major sports entities had it. Why not ours? See 2011, when the UFC signed its seven-year network television deal with Fox and Fox Sports. Along with that, the company introduced health insurance for all of its fighters.
Check, check, check.
What else is missing? New York. Legal in every state except for our country’s largest market. How can we really stand as equal with the world’s top franchises if we cannot perform at Madison Square Garden? Then 2016 comes, and MMA is legalized in New York, where the UFC arguably put on its crowning achievement last month.
A record-setting gate, unprecedented media exposure, some of the sport’s greatest moments, all under the hallowed roof of one of the world’s most famous athletics venue, and where do we find ourselves today? Is it everything we hoped for?
In some ways, I think we’re in a pretty good spot. There’s no argument that although many still find it unwatchable, the sport is now woven into the thread of popular culture.
Amateur and Olympic athletes in judo, wrestling, taekwondo and karate now have a place to apply their trade professionally.
Boxers, jiu-jitsu competitors and even stick and ball participants can now take their skills and transition into the cage. This is especially important for men and women that walk around under 200 pounds, where the likes of football and basketball are most unforgiving for them.
But for the RSE video researcher that so desired this boom in 1993, there are a number of items that fame and fortune are forcing us to get used to.
The money. There is still a major argument as to where it’s going and how the pie should be split.
Drugs. People are punching each other in the damn head here. But training for a fight takes enormous physical wear and tear. What should be legal, when should it be legal, who should be testing and what should we be testing for?
Meritocracy. The UFC just sold for more than $4 billion. People want to recoup on that investment. Do fights get made because they can sell or do we go by the rankings and logic. The NFL can’t decide to put the two most popular teams in the Super Bowl every year (McGregor/Diaz). How do we ride that line? Is this sport or spectacle? It is the fight "business", sure, but the popularity of the sport was partially built off the backlash of boxing’s lack of competitive integrity.
Such a brave new world MMA lives in. So much has been achieved, but so much left to go.
Conor McGregor channels inner Stone Cold: By far the UFC’s most successful event took place last month, and the hangover is still reverberating through the landscape. Setting both a company and venue gate record, millions watched as the sport’s No. 1 star, Conor McGregor, become the first simultaneously multi-divisional champ with a seemingly effortless second-round KO of veteran Eddie Alveraz. And as McGregor’s popularity and power sky rocket, so too do his demands against the company.
Because the sport is still maintained under the model of the WWE, as opposed to professional boxing, the fighter-versus-corporate power struggle is now being played out as never before.
The UFC has yet to experience an athlete with the drawing capabilities of Conor McGregor and the demands that come with it. Private planes, training camp payments, and, most importantly, how are matchups made? Heavy girth for both fighter and company, the average fan could care less. They just want action, and the real issue now is what a two-division champ does when there are fighters working their way toward a belt and said champion has interests elsewhere.
What interests? Take the insane conversation of McGregor fighting Mayweather, or, equally disturbing, completing the Nate Diaz trilogy – neither of which has anything to do with the current division and who holds rights to a next title fight.
To put it simply: McGregor and the UFC may make more money with him not defending the titles.
Sure, the money will roll right in, but at what cost? Time will tell.
Will 2017 be the Year of an MMA union? Success like a record gate and a $4 billion sale also bring to light the idea that most fighters have been grossly under-supported and the very real dialogue of labor vs. management is no longer only on the horizon. It’s standing in front of us and must be recognized.
This year has brought us three attempts at organizing some sort of fighter’s association or union to ensure that athletes past, present and future get their fair share.
This month brought what may be the highest-profile attempt as some of the UFC’s top stars announced their intentions. There was a ton to unpack as Tim Kennedy, T.J. Dillashaw, Cain Velasquez, Donald Cerrone and currently retired Hall of Famer Georges St-Pierre announced, via conference call, the beginning of the Mixed Martial Artists Athletes Association.
Anthony Pettis fights for interim Featherweight Title this weekend: With business aside, the fights still go on. And this weekend, we will be treated to one of our hometown heroes getting a crack at a second title. Milwaukee native Anthony Pettis’ career as a top pound-for-pound fighter in the sport cannot be denied. He has put up highlight-reel performances in multiple organizations and captured the UFC’s most competitive division’s belt (155 pounds) in August 2013 at the Bradley Center.
But injuries have been Anthony’s toughest opponent through the years, and when on the shelf the sport does not slow down. In fact, it evolves at a blistering pace, and after one successful title defense Pettis lost the coveted belt in March 2015.
But with the working-class ethic that he is not shy about attributing in part to Milwaukee, Pettis has dropped a weight class (145 pounds) and is now poised to become only the fourth fighter to win a championship belt at two separate weight classes.
His opponent, Hawaii’s Max Holloway, is on an absolute tear. Riding a nine-fight winning streak, with his last loss to Conor McGregor (when doesn’t this guy show up?), Holloway’s ability to change strategy mid-fight makes him an extremely dangerous and game opponent.
That said, wrestling is not a strength for either Pettis Holloway, so it’s a perfect matchup for combatants and fans alike. I expect world-class striking and some interesting ground play if, in fact, it goes there. It should be an absolute blast to watch, and one my fellow Milwaukeeans should get behind.
(Ed. note: Pettis missed weight this morning. Saturday's bout will still take place but is no longer a title fight.)
The rest of the card is average to respectable. The co-main event of the aforementioned Donald Cerrone vs. Matt Brown is a rich appetizer for both the hardcore and casual fan, while blue-chip prospect Doo Ho Choi, "The Korean Super Boy," will be tested by stalwart veteran Cub Swanson.
Although not big on names, there are some tasty nuggets here if one takes the time to dig.
- Fighters claiming that the UFC is currently only offering 8 percent of total revenue. As opposed to most sports where there is a 50-50 split.
- Donald Cerrone asserted he was docked $10,000 on a recent paycheck for health care, even though the UFC is supposed to provide 100 percent health coverage.
- Allegations that WME-IMG, the new owners of the company, are paying themselves a $25 million management fee. Keep in mind, they do not manage any fighters.
- There is no current plan for retired fighters, ala what the NFL has recently improved on for its athletes.
- And finally, the words "labor strike" were thrown around (now we’re talking big time).
Legitimate points, all of them, to be sure, but I still have some questions.
Things I’m left wondering:
- The new board specifically said it has no plans to reach out to the UFC directly. Basing all conversations directly with fighters. Why?
- No mention of any other organizations, such as Bellator (currently No. 2 in the market and running regular shows on Spike TV), or the World Series of Fighting (currently No. 3 in the market, running regular shows on NBC Sports).
- Of the four current fighters on the conference call, three are represented by Creative Artists Agency, WME-IMG’s top competitor in the landscape. Hmmm.
- The only nonfighter on the call was former Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney. His presence was odd, to say the least, as Bjorn’s reputation among the rank-and-file fighters runs comparatively lower than the UFC’s Dana White. His statements and accusations came across as awfully vindictive and highlighted a clear axe to grind against his former competitor.
Looking forward to getting some clarity and watching a healthy growth for both fighters and ownership.
Catch ya on the flip
There you have it, fight freaks and noobs. Enjoy the next few weeks as the bleak realities of winter do battle with the holidays.
And on the real: It can be a tough time of year for many people. Please don’t disregard that smile you have; give it to as many as you can. Despite what you might think, you matter. And however low you are, your presence to a loved one or a stranger can mean the world.
Gotta run. This body hair ain’t gonna groom itself. Hey Jose, how much for a Bay View Brazilian?
This column is dedicated to Micky Fitz (1959-2016), lead singer for The Business and first-ballot Hardcore Hooligan Hall of Famer. Thanks for everything! OI!