Is the new behemoth on the block still fundamentally misunderstood?
The Blogfather takes stock of the UFC after its mesmeric rise, and ponders the key to it ascending to the next level.
“At first, people think: ‘Gosh, these guys are just a bunch of bar room brawlers’, [but] when they get to meet them they see that they are martial artists. They are intelligent. It is about the competition. It is about the sport. It is not about, in any way, the violence." Lorenzo Fertitta
In January 2015 I was house sharing with a guy who, somewhat fittingly for this blog, was an apprentice plumber. One night he asked me if I was up for watching a UFC fight he had recorded. Despite not being a fan (in truth, despite not really knowing what it was about at all), I said yeah, sure.
The fight was Conor McGregor v Dennis Siver. I can still recall now, after McGregor had won on a TKO in the second round, how he mounted the top of the Octagon to goad the watching, incumbent champion José Aldo.
It was genuine theatre in the round, or Octagon to be precise, and I was particularly taken by McCregor. There was a calm serenity to how he prowled around the Octagon that was reminiscent of the predatory grace of a panther. In the post fight interview, it was also evident he very much had the Irish gift of the gab too. I was inquisitive to know more about the guy, what his story was. How talented was he regarded. Was he just an upstart or the real deal? Anyone who follows UFC knows what subsequently happened at UFC 194: he went on to knock out Aldo in 13 famous seconds, and a mega star became fully bloomed.
The rise of UFC and McGregor are so entwined that they both feed and fuel each other, but one thing’s for certain; any sport would kill for as marketable a star as Conor McGregor. Yet as meteoric as the recent period has been, there is a word that still presents UFC with a problem. Cage.
One goal for any brand is achieving the correct, immediate, word association. For example, you say Nike, I think “fast”. You say Volvo, I think “safe”. You say Uber, I think “I’ll walk.” A common reaction I find when talking to someone who does not immediately recognise UFC is for them to be suddenly struck with enlightenment and state; “ah, you mean cage fighting?”
But it’s not just the word cage, it’s more the image of the fights happening within a cage. As Lorenzo Fertitta, one of the two brothers who own UFC, states:
“At first, people think: ‘Gosh, these guys are just a bunch of bar room brawlers’, [but] when they get to meet them they see that they are martial artists. They are intelligent. It is about the competition. It is about the sport. It is not about, in any way, the violence.”
Whilst not quite synonymous with “cage fighting”, UFC does struggle to distinguish itself from MMA’s rather robust origins. This undermines its aspirations and means it’s misunderstood on a baseline level within the public conscious (MMA is the wider sport, UFC is, in essence, a promotions business, but is no doubt mid-morph into something bigger).
There’s no way of getting away from it; the fights happen in an open top cage. But the Octagon is, like the sport, misunderstood. The fencing serves a practical purpose. In a ring, fighters would slip through the ropes while they were grappling. The wide angles stop the fighters from becoming stuck in a corner with no means of getting out. It does not give any one martial arts discipline the advantage.
The MMA has its roots in a diverse range of martial arts with rich histories. It is endlessly technical and complex. A sound understanding of Brazilian jiu jitsu is apparently a fundamental requirement for success in MMA, which contains more than 2,500 techniques that are designed to counter another.
So, you could argue the Octagon is more akin to a chess board. These multi-national knights are far from caged, but are liberated by the opportunity and platform for a duel of wits that UFC gives them.
A large part of Conor McGregor’s success is down to movement training, as seen in the video below. It is believed that it helps fighters through combat by instilling in them a sixth sense. Its core elements of fluidity, cerebral awareness and precision have been ingrained in the martial artist’s skill set for hundreds of years. It could be called spiritual, although that word has issues with sounding pretentious, but the integrity of the provenance of MMA more than supports its use.
“I am capitalising on every single opportunity. It’s a strong word, one of my favourite words: capitalise. I’m ready to capitalise on everything.” Conor McGregor
The UFC already knows that the fighters are their most marketable asset. As Fertitta says, the best way to “reposition the brand and reposition the sport, really comes through our athletes”. Yet the opportunistic and progressive structure of the sport should not be forgotten. It rewards determination. Conor McGregor rose from being an apprentice plumber in Dublin, and a period on the dole, to the king of Vegas in the course of just a few years. I’ve literally never heard a story like it. Clearly he and Ronda Rousey are the sport’s biggest stars, but the exciting thing is that stars of equal talent and charisma can rise from the streets of any city on earth. And they will. And it’s these rags to riches stories that resonate and inspire. It’s what captured my attention from the perspective of a mere casual armchair viewer.
You will never convert all, but the UFC needs to continue changing the perception of the Octagon being a cage barely fit for humans, to it being the natural, safe and exciting environment for these talented mixed martial artists. And it’s their determination, intelligence and skill, combined with their cultural diversity, all played out on a stage that embraces all, that are the keys in correcting the misinterpretation of UFC.
So, as the American playwright David Mamet put it, I implore you to “watch mixed martial arts, the true marketplace of ideas,” of which UFC is the zenith.
He also referred to it as “capitalism meets globalism.”
This has echoes of a quote that lodges in my mind, from McGregor: “I am capitalising on every single opportunity. It’s a strong word, one of my favourite words: capitalise. I’m ready to capitalise on everything.”
And the UFC is poised, panther like, to capitalise too.