The past ten years have been a roller coaster ride for the sport of Mixed Martial Arts. The UFC was on the verge of turning into a footnote in the history of professional fighting, an experiment that ultimately failed due to lack of support and mainstream success. The Zuffa takeover and experiment of The Ultimate Fighter was able to save the UFC, to turn things around. The UFC fought and clawed their way into the public consciousness from there, doing everything in their power to get noticed by the world for being a legitimate sport.
What’s crazy is that it worked. The UFC got noticed. Dana White’s brash, in-your-face style of promoting and tireless efforts were enough to get the UFC’s foot in the door and recognized for what it is; a highly-polished sport of highly-trained professionals competing at the highest level. The UFC had made it, finally! The thing is, it seems like nothing is ever enough and that even though the UFC has “made it,” there is still this level of insecurity from the fans, fighters and promoters that MMA as a whole just doesn’t get the respect it deserves.
The “MMA boom” as we lovingly refer to it is now in our rear view mirror, with the UFC still seeing a good deal of success, but not pulling in the sheer numbers that they were able to years ago. What this has led to is an atmosphere of discomfort and insecurity from the entire industry that somehow the UFC and MMA aren’t “good enough.” It seems like there is a constant need for a pat on the head and a treat for the MMA world, or else the fear is that no one is paying attention anymore. What better way to express this than to look at this simple tweet:
— Muhammad Ali (@MuhammadAli) April 3, 2014
The above tweet, clearly from a social media professional handling Muhammad Ali’s online presence, caused a fervor in the MMA community. We saw stories popping up with a sense of pride that MMA got such a nod from a legend. The irony, of course, is that if you read the Twitter bio, it states that “#AliTweets” are from Ali himself (although I assume dictated, not actually written by him) and the rest aren’t. This was not an #AliTweet. Regardless of that fact, a lone tweet from a fighter the caliber of Muhammad Ali has sent the MMA world into a tailspin of sorts, with everyone beaming with pride, most likely wearing a Roots of Fight Ali shirt to celebrate this marvelous occasion.
Follow me here for a second, don’t give up on me. Who fucking cares? Muhammad Ali is without a doubt a legend in the sport of Boxing, but he’s also a cautionary tale about combat sports, suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, many attributing it to the trauma that he took to his head while fighting. Why does the UFC need this sort of affirmation from celebrities? Why does Dana White take to Twitter on fight nights to Tweet Justin Bieber and other pop stars asking them if they are going to be watching the fights? Why does the UFC need to have a comparison to Muhammad Ali for everyone to pat themselves on the back with pride?
The UFC has been built up by some tremendous, hard-working athletes who have laid it all on the line every time they step into the ring. It was their work, along with promotional efforts by the company, that got the sport to where it is now. It was their work that got them into the mainstream press, onto ESPN tickers and got them a deal with Fox Sports that at least attempts to paint it in the same light as the NFL. This level of insecurity just shows that all of those efforts as being in vain, that they pale in comparison to a pat on the head and a cookie from the jar from the big boys.
It is precisely that reason that the UFC and the sport of MMA is still in the position that it is. It’s precisely that reason why the UFC can’t get over one million viewers on Fox Sports 1 on a regular basis and why PPV sales wax and wane; it’s difficult to take a sport begging to be taken seriously as anything other than a beggar at the altar of greatness. The UFC originally scoffed at such a concept, instead opted to kick down the doors and forge their own path, now they’ve fallen in line and are waiting for the world to accept and love them, only to see little glimpses of hope here and there while told to wait their turn.