When you cover fight sports but also have two small children, there’s a sound you eventually get used to. That sound is a groan of despair and anguish. It is often followed by the words, “…not fights again!?” There is much rolling of eyes and gnashing of teeth, the international body language that says: you’re telling me we get to turn the TV on, but instead of “Mr. Peabody & Sherman” we have to watch people fighting each other? AGAIN??
My kids don’t love it, is the point. Sometimes I can get them briefly interested when it’s a women’s fight. I have two daughters, and their first question of any TV show or movie is, are there any girls in this? (I’m ashamed to admit that it wasn’t until I became a dad that I realized how often the answer is: no, not really.) So when we got back from a Saturday afternoon outing just in time to catch Marina Rodriguez beating Mackenzie Dern in the main event of a UFC Fight Night, eh, they were willing to give it the briefest of glances before going off to jump on the trampoline.
Fights again. Two girls this time. Let us know when it’s over.
Fast-forward to Sunday morning. I’m sitting there with a coffee and an old-fashioned donut. I’ve got the TV on and I’m reliving the violent heavyweight fun from the previous night’s Tyson Fury vs. Deontay Wilder trilogy fight. Yeah, that’s when something caught their eye. That something was a giant man in a bedazzled mask, followed by another man walking out dressed like an extra in “Hail, Caesar!” That’s when my daughters had several questions, most of which boiled down to: what the hell is happening here and can we see more of it?
There were dancers and drummers. There was a guy rapping into a microphone. There was a show. Clearly, this was something special and important.
Of course, eventually the costumes must come off and fighting is still fighting – this particular fight happened to be awesome, and worth the pay-per-view price – but how you dress it up (sometimes literally) does actually matter. And fight sports? They are at their best when they are dressed up as a big, loud, semi-dumb spectacle that you roll your eyes at even as you find yourself unable to look away.
Boxing has been better than MMA when it comes to remembering that lately. It’s not just Fury and Wilder, either. It’s also Jake Paul. It’s that fake-ass robot he walks around with. It’s the array of money-burning ADHD bullshit we’ve seen from The Trillers. All of it. Here are some people who understand that fight sports are about entertainment. And since they can’t always guarantee us an entertaining fight (especially true when a lot of your fighters aren’t actually fighters), they know they’d better damn well deliver that entertainment outside the ring.
There was a time when the UFC used to do more of that. Maybe it was the pressure to compete with PRIDE FC, or just a desperate plea for attention from the broader sports world, but those of us who’ve been following this sport for an embarrassingly long time can remember an era of walkout ramps and pyrotechnics and even that bizarre Chuck Liddell hype video with “Mask” from Tapout. The goal with all that was the same. Give these fuckers a show. Make this shit feel important and expansive. Do it up big, even if it’s kind of stupid.
And you know something? That fucking works. Years later, people might forget little details about actual fights. But pageantry sticks with people. (I know because while I remember being in the Saitama Super Arena when Akihiro Gono did a choreographed dance routine with his cornermen, pausing every few feet on his way to the ring to remove his trunks, thus revealing a slightly smaller pair of trunks underneath, I don’t remember anything that happened in his fight or even who he fought that night.)
The UFC has mostly gotten away from this brand of showmanship in recent years. To the extent that anyone is allowed to do anything fun – Israel Adesanya’s dance routine with his coaches just before he went out and took the middleweight title off Bobby Knuckles in Melbourne, for instance – it always seems like they first have to convince a reluctant Dana White to get out of the way and let them do it. His instinct is always to play it as minimal as possible. Play the music and make the walk. Make sure people can see the company logo of the apparel sponsor. Don’t get in the way of the stuff the puts money directly in the UFC’s pocket.
Some fighters still find ways to get creative. Remember Brian Ortega and his team coming out in Purge masks just before he went 25 death-defying minutes with Alexander Volkanovski recently? Stuff like that still sneaks through on occasion (at least until the UFC signs an official mask sponsor), but even then it feels like it’s almost in spite of the UFC and never because of it.
These days the UFC seems to see itself as a content-production company more than a live sporting event property. That’s working financially. Churning out hours of content every week is a lucrative enterprise for the UFC. Maybe that’s why it doesn’t want to waste time or energy on little extras like entertainment value. Instead, it mostly feels like fighters just materialize in the cage, interchangeable and anonymous, one after another after another.
That’s fine, I guess. It’s a certain kind of product. No bells and whistles, just right to the business of hitting each other in the face. The audience for that is relatively small, but it’s consistent. It’s just, how do you watch Tyson Fury out there with his retinue of dancers and drummers looking like out of work pickup artists and not come away feeling like boxing is having more fun than we are? They’re not afraid to be ridiculous, is the thing. Not as long as they swing big. There’s a lesson in there somewhere. It’s just too bad the UFC is making too much money doing things in a more boring way to ever consider an alternative.
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