IS THE UFC DYING? ​featuring Enson Inoue

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Just as every dog has its day, so do scoundrels get their comeuppance, as Irish MMA Superstar Conor Mcgregor, is all too aware.

As he grudgingly signalled a submission by a subdued tap of Khabib Nurmagomedov’s glove pulled tightly against his jaw, it was impossible not to wonder what he was thinking. Did he have any regrets about the jibber jabber he had hurled at his opponents camp leading up to the fight? Maybe. Maybe not.

Mine, and, probably, his thoughts were broken by the other fights that had started both in and out of the Octagon following the stoppage.  The pantomime of Nurmagomedov jumping out of the cage and launching himself feet first at an opposition corner man, while various ‘entourage’ scaled the cage to get back in and attack McGregor, would have been amusing if it hadn’t been so acrimonious. The look on Nurmagomedov’s face was hateful. No one wants to see hate. Ever. It is a profoundly unattractive human flaw.

This article is not a dissection of the fight- this has been done to death already in the past week. Neither is it an investigation into the moral codes of the fighters-this was apparent for all to see. It is not even dissection of the ludicrous shenanigans afterwards. This article is about the current state of the UFC, the self-proclaimed flagship of MMA, and for every up and coming fighter, the holy grail of opportunity.

This article is about a fight promotion that has morphed from what it once was, to what it is today and how the direction it has taken might well be the cause of its death, as we know it.

Looking back at UFC 1: a tournament of martial artists representing their chosen art in a bid to determine which would prevail in an almost rule less contest. No weight classes. No time limits. No judges. The two rules: no eye-gouging or biting, penalised by just a $1,500 fine after the event if the rules had been broken! It was a display of martial arts acumen fought by the brave and watched only by those equally so.

Fast-forward twenty-five years to UFC 229: A lightweight division title fight between two professional Mixed Martial Art athletes in a sport determined by myriad rules and laws. Held at the T-Mobile arena in the adult playground of Las Vegas, 20,000 fans watched the fight inside the venue and over 2 million Pay Per View customers on TV’s and devices across the world: A tale of two distinct halves.

In any art or sport, evolution is necessary and should be welcomed without question. None of us are naïve enough to think that MMA could have stayed unchanged. But where is that change taking us? Will we soon have to remove the words ‘Martial’ and ‘Art’ from the promotional posters? Have we breached laws of honour and integrity in order to make a buck?

Just at the point when Nurmagomedov flew out the cage, I wondered at another man’s thoughts. A man who has experience as a professional fighter, understands the need for entertainment but also prides himself on a high moral code encapsulated in the Japanese phrase  ‘Yamatodamashii’. That man is Enson Inoue, and there is no-one more qualified to ask about the state of the UFC and modern MMA than this veteran of the game.

Enson Inoue and ‘Yamatodamashii’ are inseparable. Yamatodamashii is a word usually reserved for Japanese natives, but fight fans all over Japan so revere Inoue that they attribute the term as much to him as to the memory of the Samurai.

In short, the term means to be brave, daring, and of indomitable spirit, usually in the face of adversity and seemingly insurmountable challenge. For Inoue, it includes honour, integrity and the willingness to protect your ‘Kazoku’, your family, friends and loved ones, whatever the cost or danger.

I spoke to Inoue from Las Vegas about the latest fiasco that was UFC 229 and the direction the UFC seems to be taking:

“I love that MMA is so huge today, but I’m getting disappointed in the direction it’s going,” Enson admits, “but the direction it’s going is the reason why it’s so popular now. Now {it has} become entertainment.”

Since the UFC’s embryonic gauntlet-of-the-tough days, it has morphed into an organised sport and now, today, into an entertainment spectacle. In 2016, UFC’s parent company, Zuffa, was sold to a group led by William Morris Endeavor- an entertainment and media company based in Beverly Hills- for $4.2 billion.

“I think the problem with it {the UFC} right now, is that it is in transition,” Enson points out with the insight of a contemplative insider who still loves and cares about the martial arts and MMA:

“Martial arts to sport, sport to entertainment. It hasn’t had enough time for the martial artists to realise or really absorb that change.

“Entertainment is where everything goes wrong. Because when you go into martial arts, it’s about honour and testing yourself. You know you beat yourself. When you go into sport, okay, you need to sell a little, but not as much. But when you go into entertainment, that is when you go all wrong because it’s all about selling. It’s all about money. It’s all about who’s gonna sell the most tickets.

“I think that there needs to be a little bit more time or a little bit more understanding on both sides.

“Martial artists have got to understand that it’s {the insults in the build-up between fights} not always personal, and the jokesters, the trash talkers, got to understand that some people take it personally, so you have to be careful. I think there needs to be a little bit of a sacrifice both ways.”

There is no doubt that the UFC is doing their utmost to encourage a broader, more mainstream, audience to MMA. The crowds at a live event ten years ago are almost unrecognisable to the groups at an event today. You are as likely to see a middle-aged office worker sporting fight apparel as you are a die-hard martial arts fan who trains five times a week.

One interesting, and somewhat scathing, article appeared online that demonstrates the shift in audience demographic of the UFC. It was titled: ‘If you thought the McGregor fight was a disaster, his Whiskey is worse- Taste-testing a bottle of Proper No. Twelve during the UFC 229’, by an American freelance journalist.

That the article denounced McGregor’s new alcohol-based business venture is not particularly relevant. More telling was that a group of middle-class amateur Whiskey ‘connoisseurs’ had felt it necessary to not only condemn McGregor’s Whiskey business (fair enough) but also to comment on his fighting-albeit surreptitiously!

An example: “I’d rather tap out than go another round with that vile, undrinkable shit. Sorry, Conor, I mean Shite”, was one quote from the article. It seems that the amateur connoisseurs were also ‘weekend warriors’, yet it seems unlikely that any of them have been punched in the face, tackled to the ground or rear naked choked during their lives.

I highlight the above example not to defend Conor McGregor; if you put yourself on a pedestal then you must also be prepared to be shot down from it- whether that be for your religious, political, business or any other outspoken ideologies; but to highlight the types of people now tuning in to the UFC.

In the post-event interview after UFC 229, Dana White, President of the company said: “Soccer moms were so horrified by the post-fight melee that they have written off MMA forever.” This quote alone an indication of another type of homogenous market he and his company are coveting.

Courting large mainstream demographics as a business model is not, in itself, a problem. Professional wrestling has done it successfully for years.

Years ago, I took my son and his friend to a WWE event in London for his birthday. Although happy that he was enjoying his birthday treat, I took a book with me (actually it was Enson’s book-‘Live as a man, die as man’), in case I got bored watching ‘children’s entertainment’. I didn’t. It was one of the most enjoyable evenings of my life. I was surprised, to say the least, at how much I enjoyed it and at the diverse range of people in the audience: young, old, men, woman, professionals, working class and everything in between.

A company cannot continue to grow without increasing its customer base and market share, and the UFC knows this all too well, but there is a problem with this growth plan in regard to MMA.

The pawns in the game, the athletes, still pride themselves on being martial artists, or at least high-level athletes in a combat sport. No one seems to have told them that they would have to become an entertainer.

The matchup between McGregor and Nurmagomedov was a fight of polarities in more than the obvious ‘Striker vs Grappler’ contest. It also shone the spotlight on those that understand entertainment and those that don’t.

Love him or loathe him, Conor McGregor is a natural orator. He has the sharp insight and observational skills commonly seen in high level stand up comics. Dealing with these people can be frustrating because they beat you to the punch line almost every time. They have an answer for all that you can intellectually throw their way.

There is no coincidence, though, that McGregor is the highest paid fighter on the UFC roster and is such a superstar. He is a rare blend of brain and brawn, and we are all, at some degree, mesmerised by the ‘X’ factor of these rare breeds.

In contrast, Khabib Nurmagomedov is pious, skilled, stoic and unbeaten. For a long time, Nurmagomedov had complained about not being given due credit for his skills, title shots or big name fights; his ‘interest stock’ only improved when he was matched up with McGregor.

But why has he flown under the radar for so long? Are his skills not as good as he says? His dismantling of McGregor shows this is not the case. Could it be that he is merely ‘unmarketable’? Although he is a fabulous martial artist, is he just a boring entertainer?  Maybe Khabib would have been better served in UFC 1 rather than 229, where fight skills trumped marketability.

“It’s a hard situation…” said Enson when we discussed this,” you’ve got more than half the fighters, {trying to be entertainers}, trying to sell a fight pretending they hate this guy because they want to sell the fight.

“And you’ve got a small percentage, about 30% of them that are true martial artists that don’t take shit like that. So when you got two different mentalities on the sport, mixed in one, that’s when you get all this controversy.”

Undeniably the UFC is in the midst of a problematic divide. At one end are the athletes in search of proving their fighting prowess while at the same time securing a financial future for themselves and their family. At the other end, an entertainment company focused on making money from audiences that don’t necessarily appreciate the athlete’s skills but, instead, live vicariously through their bloody efforts.

Enson and I discussed possible solutions:

“I think that the promoters, the fighters and everyone have to make a little sacrifice {regarding the growth and} the popularity {of MMA}.

“ They have to realise that {growth} might have to drop {back} a little to bring back the Martial Arts {aspect},” Enson suggested.

This return to the martial arts and its attributed code of honourable ethics reminded me of something that every teacher of children’s martial arts classes utilises consistently to enhance good behaviour: a ‘sportsmanship’ award.

A financial award, alongside the other fight based bonuses, for the fighter with the most ‘honour, respect or sportsmanship’, could be a good tactic for the UFC. “That is a good idea actually”, admitted Enson.

One final idea we investigated between us was the idea of ‘Media/entertainment training’ (what Enson called  ‘training in scholastic trash talk’!)

Those less ‘gifted’ in the areas of self-promotion and entertainment would be given training in essential skills- the ‘necessary evils’- to survive and thrive in the UFC given its current direction of travel.

“By giving it {media training} to those people, you’re also educating them about what is about to happen,” Enson explained,

“Of course, Kabib will probably never go into that area of trash talking, but by getting educated then he’ll know what to expect from guys like Conor,

“Cause when you watched McGregor and Mayweather, Mayweather 100% understood that game, you could see it…

“You can see with every joke and insult, they are making $10,000 more. And you can see them both understanding {this} until they ended up with, I think, a very good friendship…

“They understood the game, and those guys made their fortune by playing that game.”

Although we have offered some possible remedies to the UFC’s latest ailments while transitioning from a martial arts testing ground, to a more a palatable combat sport, and now into a burgeoning hype train, an unavoidable truth remains: If fighters want to make a living from fighting, they will need a patron; the wealthier, the better.

The martial artists will have to step out of their backyards where traditional martial arts codes and ethics are a given, and they will have to, in part, sell their soul to the baying, but paying crowd. They will have to die as a martial artist to be reborn as a UFC fighter.

Some, of course, will say that you can be both- a ‘true’ martial artist and a successful UFC athlete- at least I’m sure that’s what Nurmagomedov would say- as I’m sure McGregor once believed. But there is something in my gut that says that the willingness not to tap to a crushed jaw and a potential choke becomes somewhat diminished, despite your martial ethics, when you are returning home to $85 million.


Matt Jardine is an author martial artist and teacher. He writes for Jiu Jitsu Style magazine, Europe’s largest Brazilian jiu-jitsu magazine, and is the author of  ‘The Hardest Path- a journey outside to answer the questions within’ (available here). He has practiced meditation and other Eastern arts for over 25 years and now lives in London with his wife and Jack Russell. He has two all grown up children.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Published by Matt Jardine

Author, writer, teacher and Martial artist

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