The Golden Globes would be one of the more surprising settings for opinions on the world of combat sports. However, as I digested the fallout from Meryl Streep’s comments on mixed martial arts not being ‘the arts’, I couldn’t help but raise a wry smile. Dissenting voices have been part and parcel of the growth of MMA and as I am sure the star of ‘Rikki and the Flash’ can attest, the term ‘arts’ is somewhat subjective.
It was, however, an interesting and somewhat watered-down criticism of a much-maligned sport. The usual focus of such attacks is rooted in the raw aesthetics and brutality of the contests themselves. As an avid fan of MMA, you become somewhat desensitised and consequently dismissive of such negative views, accurate or otherwise.
However, just this past weekend I faced a similar dilemma myself through the actions of the sport’s premier promotion. At UFC Fight Night 103, the UFC brass yet again displayed a penchant for irresponsible match-making.
As the first round of the night’s main event ended, a despondent BJ Penn sat on his stool looking lost and perplexed. He appeared to listen somewhat distantly to his trainers as they tried in vain to give any level of insight into the blurring puzzle in front of him.
There can be little in combat sports as brutal as a fighter discovering in the cage that their craft had passed them by. Faced with the 24-year-old blue chip prospect, Yair Rodriguez, BJ Penn had realised just that. His trainers, Greg Jackson and Jason Parillo have seen just about everything in this sport. Hell, Jackson had witnessed this current conundrum within the halls of his own training centre in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
However, it was abundantly clear that neither of them had any sort of answer for what had just occurred in the preceding five minutes. It made for uncomfortable viewing as they failed to make the difficult decision – to pull the 38-year-old from the contest – instead allowing him to continue and ultimately take a significant amount of unnecessary punishment.
So how did we get here? Penn had been retired and out of the octagon for over two full years. During that time, we had seen planned comebacks, cancellations and a whole mess of legal troubles – hardly ideal preparation for a return to such an unforgiving environment. Furthermore, discounting the obvious perils of ring rust and inactivity, his last win in the cage was as far back as November 2010. The originally mooted match-up for his return was fellow elder statesman Denis Siver in what seemed like a sensible and logical comeback fight for ‘The Prodigy’.
Somehow though, the UFC decided to take a leap from the sensible to the downright irresponsible in booking the Rodriguez fight. My only take
My only take from this decision was that they saw an opportunity to build the profile of a young fighter through taking the scalp of a seasoned veteran. In theory, this would be fine. The passing of the torch is a long-standing tradition in MMA and is simply a consequence of the sport’s evolvement. This, however, was something else entirely. Nobody, not even the most ardent of BJ Penn fans, expected anything other than what happened on Sunday night and this level of disregard for a fighter’s safety is concerning.
It’s certainly not the first time the UFC have flagrantly promoted an irresponsible mismatch. At UFC 60 the promotion placed a horribly overmatched and 40-year-old, Royce Gracie (winner of UFC 1-4) across from then-welterweight champion Matt Hughes. At the time, Hughes had lost just 1 of his past 18 fights, was on a four-fight win streak against top competition and was widely considered the greatest welterweight of all time.
Gracie, on the other hand, had fought sporadically over the previous 10 years and remained a pure Jiu-Jitsu player with almost non-existent wrestling or striking. The fight played out exactly as expected and for fans of the original UFC event, it was a tough watch. Gracie was systematically taken apart and the fight was mercifully stopped when he was flattened out on his stomach taking multiple unanswered shots from a relentless Hughes.
I’m not one to decry someone’s right to enter the cage. It is understood that fighters are adults and they enter each contest consensually and with a full understanding of the innate risks to which they will be exposed. It should also be understood that fighters are fighters, and with that comes immense pride coupled with a fundamental lack of self-awareness to their own weakness. Had Dana White offered BJ Penn a heavyweight fight last weekend he would have accepted – and therein lies the problem. Who will protect the fighter from themselves?
Certainly, the finger of blame can be placed at his coach’s hands, but when will the UFC cull this sort of reckless match making?
By promoting blatant mismatches, they are moving MMA further from legitimacy and perhaps more importantly, they are taking unnecessary risks that have the potential to lead to serious injury or worse. Whilst this may seem slightly hyperbolic, I do believe there is a genuine danger if match-ups are not being properly assessed. Irish MMA was recently rocked by the death of Joao Carvalho and whilst this past weekend never came anywhere close to such a tragic scenario, a similar incident on such a global scale would have catastrophic ramifications for the sport. The UFC should be more cognisant of their responsibilities to the MMA community, otherwise sooner or later, it won’t be just Hollywood alumni raising their voices in earnest.
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