mma / Columns

Do Freak Show Fights Really Exist?

March 28, 2017 | Posted by Evan Zivin

Dear Bellator,


I had thought about writing a column last week about the “news” that Matt Hughes told Joe Buck he’s interested in fighting again and hinted that a rematch against the fellow UFC Hall of Famer he defeated in a sham of a fight 11 years ago, Royce Gracie, would be something he’d go for, especially if his good buddies in Bellator had nothing else going on that night, but I couldn’t do it.

I mean, this news is so bafflingly stupid. How desperate or cash-strapped must Hughes be to want to fight again? He’s 43 and was violently knocked out in his last two fights, which took place over 5 years ago. Is the unemployment office not meeting his needs the way his cushy UFC gig that paid him to sit on his ass at home did?

How do I accurately react to that? How do I translate the sound of pounding my head into a wall 30 times into a piece of writing that is at least of Lambertian quality (not that that’s saying much…)?

Does he think that, just because Georges St-Pierre is coming back, it means it makes sense for him to do it too? Granted, GSP is 35 and is coming back after a 3+ year layoff but he was still the Best Fighter on the Planet when he left, not a former shell of himself struggling for relevance and/or having to get a real job.

Then again, GSP is coming back against a current world champion in UFC Middleweight title-holder Michael Bisping, a man who’s been taking fights to pad his bank account at the expense of worthy contenders, but still a champion. Hughes just wants a winnable fight and he already pounded Royce’s mug into the mat once.

In one respect, both of those matchups make zero sense to make but, in another, they kind of do.

Either way, one or both of these fights have or will carry the label “freak show” by some portion of the MMA fanbase, but are they really? Do freak show fights really exist in MMA? And, if they do, isn’t that perfectly in line with what MMA is and the principles it was founded on?

After the news of a hypothetical Matt Hughes matchup was floated out to a hungry MMA media in need of stories after another week without any good UFC events (no offense, Jimi Manuwa), Bellator made a blockbuster announcement about their big summer tentpole event.

Bellator 180 will take place June 27 from Madison Square Garden. While the full card hasn’t been announced yet, it has already been revealed that Bellator is preparing to pull out all the stops to show us the true depth of their roster, LIVE ON PAYPERVIEW, from highly touted wrestling prospect Aaron Pico making his MMA debut to newly signed UFC refugee Lorenz Larkin getting a welterweight title shot against Douglas Lima, probably because Rory MacDonald already has a fight, to Bellator institution Michael Chandler defending his lightweight title against who cares because it’s Michael Chandler and he’s awesome.

Those are some exciting fight announcements. What could possibly headline a card of that magnitude? How about 39 year-old Chael Sonnen vs. 40 year-old Wanderlei Silva, with a co-main of 40 year-old Fedor Emelianenko against 38 year-old Matt Mitrione?

Ah, good ol’ Bellator. I knew you’d come through with the goods. You always do…

Bellator has been the promotion, since Scott Coker took over as President, that has prided itself on reveling in the title of “King of the Freak Show.” They were, after all, the ones who presented Bellator 149 last year, the event that brought us Royce Gracie vs. Ken Shamrock an entire generation after their last fight, and Kimbo Slice vs. DaDa 5000, which…yeah.

I guess what makes a fight a “freak show” is semantical in many ways, as age and perceived skill vs. experience level can serve to help rationalize a lot of the bookings that hardcore fans don’t like for no other reason than the fact that their personal preference would be to see MMA promotions put their promotional dollars behind relevant fighters than older, fringe stars who propel the sport commercially but not competitively.

Is Chael vs. Wanderlei a freak show fight? I don’t think so. It’s a fight between the former Pride Middleweight Champion and the former UFC Middleweight Champion. *WINK* Plus, it’s a fight UFC was going to put on 3 years ago, only being scrapped because the participants failed and ran from a drug test, respectively. Neither fighter has fought since then, with Wanderlei almost fighting in Japan last year and Chael losing the biggest fight ever…of 2017 against Tito Ortiz in January.

That seems like an even enough matchup to me, as does Fedor vs. Meathead. It’s the man who ruled the world for a decade before suffering a violent fall from grace against the man who…um…uh…he beat Kimbo once, right? That counts as something, I think.

And it was a fight that was supposed to happen last month that people didn’t start complaining about until it got canceled hours before it was supposed to go down. So I think you all are fine with it.

That’s the thing about weird, outlier fights like the ones Bellator has used to prop up some of their major shows, like Shamrock vs. Slice or Tito Ortiz vs. Stephan Bonnar and his weird friend in the mask: you can make as much of an argument for why they should happen as why they are an abomination to humankind that mortal eyes should never lay upon like oh so much ground n’ pound.

That’s the beauty of the sport. You never know what you’re going to get out of a matchup. While some fights play out exactly as the mismatch we expect them to be, like Cain Velasquez vs. Bigfoot Silva or Chad Mendes vs. Cody McKenzie, there are many fights that make sense on paper that turn out to be extremely lopsided, like Conor McGregor vs. Jose Aldo, just like there are terrible matchups that produce entertaining fights.

The Bisping vs. Dan Henderson title fight was pretty damn good despite the fact no one thought it was a good idea. Well, aside from all the fans who thought it was a good idea, putting the fight on Dana White’s radar to begin with.

And that’s the thing when it comes to these types of fight opinions: what percentage of the MMA fanbase is genuinely bothered by these fights? It must not be a lot, or else major promotions would stay away from them.

And yet, we see Bellator producing record TV ratings (relatively speaking) and UFC chasing record buyrates on the heels of matchups that, in a world where integrity of the sport is paramount to anything else, they would not waste their time and resources on.

How many fans are decrying the logjams that exist at the top of the UFC middleweight and lightweight divisions and how many fans are losing their shit over seeing Georges St-Pierre return in a title fight or are frothing at the mouth over the looming Conor McGregor-Floyd Mayweather superfight, a fight that is going to happen whether you like it or not?

I’m not saying integrity of the sport isn’t important. Establishing and building up integrity is what’s allowed the sport to survive and thrive for as long as it has, to the point that someone thought paying $4 billion to own it was a sound business decision. We wouldn’t be here without the effort to emphasize the sport, the “art” of mixed martial arts.

But, at the same time, let’s not forget where we started and what made the sport popular to begin with. MMA began as a way to pit combatants of different skillsets against one another to see who was best. Straight from the get go, freak show was the name of the game (remember Art “One Glove” Jimmerson?), although not in the way everyone originally expected, since no one thought the little guy in the white pajamas with his submissions was going to beat his much bigger, much harder hitting opponents.

Japanese MMA developed in a different, albeit similarly ridiculous way, with Pancrase developing worked wrestling matches into shoots and the first Pride card being built to support a pro wrestler getting his ass handed to him by a Gracie.

Actually, I’m not sure if I should even bring Japan into the discussion, since their MMA scene has always been littered with questionable matchups and freak show fights (and still are) but, at it’s peak, the sport produced attendance figures and TV ratings that UFC could only dream of garnering in this market.

Is this all to say that what the original UFC was doing was wrong? In some ways, yes, but those early shows were also really successful, producing buyrates the UFC would not see again until the TUF era.

And we can say that what was happening was wrong, it was violent and bloody and brutal, but people still watched, just like we said that Ken vs. Kimbo was wrong but we still watched, just like we say Conor vs. Floyd is wrong but you better believe we will still watch.

We are fans of a sport where the objective is to win by inflicting damage upon your opponent. Obviously, you can achieve victory without having to render your opponent unconscious, but you stand a much better chance of winning if you try to. Plus, the fans will like you more the more you try to hurt your opponent, regardless of how well you’ve succeeded in doing so by the end of the fight.

That is referred to as the Chris Leben Corollary, where wins and losses matter less and less the more you either kick ass or get your ass kicked.

I think that’s really the main point of all of this, the main argument I’m trying to make: It’s hard to say freak show fights truly exist because, at the end of the day, we’re all freaks. Every last one of us. Freaks, I say.

We boo when fighters are inactive or try to minimize damage via grappling, which is an accepted means of winning a fight, and we cheer when fighters are knocked unconscious, especially in ways that could be detrimental to their long-term health.

Maybe some of those opinions are changing as more attention is paid to concussion research and the long-term effects of this kind of work are becoming better understood but we’re always going to cheer a good knockout. We can’t stop ourselves from staring at a car wreck. It’s in our nature. Our brains are hardwired to love that shit.

It’s like watching pro wrestling fans decry what Wrestlemania has become: a showcase for aging, part-time talent who only show up at this time of year to help Vince McMahon pop a buyrate before disappearing, taking a payday and leaving the performers who could have used the exposure more left in the wake.

But that’s just one side of the debate. The other side is this: Goldberg vs. Brock Lesnar? For the title? ARE YOU SERIOUS? TAKE ALL OF MY MONEY!!!! ALL OF IT!!!!

UFC and Bellator are just trying to do what WWE has mostly done to success for years, in a sport that, in many ways, is just as dangerous and just as dependent on satisfying the fan’s entertainment needs even if one has pre-determined outcomes and the other doesn’t.

Brock Lesnar doesn’t care. He’ll smash dudes in fake fights and in real ones and everyone will pay to see him do both.

We all like to see Brock Smash, right? We can all agree on that, can’t we?

So, at the end of the day, let’s just try to have fun with it. Not every fight looks good on paper but that doesn’t mean they can’t be competitive or exciting in practice. Plus, MMA is a highly regulated sport. We have athletic commissions whose job it is to prevent major mismatches and ensure all proper safety precautions are exercised so all athletes are taken care of and not placed in unnecessary danger solely for our amusement.

It’s not like an athletic commission has ever glossed over a big-money fight because they wanted revenue more than they wanted to make sure everything was done correctly, right?

I’m guessing that Vitor Belfort vs. CM Punk fight announcement should be coming any day now…

You see, it’s funny because there’s a plausible chance the fight actually gets booked.

This industry is messed up…

Evan Zivin has been writing for 411 MMA since May of 2013. Evan loves the sport, and likes to takes a lighthearted look at the world of MMA in his writing…usually.

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Evan Zivin