Jon Bois and Felix Biederman have just released a five part documentary about the rise of MMA into the cultural phenomenon that it is now. It's got some slick production values and Felix does a good job of narrating it, but there are some pretty big gaps in the history of MMA and their central thesis of its rise connecting to the downswing in the economy and our fractured political landscape don't really have any connection to its rise. Or if there is some connection, they don't put the facts there to back it up. The biggest problem with the conceit is that it felt like somebody who watched Fight Club and took the idea seriously.
They tie the rise of UFC to the increase of political correctness in the work place, but that's not really the zeitgeist that it followed. The UFC followed in the wake of pop culture as a whole being much more open about sex and violence in the nineties and not really caring about anything. There wasn't some primal need that was being repressed due to the workplace changes. Combat sports have been a part of human history for as long as we have recorded history. Wrestling has been practiced for thousands of years and gladiator combat in Rome was a big draw. UFC was a little ahead of its time, but there was always a crowd for seeing the different combat disciplines face each other. What helped UFC and MMA get big was a confluence of four things. The internet becoming ubiquitous and especially streaming sites and filesharing services let people find the fights and become a fan, The Ultimate Fighter blowing the fuck up, boxing was in a downswing and didn't have big names, and Jackie Chan and Jet Li were becoming movie stars in America and that made more people interested in martial arts.
The internet made finding everything easier. I used it to find pro wrestling and then slowly moved into watching MMA fights I could download on Kazaa or find on youtube or dailymotion. It gave an easier way to introduce the sport to new fans as well and you could make sure they saw a good fight as opposed to getting them to come out to a bar for an event and hoping a good fight happened. I know I did that plenty of times. It also made it cheap to introduce somebody to it instead of convincing them to split a PPV since they weren't really aired regularly in bars yet. The internet also created one of early MMA's biggest sensations in Kimbo Slice. Slice had a youtube channel where he would walk around and challenge people to a fight in their backyard and usually destroy them. He was huge, had an awesome beard, and a weird balding pattern and people loved him. In college the first fighting event I watched with a bunch of non-fans was an Elite XC show that was supposed to be headlined by Kimbo vs. Ken Shamrock. Shamrock got hurt and was pulled from the card and replaced by Seth Petruzelli who I had seen in King of the Cage so I put my money and him and won some money from people who only knew about Kimbo Slice. Kimbo was such a big draw that Dana signed him to UFC and put him on a season of The Ultimate Fighter.
Speaking of the Ultimate Fighter this is one thing that the documentary hit on that was a really big deal. The first season of it showed up when reality TV was the biggest thing going and it was good tv and the competition aspect was excellent. The first season had awesome fighters and most of the fighters ended up in UFC eventually. Later seasons kind of lost that part as UFC grew it already had the best fighters under contract or they were signed to other promotions. The first season was different though. The personalities clashed like every reality show, and the hook to get people in was the coaches were going to fight on PPV after it ended and their teams competed and Chuck Liddel and Randy Couture and had name recognition and the talent to draw people in. It all built up to the first free UFC show on television and it couldn't have asked for a better finale than Forest Griffin vs. Stephen Bonnar. It was a decision in the favor of Griffin, but it was a war that everybody watching loved and both men went on to good careers in the UFC and into the hall of fame since they had one of the best fights ever and helped balloon the UFC into mainstream consciousness.
The reason UFC could creep into mainstream consciousness is because boxing was falling out of favor. They didn't have the big name heavyweights that drew peoples attention and the boxing was starting to get boring. It wasn't about just technical skills and boxing it was also about working the refs and holding to prevent damage. The general public didn't appreciate the work of the fighters and that left a hole for a new combat sport to take the spot and MMA fit the bill. People were getting interested in not just boxing, which was a limited form of fighting, but wanted something more.
And a part of that was the resurgence of martial arts movies. They had made a decent inroad into the popular conscious with Bruce Lee's movies, but didn't really move beyond that. In the mid to late nineties that started to change again. First with Jackie Chan's Rumble in the Bronx and then with his other movies and also Jet Li's movies. The two men brought their movies to America and their fighting styles with them. The fights are very stylized in the movies and don't seem realistic, but people still respected the styles and the knowledge of them made them want to see something other than wrestling or boxing showcased in fighting sports. For the most part that style didn't really work in the octagon, except for Lyoto Machida and Anderson Silva. Silva didn't really fight like them, but he landed a front kick knockout that was straight out of a movie and really helped showcase those strikes being effective. Later in MMA there would be even more movie like knockouts the most famous of which with would be Anthony Pettis jumping off the cage and roundhouse kicking his opponent in the head in what is probably a top five knockout of all time.
Those are the elements that really contributed to MMA's rise and more specifically UFC's rise to being a global sport and powerhouse. There is a section that talks about PRIDE, but for the most part the documentary also focuses on UFC too much. Sure, it is the biggest organization around, but a lot of companies helped bring MMA to the powerhouse it was and developed talent that UFC managed to grab because it had the most money. It's also really weird that they put such a focus on the Gracie's without mentioning the Gracie Hunter himself, Kazushi Sakuraba. Granted I'm more fond of him than most MMA fans since I also enjoy pro wrestling which he dabbles in. I remember watching the PRIDE Grand Prix from 2000 when he fought Royce Gracie in a no time limit fight that went ninety minutes before Royce's corner threw in the towel. Those two guys fought at the highest level for ninety minutes and it was awesome. They vaguely reference Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, but not the crazy slams that made him famous. Most importantly they don't talk about the time he lifted a dude up and tried to throw him out of the ring. They mention the steroids being fine in PRIDE but don't call out Mark Kerr by name who made a huge name in Pride as being a giant muscle monster and dominated with ground and pound and made it a strategy in the sport. He also had a documentary about him from HBO the Smashing Machine which was a pretty big deal back in the day. And then there is my favorite PRIDE fight Don Frye vs. Yoshihiro Takayama. These dudes don't defend at all. The first thirty seconds of the fight is them grabbing each other by the back of the head with one hand and raining punches with the other and it is nuts.
Okay that kind of got off track, and I thought about editing it out, but those fights are awesome and everybody should know about them if they don't and check them out. MMA had a lot of influences that helped make it big and it wasn't just UFC. Obviously PRIDE was a big part and PRIDE Never Die! There are others. The first one I watched on DVD was King of the Cage which was competing with UFC in the beginning and lost and a bunch of fighters from there ended up in UFC. World Extreme Cagefighting was making good strides before it got bought by UFC and was a feeder organization before tv deals meant UFC needed more shows and they closed them down and brought most of the fighters into UFC. Bellator is the biggest competitor for the UFC right now and the shitty Reebok deal has led to a lot of fighters leaving UFC for Bellator. K-1 is also a company that helped change the way combat sports are viewed. It's not full on mixed martial arts, but kickboxing does have different rules that allow throws and kicks, just not ground fighting, and it has a big crowd viewing it. There are several companies trying to garner viewer support by signing big names from the past as well, but they are often not that long lasting.
Strikeforce was another of those challengers and it was the one that brought Ronda Rousey to the forefront of women's MMA. Gina Carano and Cyborg kind of made a dent in the public conscious about it, but until Ronda dominated everybody it wasn't really a big thing people were paying attention to. Once UFC bought Strikeforce it was only a matter of time until UFC added women's divisions. Ronda changed the sport and made it a big deal, which makes it even worse that she's a garbage person. So moving on the biggest miss the documentary made was they talked about the straw weight division season of The Ultimate Fighter without mentioning Invicta. Invicta started as an independent organization that is all women's fighting and probably ran for four shows before UFC took them in as a company that they aired their shows on their streaming service, and for the TUF season with straw weights they almost all came from Invicta's roster. Bringing in women's fighters was a boon to UFC because it harkened back to the early days. Too many of the men's fighters had rankings now, they had standing, so when they fought they didn't want to lose it now. The women fighters didn't have that. Every fight was their chance to make a statement and they took it. If you lose by taking a chance and being exciting you still made a name in the eyes of the fans and Kat Zingano nailed that. She got a shot against Ronda and went for a big flying knee and missed it and got tapped out like everybody else. But she was the first that didn't show fear against her and she showed personality in her interview after the loss and it was awesome. Rousey's loss was probably the best thing to happen to women's MMA because it changed it from being a one woman show and now there were a bunch of names in the top tier and gives other fighters name recognition to be pay per view draws.
The Documentary makes a really good point about the Reebok deal and how it is undervaluing the fighters, and UFC starts to do this as well. Early in the UFC it was all about the fighters making names and selling shows around the fighters. This would be the only part that kind of fits the thesis of political correctness in corporate places changing fighting. The brand of UFC is what sells the shows. Most people don't even know what MMA is, it's just UFC to them. The fighters lose their individuality and just become fighters, they don't market the fighters they just market UFC. If a fighter can't market themselves their PPVs don't sell and Renan Barao is the best example of that. That dude couldn't be beat, but he's from Brazil, can't speak English, and therefore can't sell his fights, and UFC doesn't bother doing it either. It doesn't matter that he's one of the best fighters in the world because he can't sell his fights. And on the opposite end of the spectrum is Conor McGregor. He had a mediocre record, but he could trash talk and that sells fights. For three years I went to the local Buffalo Wild Wings to watch UFC PPVs and it was never as full as it was for Conor or Ronda PPVs. The documentary does this weird thing where it basically blames Dana for being shitty for being a Republican, which he is, and I agree with, but at the end it does a weird thing where it seems to sympathize with him during his press conference after the end of the Khabib vs. Conor fight. It tries to tie us to Dana because he's defending the sport from being a sideshow, but that's bullshit. Dana loved that shit when Conor did it. Conor jumped over the cage after winning a fight and went face to face with Jose Aldo to challenge him for his belt for no reason. He ignored Conor breaking a bus window and injuring fighters so they missed a fight. But when Khabib jumps the cage and gets in the face of one of Conor's managers who was racist to his trainer, now Dana has a problem with it. If Khabib can keep selling PPVs I'm sure Dana will change his mind.
Probably the biggest umbrage I take with the documentary is them framing Jon Jones as a misunderstood person. He's a great fighter, that part is true. But other than that I don't agree with anything they say about him. Jones talked like a holier than thou fighter then got a DUI. I'm not going to bag on him hard for that, I've got one of those, we're all stupid when we're young. Then he got in trouble for a hit and run which Biederman kind of runs past quickly. Jones was under the influence at the time, hit a pregnant lady, came back to his car to grab the rest of his stash, then fled again. Then he got busted by USADA several other times for steroids and cocaine. So it doesn't really matter how good he is as a fighter, because he can't follow the rules. It felt like they wanted to make a point about how USADA is unfair and there are really good points to be made about it, but Jones is not the one. The Diaz brothers would have been a solid case. Marijauna is a painkiller, but it also slows your reaction speed so we could argue if it is actually performance enhancing. But the bigger thing is you can't tell when they did it and if it was after the fight and didn't actually help them. Josh Barnett recently won an arbitration against USADA after it was revealed his positive test was because of a contaminated supplement and not because he was doping. There are arguments they could have made they just chose the losing one for some reason.
The first two episodes of the documentary lay out a good beginning of how MMA grew into the what became the UFC. The history is very interesting and laid out well. When they highlight a fight with narration it makes the fight feel awesome. Those sections got me excited to go check out the fights again. So it's a real bummer that the central point of the documentary just kind of hangs there without any support from the argument he's making. It's hard to say if its really worth watching for that reason. It has a lot of well done stuff, but when it falls flat it falls really flat.