There’s been a lot of back-and-forth over recent months and this past weekend in particular when Rashad Evans used a smothering wrestling game to defeat Quinton "Rampage" Jackson. A lot of fans felt the game plan of Evans, though effective, resulted in an anti-climactic culmination of a very intense rivalry. This highlights a trend I mentioned some weeks back when King Mo took the Strikeforce light heavyweight title from Gegard Mousasi.
While no rational mind could fault Evans for using the strategy that earned him the decision, I find it fully understandable that many feel let down in the wake of the fight. There are those, however, who were perfectly fine with the fight. I believe we’ve found the MMA fan base at a crossroads—one between sport and spectacle.
MMA, the UFC especially, has experienced remarkably rapid growth by standing squarely in the center of this crossroads for the better part of a decade. Good athletes participating in highly charged and brutal affairs garnered the sport’s reputation for excitement. MMA had picked up the fallen torch left after the demise of boxing’s heavyweight division in the 90s.
With MMA at its highest popularity now, it appears poised to finally choose a road down which to travel. Rampage, known and beloved largely for his vicious aggression, succumbed to the superior, albeit more finesse, athleticism of Evans. It’s a plight that has fallen on many of UFC poster boy Georges St. Pierre’s opponents over the past two years. That’s not to say that this isn’t part of a cycle. No, it is highly likely that techniques will be developed to counter the stifling and, yes, oftentimes boring approach that these fighters employ so successfully.
In the interim, however, I wonder what it means that so many fans have issued backlash toward these fighters. In response to this there has been a healthy amount of "elitism", to use a buzzword, exhibited in the "hardcore" fan base. Many castigate those who simply weren’t entertained by Evans’ or St. Pierre’s recent performances as "not true fans." I find this a foolish and dangerous sentiment for the sport going forward. There are no criteria by which all are entertained. Attempts to belittle those who were disappointed by UFC 114’s main event are as egregious as assertions that Evans, King Mo, and GSP employ "Lay N Pray" as their means to victory.
But there are certainly reasons why, though they may be more famous, fighters like GSP and Evans will never be as beloved as Wanderlei Silva or Chuck Liddell. Hell, it seems like every interview with the Axe Murderer finds him declaring that giving the fans a good show is far more important than winning. And for this reason, Wanderlei can honestly state that he has friends rather than fans.
As MMA trends toward a more sporting aspect, it will be interesting to see how it’s popularity changes, if at all. More elite wrestlers are flooding the sport, this is certain. The second half of the year presents us with two matchups encapsulating this symbolic battle: Anderson Silva vs. Chael Sonnen and Mauricio Rua vs. Evans. The two champions, however, represent elite athleticism in tandem with an entertaining style (In Silva’s case, when he actually fights). No matter who wins those fights, however, this debate isn’t likely to be settled any time soon.