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Let Me Entertain You: When Winning In The UFC Isn’t Enough

In sport in general, and certainly in the Mixed Martial Arts world, winning in this day and age isn’t always enough.

Despite putting life and limb on the line every time they compete, the modern—day fighter also has to take into consideration the fact that they not only have to defeat their opponent, but ideally look good doing it if they want to maximize their exposure, income and chances of moving further up the MMA food chain.

To be fair it’s not exactly written into the contacts of fighters, but even UFC president Dana White himself often acknowledges the value the organization places on entertainment:

“It’s part of my job to entertain the fans…In the end, it’s a sport, but it’s also entertainment. I’m being paid to entertain the fans.”

As a result there are numerous examples of entertaining fighters who have either been fast-tracked through the ranks or been kept on the books longer than others despite going on a losing streak.

Brock Lesnar and the UFC heavyweight title
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Perhaps the perfect example  is current Heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar.  With his larger than life physique and personality, together with a large fan base from his days in the WWE, Lesnar was a box office phenomenon waiting to happen and that propelled him to a title shot in only the fifth MMA bout of his career.  He had just two fights inside the Octagon at that stage, one of which was a defeat.

Nobody is more aware of the value of being entertaining than Chris Lytle who admitted in an interview that:

“I’d rather go out there and fight the way I want and lose an exciting fight than win a boring decision.”

It’s a strategy that’s paid off for the former professional boxer as he’s been the recipient of no less than four Fight Of The Night Awards and a cool $160,000 in bonus cheques to go with it.  With a record that’s become peppered with wins and losses due to his ‘all or nothing’ approach to each fight it’s unlikely that Lytle will be the next in line for the lightweight title, but he has earned himself a place on the main card of events for the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile former Pride Champion and legendary MMA competitor Wanderlei Silva has won just one of his five fights in the Octagon since returning to the UFC in 2007, yet whilst other fighters have been dropped after as little as one defeat there is no sign of Silva being cut.  The reason for this is simple win or lose Silva’s main goal is to put on a good show for his fans and he has the battle scars (or at least he did until his recent surgery!) to prove it.

Dan Hardy
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Being an entertaining fighter doesn’t always mean that you do all your talking with your fists, there is also the art of showmanship outside the ring to master.  The UK’s Dan Hardy entered the octagon for the first time in October of last year with a solid19-6 record, another up and coming welterweight fighter looking to make a name for himself.

After single-handedly instigating a memorable war of words with Marcus Davis that lasted several months, Hardy suddenly found his contest being billed as the most anticipated fight on the card.   It was a ploy that Brock Lesnar would have approved of, having recently stated that:

“People spend money and want to be entertained…The old saying…bad press, good press – it’s all the same.  Visibility is the key.”

Hardy took full advantage by winning his fight and he has just announced that his next opponent will be one of the divisions top contenders Mike Swick with the winner rumored to get a title shot against current welterweight champion George St Pierre.

It’s clear to see that being an exciting fighter definitely has it’s perks.  The trouble is that not all fighting styles have been created equal in this regard.  Some are more eye-catching or likely to produce a devastating finish, whilst others may seem less impressive to the average fan but are extremely effective in winning matches.

It is worth noting that whilst the UFC offers bonuses for ‘Fight Of The Night’, ‘Knockout Of The Night’ and ‘Submission Of The Night’, There is no such bonus for pinning your opponent to the floor for three rounds.

This leaves fighters with a potential dilemma in their approach to a fight.  Should they focus on a strategy that is effective in winning matches regardless of how it will be perceived by the fans,  or throw caution to the wind and become a more entertaining fighter in the hope of gaining more exposure and reaping the rewards in the future?

Sean Sherk
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It would seem that one of the lightweight divisions top fighters Sean Sherk has leaned towards the latter option in recent times.  A former lightweight champion with a record  of 33-4-1, you might reasonably expect that he would be one of the biggest stars in the sport.  Sherk has however developed a reputation for using his wrestling skills to grind out dominant yet not always gripping fights in the UFC which has somewhat limited his star power.

Clearly aware of this criticism ‘The Muscle Sherk’ has worked hard to improve his stand-up game and in recent matches has opted to strike with his opponents.  The problem is that whilst he is undoubtedly a tough, durable competitor his stand-up game doesn’t match up to his dominant wrestling and so two of the four losses in a professional career that reaches back to 1999 have come in his last three fights.  With some fans questioning his change in style and the potency of his striking it remains to be seen if the changes to his game have been a help or a hindrance to his career.

Josh Koscheck is another highly regarded wrestler who strayed from his main strength to indulge in boxing in his recent fights  despite having only lost once (to welterweight champion George St Pierre), in his previous eight visits to the octagon.  The results of this have been mixed – an impressive KO and TKO to add to his resume, but also black marks in the form of two losses – one of which was the first knockout of his career.

Other fighters that spring to mind from recent events include Gray Maynard, Tyson Griffin and even BJJ submission expert Demian Maia.  Each have attempted to step out from the comfort zone of their tried and tested techniques (for 21 seconds in Maia’s case before being knocked out cold by Nate Marquardt) in the hope of making a greater impact in the sport, with varying degrees of success.

As Mixed Martial arts continues to evolve it seems to be, at least to some extent, blurring the lines between sport and entertainment.  For many years now the philosophy of “winning at all costs” has been ingrained into the psyche of professional athletes, but  in this day and age perhaps the new mantra a growing number of fighters appear to have adopted is “entertain at all costs”.

For some this may lead to bigger rewards and greater success, but nothing is guaranteed in the ever changing world of mixed martial arts, and so it is a gamble that won’t pay off for everyone.

Article By RossC

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