Ben Fowlkes
Thursday June 26th, 2008

In the world of mixed martial arts, it seems it's not enough to have a good fight. For some reason, we want it to be personal. We want our fighters to hate each other. Or, at least, we want them to make us believe that they do.

Maybe that's why some MMA fans are having a hard time getting excited for the Ultimate Fighting Championship's light heavyweight title bout between Quinton "Rampage" Jackson and Forrest Griffin on July 5. There just doesn't seem to be enough animosity between them; not enough heat. Apparently, complete abhorrence is a requirement for a top-notch fight.

A naive view of the sport? Absolutely. And the UFC bears some of the blame. The organization -- and most promoters -- has been so quick to play up any vitriol between fighters that fans have come to expect it.

When Jackson and Griffin were named coaches for Season 7 of Spike TV's The Ultimate Fighter, the UFC was hoping they could adhere to the formula that successfully built up the hardly competitive Tito Ortiz-Ken Shamrock bout. The two-hour broadcast of UFC: The Final Chapter set a UFC record with a 3.1 average overall rating, a 2.8 average in the first hour and a 3.4 average in the second hour. Prior to Ortiz-Shamrock, the highest-rated UFC broadcast of all time was the live season finale of The Ultimate Fighter 3, which drew a 2.0 overall rating.

It's a game of ratings, not authenticity.

Aside from some brief trash talk after one of the show's fights this season, followed by vague threats and a little property damage, Jackson and Griffin failed to subdue their palpable respect for one another, even as the UFC did its best to squeeze all the drama it could out of that one moment. What initially appeared as anger spiraled into child's play with net guns and a game of tag.

"Quinton's a tough guy and he's very competitive," Griffin said of the incident. "I hate to lose; he hates to lose, so I expected that. I mean, look at me. I got upset even during some of the close ones that [my team] won. So I have no room to talk there."

The faux grudge flopped for the UFC. But why does it matter?

Simply put, anger and drama draw big pay-per-view numbers, and such lead-up hysterics could boost the ratings of the actual fight. Look at the UFC lightweight title bout between B.J. Penn and Sean Sherk at UFC 84. The two threw every demeaning name they could think of at each other. UFC President Dana White used to begin conference calls with them by reinforcing the point that "these two genuinely dislike each other." Yet, once the bout was over, Penn embraced Sherk and assured him everything he said had simply been an effort to hype the fight.

At a certain point this becomes pro-wrestling territory -- all a gimmick for the benefit of the fans. But for the fighters, it's business. Rampage, who is as animated as they come when the cameras are on, insists over and over again that this is his job. He's not fighting Griffin because they're two angry schoolyard kids. They're fighting because Jackson is the champion and Griffin (through the UFC's vague standards) has been dubbed the No. 1 contender. There's no publicity stunt, no artificial storyline -- just two guys fighting it out to see who's better.

For some people that may not be enough, but at least it's authentic.

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