Josh Gross
Monday June 29th, 2009

Relative to where mixed martial arts wallowed a decade ago, it's easy to say it has reached mainstream success in North America. Yet, thinking to where the nascent combat sport could stand a quarter century from now if one were to glean anything from the way boxing grew palatable to audiences after its formative years, MMA has plenty of room to mature.

In a recent mailbag I wrote that MMA remains (and will continue to remain) a niche undertaking -- this even as it flirts with an increasingly interested and accepting audience, and in spite of its proliferation on television and hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue generated per year. Simply put, there are cold, hard realities about the sport that some will never accept. That's fine. MMA, like boxing, isn't for everyone.

However, MMA must be careful not to limit its growth from the inside. As an industry, there's plenty promoters and fighters can accomplish that would bridge gaps between the sport and potential fans.

With the fast-approaching UFC 100 heralding a landmark event for MMA in the U.S., one likely to capture the attention of anyone possessing even a passing interest in good fights, it's time to take stock in what "mainstream" actually means, and discuss four keys to bringing the sport to wider audiences.

Forty states and counting. Each month brings word of state legislators acknowledging MMA's impact on their communities. While much of the regulation debate has centered on regions in which the Ultimate Fighting Championship might one day promote, the reality of regulation in 2009 extends well beyond MMA's largest promoter.

At its core, the drive for MMA regulation, which began in the late 1990s, sprouted from a desire for legitimacy. For the sport to be free of its underground roots, it needed the platform to do so. Regulation equaled state-sanctioned venues, which in turn allowed for television, sponsorship and so on.

Today, scuffles over legitimacy exist only in circles where the scope of the sport's growth and mounting evidence of its relative safety are willfully ignored. Instead, the real benefit of regulation provides young fighters with opportunities to, well, fight. As more states and Canadian provinces come on board, fighters -- both male and female -- will gain access to amateur events and entry-level pro cards.

Properly promoted, these bouts can have a uniquely positive impact on the public's perception of the sport -- as well as creating new generations of prospects.

At its height, boxing was a staple of network television and American sports fans. Boxers were known commodities. The public identified with stars of the time, and were exposed to talented up-and-comers charged with carrying the sport's mantle. That ended when promoters were complicit in replacing network TV with pay-per-view, thus signaling the start of a slow and steady decline in the Sweet Science's reach, eventually leading some to consider the sport all but dead in the U.S.

From its beginning, the UFC was produced for pay-per-view. The audience, a fiercely loyal crew that personifies the term "fanatic," has long grown accustomed to forking over 50 bucks at a time to watch a growing contingent of recognizable MMA stars.

While the UFC manages to create new personalities through pay-per-view, that model is undeniably limiting when it comes to attracting new fans to the sport. There resides a far greater benefit offered by network TV, one MMA experienced with the rise of Kevin "Kimbo Slice" Ferguson and Gina Carano -- arguably MMA's two most marketable fighters -- in 2008. Neither fought on pay-per-view or in the UFC.

MMA is expected to return to CBS before the end of the year. If it's a regular gig, and the audience remains sticky, other networks could follow suit. The impact of network TV on MMA's push into the mainstream can't be overstated.

It really comes down to the stars of the sport, and not the manufactured kind. At some point, fighters will emerge out of the pack. For a variety of reasons the public will come to accept and root for them. They'll be tremendous competitors, embodying everything that's wonderful to watch about MMA.

Moreover, they'll represent something larger than themselves. A struggling town. A cause. A group of people. A period in time. Whatever it is, MMA hasn't experienced this yet, but when it does -- and it will -- you'll know.

From a sporting perspective, it doesn't get more important or obvious. The best fighters must fight the best fighters.

Somewhere along the way, boxing earned a reputation as a sport in which top competitors habitually refused to meet. I never really saw that; maybe a fight took too long to put together, and perhaps the power of a matchup wasn't what it might have been, but must-see bouts usually happened.

MMA, meanwhile, has earned the undeserved reputation for always pitting its best. But that's hardly true. Politics, money, contractual battles and organizational trench-lines often keep the sport's elite from going head to head in the cage. And, as a result, MMA will continue to fall short in reaching its mainstream potential. Important fights cannot be lost because of the peccadilloes of MMA power-brokers. Nothing will sooner turn off a sporting audience.

Though Zuffa has done great work in other areas (particularly regulation, where a lot of money and manpower were tabbed for the effort), they are the main culprit in preventing co-promotion -- despite trumpeting the idea after purchasing the UFC in 2001. Big-time fight promoters should be in the business of making great, meaningful, memorable fights. Not preventing them.

In an individual sport like MMA, it's unrealistic for any one organization to control all the talent. So some fights -- the really big ones that would capture the public's imagination and, in turn, generate a lot of money -- demand cooperation.

Both the UFC and MMA could reap the benefits in making sure these fights come to fruition. The most notable: mainstream attention.

VAULT: The new main event (5.28.07)

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