Wednesday, December 1, 2010
An interesting piece by CSN Washington's Dustin Green is once again bringing up one of my favorite debates in MMA: Should fighters fight purely to win, or should they also feel a responsibility to entertain as well?
Of course, they don't have to be mutually exclusive. There are many fighters who can notch a victory and make the crowd roar in the same evening. Yet in most cases, and usually when matched evenly with their opponent, strategy takes the place of furious action.
Green caught up with UFC President Dana White recently, and White lobbed a volley at perhaps the most successful trainer in the sport: Greg Jackson.
"You'll see guys who are traditionally exciting fighters, but when they go to the Greg Jackson camp they become safety first fighters," White said. "For Nate Marquardt to leave the octagon that night feeling like he won, your corner did you wrong." "Why wouldn't you tell him 'go for broke in this third round. This is a close fight.'"
Watch: Dana White Criticizes Georges St-Pierre's Trainer
"At the end of the day, my opinion means nothing," he said. "I'm not their corner man. I'm not the trainer. I'm just the promoter. I'm just being honest. There's obviously some consistency there with the Jackson camp with the safety first."
I reached White this week while he was attending a family function. I asked if he was goofing on the Jackson camp, and whether he wanted to elaborate or even back off a bit.
"I didn't feel like I was goofing on him or his fighters at all," he said. "I merely stated my opinion. You've known me a long time, have I ever backed off of anything I've said?"
Jackson's Submission Fighting and MMA camp, based in Albuquerque, N.M., is chock-full of past and present superstars. Rashad Evans, Jon Jones, Kenny Florian, and Georges St-Pierre all call the camp home. The fighters currently training (or who have trained in the past) at Jackson's camp could fill a promotion by themselves. Literally, you could take the Jackson camp roster and start your very own promotion -- and have a talent pool greater than any other promotion out there, except of course the UFC.
So it caught many by surprise to hear criticism from the most powerful man in the sport. In talking to Green, the UFC prez was critical, while trying to maintain a level of respect, towards Jackson-trained fighters.
The issue here isn't White's statements. He is a promoter. His JOB is to put on exciting, water-cooler style fights. Joe Silva and White decide the matchups. From that point on, it's the fighter's job to decide what type of show the viewer sees. The more exciting the fights, the more we're talking and writing about it the next day. The UFC has long lived on the "oh my god, did you see that fight last weekend" vibe, and its pay-per-views are often must-see TV. In the era of 70 boxing PPVs, when often the end result is an audience shaking their heads in frustration at the lack of a payoff, White is hyper-sensitive about not putting on a boring show.
Look at the handful of fights prior to Chael Sonnen that current champion Anderson Silva put on. Culminating with a lackluster (to put it politely) performance against Damian Maia in Abu Dhabi, White was beyond frustrated. Embarassed in front of a worldwide audience of viewers, plus his new business partners in the Middle East, at one point he threatened to put Silva on an undercard, if not cut him outright.
Read that again. The president of the UFC was so pissed at a guy who had lost ONE ROUND in his UFC career -- one of the most famous faces in the entire sport -- that he threatened career-altering action, plus a public embarassment. Why? Because the "wow' factor has always been in White's blood.
So to hear him criticize a fighter, or even a camp, for "playing it safe" is really no big deal. As White also said in the interview, in the grand scheme of things his opinion means nothing. We all know that's the equivalent of us saying Jessica Alba's beauty doesnt matter when it comes to her acting, but you can't blame the man for at least trying to be contrite.
The fun part of the debate is figuring out which is more important: winning or entertaining. St-Pierre defends his title next weekend against Josh Koscheck, and he hasn't exactly been elevating the collective pulse of fans lately. The typical GSP fight consists of hard takedowns, ground and pound, and a unanimous decision. One could argue that his last exciting fight was almost three years ago when he was shocked by Matt Serra in perhaps the biggest upset in MMA history. Ever since that fateful TKO, St. Pierre has stuck to a simple, slightly boring, yet effective gameplan, one that has netted him seven straight victories. It is also worth noting that he won his first six fights before a flukey submission loss to Matt Hughes. He then won his next seven fights before another flukey loss to Matt Serra. Going into his matchup with Koscheck, he's again won seven straight. Will Koscheck be the one to reset the streak again?
But as I said earlier, for once White isn't the story here. Although his opinions carry the most weight, of course you expect the promoter to want his fights to be exciting. That's not what the media should be focusing on.
I'm more interested in what the fighters think.
One of the more consistently exciting fighters in the sport, Urijah Faber, is in Las Vegas attending a SPIKE television awards show. I asked him about playing it safe vs fireworks.
"I feel a bit of anxiety in the cage if there's a lull in the action," Faber said. "Of course I want to win, but I want to entertain the people watching me as well. The great thing about Jackson's camp is that there are a ton of world-class fighters that are present, which makes for a level of training that's very hard to duplicate in a lot of camps. As far as being a boring fighter, I think a lot of that comes from the fighter himself, not the camp."
Then it ocurred to me that I just so happen to know of perhaps the perfect fighter to speak to.
"I guess I could be the guy who never strikes out, but only hits singles in baseball. But how boring is that? I'd rather swing for the fences each time, and maybe whiff at the ball once in a while. Sure I might make more money playing it safe, but I'd be a miserable S.O.B."
The above quote belongs to Scott Smith. If you watch the sport, you know who he is. World Champion? No. Knock your socks off record? 17-7 doesn't really jump out at you. Yet the guy makes a great living, and holds the respect of fans worldwide, because he is as close to a sure thing MMA has. Win or lose, you rarely if ever feel cheated when he fights. He is the MMA version of boxing's late, great Arturo Gatti.
Some of the most legendary (if not THE most legendary) comeback wins in the sport's history belong to Smith. Pete Sell can tell you that. So can Benji Radach. But in order to come back, you must be on the losing end first. In order to overcome adversity and win the crowd (as Russell Crowe said in Gladiator), you must really have TRUE adversity. You have to take chances.
Rocky wouldn't have been Rocky if he just ran through everyone. What got the crowd's blood up was watching Rock-O get destroyed for most of the fight, and then somehow willing his way to victory. If you want to be remembered, Heart and Grit trump Strategy and Safety any day of the week. There's a difference between being a winner, and being a legend. I decided to press on a bit about the all-out sell-out mentality once in the cage.
"My fights with Cung Le (in which he went 1-1) were so much bigger than a title fight to me," Smith said. "It's gotta be competitive. As a fighter, if you love excitement, that's what motivates you. Not just the money, not just the belt."
When I spoke to him, Smith was in a St. Louis hotel room awaiting Saturday's fight versus Paul Daley for the Strikeforce promotion. I asked if he could have won more fights had he played it safer, rather than always going for the "home run."
"Deep down in side, it's (playing safe) not me," Smith said. "You can gameplan all you want, but the truth comes out when the cage doors close."
What if you were more disciplined, Scott?
"If I were more disciplined, I'd be a more boring fighter. No thanks. When we first got in the sport years ago, guys like me, James (Irvin), Urijah (Faber) weren't doing it for the money. We got 500 bucks a fight to put on a good show. These guys training now in junior high and high school are looking to win a belt, make money, and get their picture taken," he said. "Don't get me wrong, I love the money, but fame can also corrupt. My roots aren't there, man. I love the brawl. That's where the truth is.
Would you rather have a more boring opponent that you were favored against, or go against a guy that you should lose to, but would most likely have an exciting fight against?
"Remember years ago, when I had a fight in Gladiator Challenge in downtown Sacramento? I came in to your radio show with my opponent, a guy who I was absolutely supposed to KILL. That is the most nervous I've ever been for a fight in my life," Smith said.
Whoa. You're telling me that more than fights with Robbie Lawler or Cung Le, or your fights on the Ultimate Fighter, all of which had a WORLDWIDE audience, you were most nervous about a fight in front of 800 people? No way.
"Yep. I'd rather be the underdog. Less to lose. I'd rather be the home run hitter. Maybe my checks would be bigger if I was more disciplined, if I played it safe. But I wouldn't be having fun. Maybe its different for other guys, but when those cage doors close, that's what its all about, man. That's my truth. And if I'm not going all out, if I don't hear the crowd roar, its not worth it."
In the end, its all a matter of style, I guess. I believe there's a place for both types, the Strategist vs. the Rocky. The best part? In many cases all it takes is the right punch, the right burst of adrenaline and fear, and the "boring" fighter can turn the tables and ratchet up your pulse in an instant. It's the unpredictablility of the sport that makes it so addictive. Once upon a time, guys like Lyoto Machida and Rashad Evans were thought of as boring, tactical fighters. The same label is pinned right on the foreheads of guys like Jon Fitch and Jake Shields today.
The bottom line: You can't put a label on any one fighter. Situations change game plans. Adrenaline can alter even the best-laid strategies
The old boxing adage still applies: Styles make fights.
The camp and corner can certainly influence a fighter, but in the end, there's only two guys that matter -- the guys in that cage, making their own decisions.
As Smith said, that's where the truth lies. Not in the words of a hopeful promoter merely expressing his opinions.
In the end, its all relative.