Sunday, July 22, 2012

UFC on Fuel TV 4: Munoz vs. Weidman

In addition to the usual low-wattage roster of a Fuel TV card, UFC on Fuel 4 suffers from occuring in the wake of the Anderson Silva/Chael Sonnen megafight, with most fans suffering from fight hangovers.  I watch these things pretty religiously, and I almost totally forgot about it.  In theory the point of these events is to build up new stars and give long-serving undercarders some TV time.  Outside of the main event none of these fighters are in sniffing distance of the top 10.  The question then emerges: is this event, wedged in the middle of a week bookended by more interesting ones, worth watching at all?  What are the merits to it as three hours (!) of television?

Some would simply suggest that it exists because the UFC wants to fully exploit its current popularity, expanding as fast as it can with no concern as to fan fatigue.  But this isn't really the case.  The UFC almost certainly runs these smaller shows at a loss: they're broadcast in the outlands of cable, usually fail to get a decent live crowd, and other than fighter salaries have all the same costs as a bigger-ticket event.  So it can't be greed.  The simplest explanation would be that the UFC has hundreds of fighters under their employ and a limited number of (healthy) stars, so sometimes you have to run a card without the stars just to generate enough fights for everyone.  That's closer to the truth, but it still suggests that the UFC is being run by its fighters instead of the other way around.  So it has to be that, somehow, these events contribute to the larger commercial and athletic (and those two are always in tandem, as with any other professional sport) project of the Ultimate Fighting Championships.

The nearest analogy would, I suppose, be one of those low-key episodes of a serial drama that exists to build characters and set up future events.  So it could be argued that while neither Mark Munoz nor Chris Weidman, much less the unranked talents that appeared on the undercard, are people you care about, in the future they may be fighting someone you care about, and possibly even become one of those people themselves.  Giving them the headlining spot is meant to introduce them to the promotion's "main stage", with the theory being that if the fans see these fighters in the main event, they'll start thinking of them as main eventers instead of undercarders.  (This applies mostly to Weidman, unknown before his recent upset of Demian Maia, as Munoz already headlined a not-as-small UK card last year).

The above partially-incoherent paragraph goes to showcase how important image and status is in the fight game.  Building a name that people remember (which usually involves building a persona) is frequently more difficult than making it into the top 10 or even winning a championship.  Take Chris Weidman, who has an impressive victory in the main event.  He's stopped a dangerous opponent, and the stoppage is even a memorable one, albeit mainly due to the referee's delay in stepping in when Munoz was clearly out of it.

But where does this leave him?  What separates him from Jake Ellenberg, or Johny Hendricks, or Michael McDonald, or any of the other surging crew-cut white guys?  Of course, this is a bit of an unfair question.  Not everyone has an uniquely marketable persona -- indeed, it would be impossible for each of the 200 or some odd fighters to all be interesting characters.  In fact, it's usually only after you win a championship that the marketing gurus start to work, as when they transformed Frankie Edgar into a mostly-unknown crew-cut white guy to a lightweight Rocky, helped along by Edgar's gutsy performances.  Even then, Edgar never really became a major draw, and who knows what'll happen with new lightweight champion Benson Henderson.

The UFC can't come up with characters wholesale, and similarly its athletes shouldn't be pressured to become media characters instead of focusing on their fighting (although those that do, like Chael Sonnen and Ronda Rousey, are usually rewarded for it).  So in that respect it lacks in the character department when both something like pro wrestling and team sports, where a team can maintain the image it's gradually developed for decades instead of constantly having to invent new ones for the latest rising star.  This is not so much a failure of effort as a failure of format, and it may explain why fight sports have never trumped the big four in America or sports like soccer or rugby internationally, but to me it's part of their appeal -- they present each competitor as an individual instead of appealing to tribalistic emotions.

But what the UFC lacks in characters it makes up for in spectacle.  This is the part that's made it most popular among young males, and which also draws all the criticism.  Supporters have long argued[1] that it's equally or less dangerous than established sports like boxing or football.  But of course, the difference is that in mixed martial arts the violence is overt, personal, and bodily -- there is no way to avoid it.  This kind of violence has undeniable biopolitical significance.  The representative of violent spectacle on this card would have to be the battle between James Te Huna and Joey Beltran.

(Most MMA screenshots are going to involve the referee standing awkwardly around on the fringes of some sort of action.  Although it's not as awkward as when the referee should be doing something, like the previous one.)

The Te Huna/Beltran fight isn't really a competitive exchange of skill -- despite some flurries from Beltran, it's mainly a beatdown.  And it's one that never reaches its conclusion, a testament to Joey Beltran's chin.  (The ability to take a punch is, as per usual, read as a sign of grit and authenticity.)  The two mens' striking is not very technical.  But the fight is aesthetically pleasing in its own way: its brutality, its sloppiness makes the stakes of combat seem so much more real than a fast-paced submission battle.  It looks like two guys fighting outside a bar, and that transmutes the situation into something we can understand and empathize with.  It seems as though either guy might go down at any time, restoring destructive value to the punches that usually just accumulate as statistics.  I don't want to be hyperbolic here, but a fight like this makes us believe that the UFC is real again -- hence why the announcers talked it up so much.

The rest of the matches were fairly obscure affairs, but they did their job of showcasing up-and-coming stars as well as a couple resurgent veterans like Rafael dos Anjos and Aaron Simpson.  The UFC is generally known for its competitive matches, and that continues here, although sometimes things fall through and you end up with an one-sided fight like Aaron Simpson vs. Kenny Robisnon.  But in general what you have is the next step in each of these fighters' individual careers, whether it be a step up in competition or a shift to a new weight class or an adversity to be either fought through or succumbed to.  Each fight has two narratives, one for the winner and one for the loser, but it's the winner's narrative that is generally highlighted, with the loser condemned to obscurity.  Such are the perils of competition.

In the end, the ultimate significance of this event is as of yet unknown.  If its prospects -- Chris Weidman, Francois Carmont, James Te Huna, etc. -- go on to major success and stardom, then it will have been an essential part of the UFC mega-narartive, a tapestry woven from hundreds if not thousands of individual stories.  If not, it will just be a strange detour that only the hardcores will have noticed.

Next week: "This crime hasn't happened yet."

[1]This argument is probably correct, but since it's such a young sport we haven't really seen the long-term implications of being a professional mixed martial arts fighter.

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