Saturday, September 14, 2013

Bellator 96

The question of sport versus spectacle is one that's haunted mixed martial arts since the beginning, but seems increasingly relevant now that the sport seems to be here to stay and its promoters are attempting to create a stable, mainstream platform for it. The UFC, which mostly focused on legitimate championship battles and the struggle to move up the rankings (plus a reality show and the occasional freak show fight), ended up beating out rival promotion PRIDE, which focused on showmanship and spectacle[1]. However, despite the introduction of official fighter rankings, the past year has seen several UFC title matches put together for the sake of a "big draw" that have little to no competitive justification. Jon Jones vs. Chael Sonnen is the most obvious one of these, but a similar case could be made for Aldo/Edgar, St. Pierre/Diaz, Aldo/Pettis, and now Rousey/Tate 2.

Bellator MMA, the UFC's most prominent competition in North America, would seemingly have a greater claim to legitimate competition. Its tournament format was designed in the name of objectivity, and makes unearned title shots like the ones mentioned above theoretically impossible. Of course, as ever, perfect objectivity is a mirage which always seems to be just over the next hill -- as I mentioned in a previous post on MMA. The presence of judges and referees already adds a layer of subjectivity to a seemingly self-contained cage fight. And while Bellator may not control who advances in the tournament, they do control the field and the bracketing. So there is some reality to the shade being thrown on Bellator's matchmaking as of late.

The four-man tournaments featured in this event, the first of the annual "Summer Series", have been cited by pretty much every MMA writer as an example of the promotion trying to game the system that it created itself. The light heavyweight tournament in particular is seen as a showcase for big-name signing "King" Mo Lawal, who now only has to beat a distinctly less-than-impressive field of losers from last season's tournament in order to secure a title shot. As such an air of perfunctoriness hangs over the entire venture. Still, without the tournament system one expects Lawal would have been given a title shot the moment he signed a Bellator contract. One can see the four-man tournaments as Bellator struggling with itself[2].

These divisions reveal themselves even in the opening hype video. The tournaments, carrying with them connotations of serious and objective competition, are present in only a subordinate role. The main focus of the video and its narration are on the card's three big names (Renato “Bablu” Sobral, King Mo, and War Machine, all former UFC and Strikeforce fighters), and their quest for “redemption” after recent setbacks. This is a nice narrative, but it puts the unavoidable focus on star fighters and their personalities. As in wrestling, the matches themselves will be staging grounds for these interior struggles – the video suggests that winning their match tonight would provide narrative redemption. This makes sense for King Mo and Babalu, who are trying to get over recent losses, but one wonders if a low-stakes MMA victory will really signify that War Machine has overcome his stint in prison[3]. Still, this sort of thing is common in sports narratives

The first fight of the TV broadcast, featuring the promotional debut of controversy-creator War Machine (yes, that is his legal name), is another example of sport and spectacle clashing. From a sporting standpoint, War Machine's match with Blas Avena is more or less irrelevant and probably doesn't deserve a spot on the main card. The former Jon Koppenhaver is an Ultimate Fighter washout and general journeyman who is mostly known for a spectacular flame-out involving ill-advised MySpace posts, a stint as a porn actor, and a couple of years in prison for assorted assaults and bar fights. The fight is against another journeyman, the 8-7 Blas Avena, and War Machine wins in easy but not particularly impressive fashion. Out of context, it all appears spectacularly pointless.

But of course, it isn't out of context, because any fight – like any sporting event, like any text – has a context which we are never not aware of. And Bellator makes particularly sure to highlight these contexts, as the hype video for the fight extensively references War Machine's time in prison (although not what caused it). Some have deemed Bellator's promotional use of War Machine's prison time as exploitative, and there's certainly some truth to that, but this is really a regular part of their presentation.

Bellator's pre-fight videos tend to focus as much on the athletes' personal lives and stories as they do the upcoming fight. Loving shots of family, mumbled stories about growing up in the favela, and shots of the fighter's hometown are commonplace. By contrast, the UFC's pre-fight videos tend to focus exclusively on what that fighter has done in the cage, along with an assurance that it will be a good fight and will most likely end in a finish. Ironically, the show whose format focuses so much on competition uses personal narratives much more in its promotion.

There is a reason for this outside of aesthetic choices (which also play a part). Bellator doesn't have the luxury of assuming that the audience knows who their fighters are. The UFC's athletes are not household names, other than maybe major stars like Silva and St. Pierre, but they do have a minor sports media centred around them and a large fan following who can be counted on to remember at least the upper echelon of UFC fighters. By contrast, Bellator doesn't get a lot of coverage from even the MMA media, and when it does that coverage is generally related to their shady legal maneuvering.

The pre-fight videos, then, are a way to provide an instant narrative for the fight. Major sports can generally rely on the media to create and cultivate these narratives, but Bellator has to do it themselves. Before the videos, this is just another MMA fight between two unknown guys with bad tattoos. After the videos, it's a struggle between a devoted father trying to provide for his family and a talented athlete who escaped from poverty. The tournament structure is also a part of this instant narrative, providing stakes for the fight and suggesting a progression that will unfold over the course of the season. The pre-fight videos put the fight in two separate personal narratives akin to what one might see from a Hollywood boxing movie. The viewer learns what happened before the fight and what can happen afterwards, depending on the battle's outcome. The fight becomes the intersection of a series of intersecting narratives and contexts.

Ultimately, these personal narratives are competing along with the fighters. Typically, a video suggests that the fighter in question needs to win, and that only a victory will provide narrative catharsis – the hero triumphant, the son making his father proud, the veteran proving he can still hang, etc. But there are two videos for every one fight, and only one fighter can win (barring draws and other bizarre circumstances). Thus any given episode of Bellator is a procession of tragedies: a father who does not win enough to support his family, a fighter whose MMA dream doesn't come to fruition, a lover who has to go home beaten and bloody to his girlfriend. These narratives are rarely emphasized on the broadcast – they exist as shadow narratives, suggested by the events that unfold but not explored or spoken aloud. It's customary for commentators to interview the winner of a fight, but rarely the loser.

The night is heavy on finishes, which is generally seen as a good thing. The finish is the money shot of MMA – it adds to a fighter's highlight reel, makes an impact on the viewer, and suggests triumph much more than an announcement by a panel of judges. Of all finishes, the most privileged is the straight knock-out, preferably from one big standing punch or kick, and we get a couple of those in Bellator 96. Babalu's loss, where the referee steps in to save an obviously messed up but still standing fighter, feels much less viscerally satisfying. Beyond the violence, there's a level of aesthetic beauty to the knock-out – the fluidity of movements, the singular element of the punch, the ripple of its impact against the opponent's cheek, the sudden loss of human function.

The Babalu-Noe fight is the only one that goes past the opening minutes – other than that we get a lot of quick finishes and one-round fights. This makes for almost ideal television – a fight is over before the first commercial break, and there's always a new fight around the corner. But after a while it starts to feel like having ice cream for every meal. A quick finish means little if it's easily attainable, and such results seem to suggest one-sided matches. And some of these were clearly created as showcase matches, notably War Machine/Avena and the Mo/Peteruzelli main event. On the other hand, Rich Hale and Ron Sparks are legitimate fighters who have looked scary in Bellator before, but from watching only their fights tonight they could easily appear as cans.

I can’t help but compare the overall aesthetic of this broadcast to Vince Russo's idea of “crash TV”, which he attempted to apply to wrestling in the late 90s to decidedly mixed results. The essence of Crash TV is that it never leaves the viewer alone with their thoughts – every thirty seconds something new is happening, and usually happening with bright colours and loud noise. This is the same philosophy that motivates the rapid-fire editing of reality television, and has even started to trickle down into scripted programming.

Legitimate sports like MMA can't be aesthetically manipulated as easily, and they usually have their moments of dull contemplation – that lull in watching a soccer ball being traded aimlessly around, or in watching two fighters circle each other for a long minute. The long action of a sport forms together a kind of rhythm interrupted by flares of bravura. Bellator 96 is all flares, with the advantages and disadvantages I've outlined above. It makes for a more immediately appealing product. But it's important to remember that Crash TV sort of destroyed wrestling, as the art of the long, gradually-building match was lost from the mainstream. This doesn't apply as much to MMA cards, which assemble themselves in their own aesthetic forms and are indifferent to the wills of their promoters, but it should give pause to the desire to see all knockouts all the time. The cards full of knockouts are more meaningful because of the cards full of decisions.

Still, there is a great deal of beauty in a show like this. The highlight is King Mo's ground strike to finish off Seth Petruzelli – a long, diving punch, like a fist from heaven, shattering his opponent and forcing him (it turns out) into retirement. It is good enough to make Mo look impressive in winning a fight he was the heavy favourite in. By contrast the War Machine victory, while quick, is pedestrian and even ugly.

The only fight on the card which escapes the trend of quick knockouts is the three-round battle between Babalu and Jacob Noe. It would be easy to turn this into a Hollywood story: the aging legend gets beaten up in the first round, comes back in the second, and then eventually passes the torch and rides out into the sunset. The opening video package follows this formula to the T, with lots of softly-lit images of Babalu teaching children jiu-jitsu and reference to his legacy. Instead of focusing on the importance of Sobral winning the fight, it basically retires him beforehand.

As is usual, there are different narratives that could be told of Sobral. He could be a villain, capable of acts of cruelty such as the illegal choking which got him kicked out of the UFC. He could be a failure, a man who has fought many big names but beaten few of them. All of these have as much grounds to them as the saintly picture Bellator paints.

As for the fight itself, it follows the script above, with the surprising comeback and the inevitable defeat. But it's not the barn-burner that Hollywood would depict. The fight has a lot of clinching against the cage, leg kicks, and slow fighting for position. It is the same story, but told in a cruder vernacular, or perhaps a different language altogether. Anyone can understand a one-round knockout; to understand a fight like Sobral/Noe and the narrative that weaves through it you need to be fluent in MMA.

And then there's the knockout. Instead of a punctuation mark, it is more of an ellipsis. Sobral is stopped on his feet, being questionably ruled unable to continue. Babalu's career, if it really is over now, ends with him complaining to the referee. It is the final fight everyone wanted, but everything is a bit off. The end of this battle is faintly pathetic. I mean that in the classical sense: it generates pathos, a strange combination of sorrow and fulfillment. One is unsure how to feel after this fight, but that uncertainty is more powerful than the simple, cliched satisfaction of the retiring fighter riding into the sunset.

This is where the easy narratives peddled to us by the sports media fail us. Bellator and others like it want us to believe reality is like a movie, with heroes, villains, climax and resolution. Of course, movies are full of uncertainty as well – rather, they present reality as the image of a trite and melodramatic sports film. But real life, even the heightened version of it presented by competitive sports, is the stuff of uncertainty, contradiction, and confusion. We need art – and yes, B-league MMA broadcasts are a kind of art -- that reflects these contradictions and finds the truth and beauty within them.

[1] As much as I'd love to see this as a vindication for competitive matchmaking, PRIDE's collapse had more to do with its shady business practices, including ties to the yakuza, and shaky accounting.

[2]It may be silly to draw an analogy between the practices of a second-tier MMA promotion and larger political tactics, but this struggle within Bellator suggests that institutions that are designed to merely create the illusion of fairness or accountability can nevertheless prevent gross injustice. Up here in Canada, the Parliamentary Budget Office is a good example of this. This doesn't mean that we should trust these institutions, just that we can use them as barriers to slow down the worst tendencies of those in powers. Bjorn Rebney may not exactly be "in power", but Bellator is owned by media giant Viacom, so it's not that much of a stretch.

[3] Everything in an athlete's life is a difficulty that they nobly overcome, even things which they are entirely responsible for. See The Onion for more.