Why we Love the Drama

As much as the modern mixed martial arts world (in the west, at least) tries to distance itself from the fakery of professional wrestling, there is one aspect we just can’t get away from. The Drama. Love it or hate it, it’s a big part of the sport. And, I suspect, even those who hate it might secretly have a soft spot for it.

There are a few reasons to shun the mouthing off, the pre-fight hype, the feuds. They can bring an element of disrepute to what is still a fledgling sport in search of credibility. We–the fans, the promoters, the fighters–seek to elevate mixed martial arts above its oft-perceived status as boxing’s bloodthirsty and brutal distant cousin. It’s difficult to tell the layperson about the technical intricacies, the hard training regimes, or the amount of competitors who are well educated, when Tito Ortiz is blurting out that he might be the first person to actually kill someone (Ken Shamrock) in the ring. It’s hard to persuade your family that the sport you love is full of humble and respectful athletes when Wanderlei Silva is storming into the ring with his gang of cronies behind him to try to stomp his team-mates’ opponent. And credibility seems a long way round the corner when BJ Penn and Jens Pulver are identifying the exact body parts they would like to break off each other in the pre-fight banter.

The Drama can also draw attention away from the fight itself, and attract the wrong kind of fans. What’s more, when match-ups are picked for the drama value alone, the fights themselves might end up being less than spectacular (see the one-sided Ortiz-Shamrock feud that fans got to enjoy in not one, not two, but three snooze-inducing ‘contests’, and the snore-fest that was Sanchez-Koscheck, for proof of that.) The fans that turn up to events where the main event has been hyped up as some kind of centuries-in-the-making, battle-to-the-death grudge match (complete with Mike Goldberg splurging out “There is no love lost between these guys” fourteen thousand times a minute) usually end up being the kind of people that go to Monster Truck rallies, or headbutting competitions, or crowbar eating contests, or whatever it is that they like to do, and one thing is for sure: they aren’t there to see a sporting contest. They are there to see motherfuckers get their shit wrecked, y’hear! And when the promised shit-wrecking does not materialise, well… that’s when the boos start. Et voila. You are left with a horribly hyped-up death match that doesn’t deliver and a bunch of booing fans ready to tear up seats and possibly each other. Not a good image for a sport trying to gain credibility.

So why do we love The Drama, then, if it seems so negative? Simple. It’s exciting. It gets the pulse pounding, and it can really engage you in what would otherwise be a run-of-the-mill fight. If we have no emotional investment in the fighters, then their winning or losing does not affect us, and the fight becomes unexciting. Sure, we can appreciate it from a detached, technical point of view, but there is none of the raw emotion that tugs at our guts when we see someone we are a big fan of squaring off against his nemesis. I went through a long period of only watching Pride FC. When I returned to the U.K., I started catching up on my UFC. At the beginning, I had no idea who the fighters were. I couldn’t tell my Phil Baroni from my Matt Lindland, or my Andrei Arlovski from my Large Insane Badger. As a result, I could only enjoy the matches from a technical perspective. The fights were good, but not great, not inspiring or emotional. Soon, though, I got to know who liked who, who hated who, who had a big brash personality, and so on. The fights became much more exciting. The fighters came alive, and I began to invest emotionally in them.

The fights became battles of wills, of personalities. It is an incredibly exciting thing to contemplate dream matches, purely because we want to see what happens when two egos clash, we want to see the drama unfold. I remember watching Wanderlei Silva fight Sakuraba all those times, and my mind was racing as I tried to imagine Silva’s huge, menacing persona clashing with Sakuraba’s calm, calculating cheek, and which would be the stronger. I remember wondering if Nogueira’s fiery and passionate personality could melt the icy determination of Fedor, and sitting in front of the television with my jaw open watching these contests unfold. Plonk any newborn MMA fan in front of the same matches, and chances are they wouldn’t find them so exciting because they don’t know who the fighters really are–where they have been, what they have done, what their dreams are.

Which brings me to the type of drama that I, personally, love. It’s the kind perfected by Pride FC and their pre-fight hype team, led by supremely talented video editor Sato Daisuke. They would create short videos that hyped matches to heart-attack inducing levels, without an over-reliance on ‘blood feuds’. Fighters were hyped up for who they are. Their history, their challenges, their trials and tribulations, and their own personal battles, were all brought to the forefront. You could really understand just how much a fight meant to them, and the fact that they were shown to be human meant that you could identify with them, and really begin to care whether they won or lost. That created an incredible sense of excitement and enjoyment when the battle itself finally came about. Fighters rarely expressed a personal dislike for their opponents (of course, there were some exceptions…) and the hype was all about whether or not the hard work each fighter had done, and their will to succeed, was strong enough to carry them through to victory.

You can’t talk about drama in MMA without referring to the Ultimate Fighter. This show, and its immense popularity, is proof that we, collectively, love the drama. I’ve seen people on internet forums complain about the drama in the show, lamenting the reality TV aspect, and wishing that the show would be nothing but fights. Well, if you don’t want to watch drama, don’t watch a reality TV show, simple as that. The Ultimate Fighter proved that millions of people around the world love watching a show where they can get to know fighters and really get behind them, and see what they go through before and after the fight. In short, they get to see the real drama behind fighting. I can remember being more excited than I had been for a long while watching Michael Bisping smash his way through series three, purely because I identified with him as an Englishman and a down-to-earth bloke doing it for Queen and Country. It wasn’t his technical prowess or his aggression that won me over (although it did help), it was what I knew about him as a person.

When all is said and done, when the bell rings and John McCarthy pulls your opponent off you kicking and screaming, we are all human beings, and all emotional creatures (except Fedor, of course.) Our lives are all about emotion, about feelings. Mixed martial arts wouldn’t be the same without the drama. Don’t take the drama out. Don’t lobotomise MMA. But do tone down the hate-mongering.

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3 Responses

  1. […] Comparing pro-wrestling to MMA. Also, analyzing drama in MMA. […]

  2. SHWEEET!

    I should add you can read this article in the awesome, free online mma magazine, Total MMA, at http://www.total-mma.com

  3. Any idea of how I will stop snoring ever since I got pregnant I seem to snore all the time.

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