Sports  Inside and outside the octagon

The curious dynamic between fans and athletes at UFC 154


Those words are pounded into my mind, burrowing deep into my bones and causing a shiver to run across my skin. Although I am at least 200 metres from the actual cage, the energy seems to leap the distance in a millisecond. There is an infectious and almost tangible excitement in the air. I can’t help but smile and shake my head. I am at UFC 154: Condit vs. Pierre. Even though tonight is my first live Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) event, it is not my first experience with mixed martial arts (MMA). I have trained seriously for about four years and have even tried my hand in the octagon. I came searching for a better understanding of how mixed martial arts is perceived in the eye of the fan versus the eye of the fighter. Although fans and fighters both share a love for mixed martial arts, their perspectives and reasons differ drastically.

The UFC is the largest production business in mixed martial arts, and home to the best mixed martial artists. MMA is a rapidly growing sport in which two athletes meet in an enclosed octagonal cage, fighting for several five-minute rounds until one is declared winner. A win can come from one of the following: a) submission, b) knockout, or c) decision, in which the fight “goes the distance” and judges choose a winner. Fighters can use a wide arsenal of martial arts, from classic ‘Greco-Roman’ wrestling, to boxing and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. As my coach  always says, “MMA is the ultimate competition. There is no hiding or fakeness about fighting; it’s two people putting everything on the line.”

MMA events have often been described as a new-age gladiator show, the major difference being that the audience doesn’t decide who wins or loses – and no one dies. Instead of merely putting their thumbs up or down, fans cheer for their favorites and make it well known whom they want to lose. In the last decade, the sport has grown exponentially due to expanded TV coverage and better marketing.

As well as a massive boom in the amount of people watching MMA, many more people have started training – or at least trying it out. This surge in popularity is no doubt due to the machismo and excitement of the show. It is infectious, affecting even the calmest of people and leaving them thinking, “I could do that.” But to reiterate what my coach says, there is no faking the training. Most people find that out very quickly during their first sparring session. Not coincidentally, that’s why only one out of ten people who try mixed martial arts continue past the first month. Instead, a lot of people come to UFC events to live vicariously through the fighters, surrounded by thousands of similar-minded people. Often, the stadiums can’t handle the egos in the area, and fights break out. In fact, I witness two brutal fights in the crowd at this single event.

Being at an event like this is new for me, for I don’t normally interact with people on this side of the competition. I scan the stands for a fan who is easily accessible, pick out one of the many tight-shirted bald men, and make my way over to him. “Hey man, quick question,” I shout excitedly over the din. “What’s your favorite part about tonight and the UFC?” He catches me by surprise and leans heavily on my shoulder, spinning me around at the same time so that we are both facing the cage. “Bro. That,” he says in a heavy Quebec accent, as his eyes feebly attempt to focus on the scantily clad figure of Arianny Celeste. Celeste is the UFC’s most famous ring girl – her lone job being to look good and carry a piece of cardboard between rounds. It seems that the fans would lose interest in this spectacle after a while, yet three hours and plenty of beers later, many of the fans whoop loudly as if seeing it for the first time.

While my inebriated friend perfectly matches my perception of the average fan, I admit that I could easily have chosen someone a little less drunk, with perhaps a fairer reason for attending such as “seeing two mentally and physically strong people test their wills and bodies.” It is an attractive idea, and in principle it is the reason why any sport garners attention. However, there is a difference when that sport involves violent contact and lots of blood. It is not just a competition for the sake of being declared the champion, but of not being physically dismantled by the opponent.

I would venture to guess that for the majority of athletes, the allure of martial arts comes from a much different place than what the fan thinks of. Personally, I feel that the relationships made during training combined with the continuous bettering of myself are what interest me. In the interest of comparing the fan vs. fighter perspective, I casually asked a couple of my training partners what mixed martial arts means to them. Unsurprisingly, the responses echoed my own reasons for loving it. “Testing the strength of my body and mind,” and “being part of a brotherhood” were just a couple of the answers. Enduring some of the most physically demanding challenges alongside someone is an amazing way to create a lasting bond. This is the reason that during this fight – and virtually all fights – the two fighters hug wholeheartedly afterwards. No matter how much trash-talk was thrown around leading up to the fight, the hug signifies a mutual acknowledgement of the feat that the two just accomplished together. Here is where another sharp contrast between fighter and fan mentality arises, for no matter how educated in MMA the fan is, they will never fully understand the feeling of camaraderie without having gone through it themselves.

While the hugs at the end of a fight warm the heart and leave the fans satisfied that “all is well,” this sentiment is not shared by all. In reality, one will still leave the cage as a loser, and one as a winner. Tonight, Georges St-Pierre (GSP), a Quebec native, walks out the winner by decision, to the adoration of the home crowd, while Carlos Condit loses his interim title. It is a hard task to recover from a loss at any competition, but it is even harder when you are nursing a broken arm or split forehead. Oftentimes, as adrenaline rushes through a fighter’s veins, and excitement takes hold, injuries are overlooked and easily aggravated. The fans don’t get to see this facet of the mixed martial arts. They see a winner, and no matter how much “heart” the loser showed, the winner is the one celebrated. As a loser begins an arduous journey of rebuilding their mindset, a carefree fan goes to the bar to celebrate.

All in all, the night was both exciting and eye-opening. The spectacle of UFC is an issue that I – and many others – continuously have a hard time dealing with. It is an impressive production, with millions of dollars’ worth of equipment stitched together to produce a seamless show. Yet the result of this show is twenty thousand fans saturated in alcohol, looking for blood. Although there is a minority of people who train and appreciate MMA for the technique and skill behind it, the truth is that there are more people that are there to see someone get “knocked the hell out, bro!” I tend to be pessimistic in thinking that will ever change; yet I will continue to do my part in being the minority.