It’s the most unfortunate of headlines: “MMA fighter arrested for [fill in the blank].”
It’s bad enough when that blank is filled in with a DUI and the fighter is a UFC champion, or an assault and the fighter is a UFC contender. It’s a black eye on the sport, any way you look at it. But it still falls within the realm of what you’d expect to see in the news on occasion involving a professional athlete—the NFL, NBA or MLB could all supply a police blotter pages long of similar incidents. Professional athletes aren’t perfect, and when one crashes a Bentley into a telephone pole or engages in a fist fight at a bar, it makes sense that not only their name, but also their profession graces the headlines.
In the case of most sports, the importance of an athlete’s profession in such a headline decreases with the level at which they compete. Does the public really care about an offender’s line of work to the same extent if they are playing Class-A ball as they would if the offender was even the most insignificant of Major Leaguers? Or if they played D-League basketball instead of competing in the NBA? Highly unlikely. The profession becomes secondary in most cases, outside of the local market where the athlete competes. It might be mentioned that the guy plays Single-A ball, but that’s not the focal point of the story, nor should it be.
That all changes, however, when reporters catch a whiff of an opportunity for sensationalism. And if there’s one thing that gets a traditional news reporter salivating uncontrollably, it’s the chance to cast MMA in a negative light. Granted, not all journalists stoop to this level, but unfortunately, there is a segment of them that relishes the opportunity.
And this is where MMA faces a problem. The distinction between a Jon Jones and a Jordan Wyatt is lost for the most part on these reporters. Jones is a UFC champion, and good or bad, he’s a representative of the professional side of the sport. He is to MMA what a Kobe Bryant is to the NBA or a Terrell Owens is to the NFL.
Wyatt, on the other hand, has fought professionally on just one occasion. He’s not a highly-touted prospect making his debut inside the UFC’s Octagon. He fought on a small regional show. So, in no way is he the MMA equivalent of rookie NFL quarterback Robert Griffin III. He’s more like that guy who wishes he could be in the Major Leagues, but instead rides the bench for a Single-A level independent league ball club with no affiliation to an MLB team, and with little to no chance of ever seeing the bright lights of the big show.
But to news journalists, Jones and Wyatt are both MMA fighters. Period. Forget the fact that Jones fights for a living and trains full-time, whereas Wyatt has strapped on the four-ounce gloves once and likely barely earned the equivalent of one month’s rent.
And so we get headlines prominently announcing that a MMA fighter pleaded guilty to the murder of a friend, a gruesome murder in which the fighter, high on hallucinogenic mushrooms, removed his friend’s heart and tongue while the man, also high on the same drug, was still alive. While this particular case is a tad more complex—Wyatt’s friend happened to be a training partner, making Wyatt’s profession more relevant to the overall story—it is just one of a handful of recent stories where the title makes an unnecessary point of highlighting the fact that the culprit also happens to fight.
The fact of the matter is that MMA had very little to do with Wyatt’s actions. It wasn’t as if he and his training partner had a dispute at the gym that led to Wyatt’s vicious attack. The two men had opted to take a hallucinogenic and the result was a nightmare of a bad trip. Obviously, Wyatt has fought professionally, but it hardly defines him in the same way as it defines Jones. And as such, it should not define the story of this murder.
Yet for those reading the story, MMA instantly takes center stage. The picture the reporter is painting, however subtle, is that mixed martial arts is somehow involved. Remember all those “human cockfighting” stories? All of the stories depicting the sport as nothing more than a barroom brawl with no rules or technique, appealing to the lowest of the low? That’s the same subtext we see here.
As anyone who actively follows the sport of mixed martial arts would admit, the sport does attract bad seeds on occasion. You know that fan watching the UFC pay-per-view at the local bar? The one wearing the world’s ugliest MMA-branded t-shirt, bragging about training to “fight UFC” and being a jerk to everyone around him? In some states, and with some promotions, that guy could get a professional fight, even if his only qualifications were looking mean and being the schoolyard bully back in high school.
Does that make him a true professional? Does it make him someone who, every time he goes out and does something illegal, should first and foremost be known as a professional mixed martial artist? I would hope not.
To give anyone who has ever competed in a single MMA bout the distinction above all else of being an “MMA fighter” when they’ve committed a terrible crime is ridiculous. It screams of blatant over-the-top journalism that attempts to capitalize on the same stereotypes that marred MMA’s earliest days.
Unfortunately, there’s not much that can be done about this. Until MMA becomes as ingrained in culture as other major sports, those outside of the sport will view a UFC combatant as no different from the thug who thinks he’s tough and steps into the cage once. We can hope for more journalistic integrity and responsibility on the part of mainstream media, but that would be foolish and naïve.
For the foreseeable future, anyone who sets foot in a cage or ring to fight professionally, even once and even in the smallest of settings, will represent the sport as a whole outside of the arena. Sadly, they will play a large part in shaping the public opinion of mixed martial arts. And it won’t be for the better.