One of my favorite programs on television is HBO’s Real Sports. In a world where broadcast sports journalism has been reduced to ESPN and its transformation into a gossip network, Real Sports is a glimmering beacon of hope for those of us who still value good storytelling over a Tweetable sound bite.

A segment of one recent Real Sports episode focused on the Pugilistic Offensive Warrior Tactics MMA team, a group consisting of military veterans who have suffered or currently suffer from post-traumatic stress, depression or substance-abuse issues. (You can see more about the team here.) The P.O.W. team, perhaps without fully realizing it, is participating in a full-contact form of group therapy, and the story suggests that, for some veterans, anyway, such an environment might be more conducive to progress than the traditional coffee-and-couches counseling methods most commonly used for non-veterans. Good piece. Check it out.

Anyway, in introducing the segment, Real Sports host Bryant Gumbel referred to mixed martial arts as “no-holds-barred fighting.” At the time, I didn’t even really think anything about it. Because I was nine years old when the UFC made its debut, my brain often conflates the two terms, even though I’d probably never use “no-holds-barred fighting” to describe MMA to someone. Perusing Twitter a few days later, though, I stumbled across this post from the venerable Ben Fowlkes, which addressed the Gumbel verbiage. “It’s 2013, man,” Fowlkes writes, responding to the Real Sports presenter. “Holds are barred.”

“Good point,” I thought as I read that. Ruminating on this further, I was struck with no small amount of disappointment that one of journalism’s best minds would still openly refer to MMA in such antiquated and misleading terms. It doesn’t necessarily lessen my respect for Gumbel, but I guess I would have thought that sports journalists of his stature would at least know enough about mixed martial arts to refer to it as such.

In some ways, I think Gumbel’s faux pas perfectly represents the significant and persistent level of ignorance many have for the sport you and I have come to love so much. No matter how much the UFC and MMA in general have evolved and become more mainstream over the last 10 years, most of the people who I interact with on a daily basis would refer to it as “that thing where two guys beat the hell out of each other.” Despite the UFC’s efforts to educate the public about the sport with which it is inextricably linked, many people are still surprised when I outline the extensive rule set now in place for professional MMA competition in America and are shocked when I note that 49 out of our country’s 50 state governments sanction and regulate the sport.

Because I care so much about mixed martial arts, I often make the mistake of thinking the sport is more popular and accepted than it really is. I spend quite a bit of my life digesting MMA content, whether it comes in the form of fights themselves or the media surrounding it, but I frequently forget that MMA still occupies the “More” tab on the vast majority of major sports websites. America is still very much a three-sport country, with football, baseball and basketball primarily occupying the consciousness of sports fans, and for many of those people, MMA is simply too violent to be palatable.

I recognize that no amount of explanation of how MMA fighters are some of the world’s best athletes or of the cognitive and scientific nature of jiu-jitsu is going to convince most people to start watching the UFC, and I certainly can’t fault anyone for their sporting preferences. I think baseball is super boring, and there’s pretty much nothing a hardcore baseball fan could tell me that’s going to make me change my mind, so I can very much put myself in the shoes of those to whom MMA holds little appeal. The question, then, is how much the sport can expect to grow in the future.

MMA, and the UFC in particular, was growing at a rapid rate between 2005 and 2012. What was once a UFC schedule consisting of a handful of events every year has turned into a calendar packed with nearly three dozen individual cards. When the UFC first burst onto the scene, pay-per-view providers (you know, the companies that broadcast hardcore pornography) refused to air the events. Today, fight fans can watch the UFC every few months on Fox, an actual, real-life, non-cable broadcast network, not to mention the fact that the forthcoming Fox Sports 1 network will be chock-full of UFC content.

Where, then, can the UFC and MMA go from here? The UFC has already incorporated all of the men’s divisions that make sense, and while women’s MMA is certainly an emerging and exciting commodity, it has not yet reached a point where the UFC would be wise to begin expanding its female weight classes beyond maybe one or two others, and even then probably not for a year or so. Multiple MMA promotions have used reality television programs to draw in new viewers, and the UFC’s latest iteration of The Ultimate Fighter—which for the first time will feature two female head coaches (Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate) and will incorporate both men and women into the show’s competition—should get some traction. That being said, the UFC has not been able to rely on TUF to significantly grow its fan base for quite some time, and at this point it seems like the show’s main function is to give regional fighters the opportunity to shine in the world’s premier MMA promotion. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that, but it doesn’t do much to bring new eyes to the product.

At this point, the UFC has more or less exhausted all of its “big announcement” moments. Sure, it might one day secure a broadcast deal with another network, but it will likely not have the oomph that the initial partnership with Fox had. It could introduce new women’s weight classes, but the attention from doing so would pale in comparison to the initial integration of women into the UFC. In other words, the best the sport can hope for is to continue to secure a growing portion of mainstream broadcast space. The UFC did four Fox events in 2012 and is slated to do another four in 2013 (including the forthcoming UFC on Fox show on Dec. 14). A good indicator of whether the sport is continuing to increase its mainstream appeal or has reached a plateau will be the number of UFC on Fox events in 2014. Expanding from four cards to five in 2014 would obviously be a step in the right direction, but any other result would signal that the UFC’s growth has hit a snag.

To be sure, the sport has come a long way since UFC 1, which was basically an infomercial for Gracie Jiu-Jitsu disguised as a combat spectacle (and where, indeed, few holds were barred). In the time since, MMA has gone from being the bastard child of boxing, kickboxing and wrestling to becoming an accepted, if not wholly embraced, part of the American sporting pantheon. The UFC’s biggest stars can be counted upon not only to promote their fight, but to entice nearly a million fans to purchase the pay-per-view events on which they’re competing. It’s quite an impressive amount of growth, looking back less than a decade to the pre-TUF era, and I’m always heartened when I hear about new converts, but I’m constantly reminded that only a fraction of the community of sports fans overall think the way I do about MMA. Perhaps that will change in the years to come, but for now, there is still a large group of people for whom MMA is still “no-holds-barred fighting.”

Photo: Blood covers the canvas of the UFC Octagon (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

About The Author

Eric Reinert
Staff Writer

Eric Reinert has been writing about mixed martial arts since 2010. Outside the world of caged combat, Eric has spent time as a news reporter, speechwriter, campaign strategist, tech support manager, landscaper and janitor. He lives in Madison, Wis.