Another weekend—or, I should I say, week—of MMA has come and gone. As usual, the sport’s collective minds, from its professionals to its fans, trumpeted the week’s intoxicating highs to its slithering lows.

From Jon Jones and Alexander Gustafsson engaging in a competitive title fight that has many calling it a front-runner for “Fight of the Year,” to the usual perceived bad calls, bad losses or just the mundane, it all showed us how professional MMA has steadily and successfully chipped away at the wall blocking it from larger exposure.

Maybe I’m a little late to the realization or am just stating the obvious, but my, how the sport has grown. For example, Jon Jones, the man who retained his UFC light heavyweight title belt on Saturday night, was the first mixed martial arts fighter to walk into a cage sporting a sponsorship from Gatorade. He was also the first cage fighter to be endorsed by Nike. In fact, he wore both monolithic brands on his clothing while making the walk to meet his challenger.

Such news would usually be insignificant, but we’re still a “young” sport in a sense, and one where major sponsorship deals are still firsts. Much like how Ronda Rousey crossed her success in the cage over to a higher public consciousness, Jones is becoming increasingly accustomed to his role as a leading man of the sport.

All our lives we’ve seen the colorful and even cinematic Gatorade commercials that sell us on the grit and glamor of basketball and football players, and now the UFC’s top fighters are starting to earn a similar sort of credibility. Jones is playing a starring role for our sport the same way that Michael Jordan was represented as the king of the court in his time. It’s a lofty comparison between the two, but it does seem to hold a bit of validity.

Love him or hate him, Jones has become a seminal poster boy of the sport.

The longest-standing complaint that you’re most likely to hear from fans in regards to the champion has been of him possessing a phony or cocky demeanor. He took that sentiment a bit further with his choice of apparel Saturday, wearing a Nike shirt with a slogan that read “not quite human.”

You can bet that kind of advertisement turned many a hater off from the start. Yet, however irksome his demeanor may be to some, Jones has earned a spot among the UFC’s best 205-pounders ever. He’s the first to defend the UFC light heavyweight title six times in succession—however debatable the latest win may be—and he’s the first to be branded with multiple major sponsorship deals while fighting in the Octagon.

As MMA develops a larger space in the sports landscape, we’re going to need athletic stars with a healthy list of accolades to sell to viewers. As of right now, Jones’ beacon stands tallest. He has gained consideration as the best light heavyweight in history. His recent accomplishments are monuments that commemorate MMA’s newest highs, which is but a slice of why MMA, namely the UFC, is more popular than ever.

The first step into this new era came from the UFC’s television deal with the Fox family of networks. The promotion’s events are now being held at a blurring pace. We also have seasons of The Ultimate Fighter still rolling along, now with international versions, and Bellator MMA making its debut into reality/competition television with Fight Master. Although Bellator can’t yet match the healthy number of events that the UFC can deliver, it is gearing up for its first pay-per-view offering in November. Also, World Series of Fighting is out there making comparatively smaller waves on the shallower end of the pool.

The takeaway is that the UFC’s rise in exposure and popularity has bolstered the market, and we’re going to see smaller promotions try their hand at following a similar blueprint to success, much as Bellator is currently attempting to do.

Obviously, the UFC leads the pack of MMA promotions by miles. Its only significant rival, the aforementioned Bellator, is finding a decent ratings groove on Spike with events on Fridays. Fans are now finding several accessible MMA viewing opportunities within a single week on a regular basis.

We’ve never had such an attractive offering of MMA before. Weekdays give us TUF, plus, for a while there, Fight Master. There are also weekly UFC Tonight episodes, regular shows from Bellator and smaller promotions like WSOF, Legacy FC and MFC on AXS TV on Fridays, and the now ubiquitous UFC on cable or pay-per-view on Saturdays (and sometimes on weeknights too). Those of us that followed the sport from a UFC-centric perspective from TUF 1 or before understand how far the sport has come. Cue the “Why Can’t I Hold All These?” MMA memes.

That sort of makes MMA feel fresh again, though, because we’ve never seen it on this level before.

The same way the sport is young to many fans is the same way that a fully mature adult looks at a teenager, how they are still growing and making decisions for their future. We hope the best for their outcome and feel painfully attached to it. Sometimes we hold on to the past, the younger version, for the sake of its elusive purity. We fear its foray into the future and blind ourselves with ideals to protect what we can’t know will happen.

Well, now that kid is growing up and gaining a sense of confidence about himself. He’s wearing silly t-shirts that inspire us, or perhaps turns us to revile what he has become. And others are following suit to catch up.

Let’s not forget our godfathers, our Royce Gracies and other “firsts” of legend for their efforts in moving the sport forward. Now their descendents have taken the sport exponentially further.

As my week of MMA consumption ended on Saturday night, among the many happenings and stories that are too numerous to relate in one sitting, that’s the thought that hit me after Jones capped off the collective mind’s undivided attention with his championship achievement, major new sponsor and hard-fought battle with Gustafsson. Jones’ fame is emblematic of the newest levels of maturity and popularity that the UFC has set for itself, and for MMA.

Photo: Jon Jones (James Law/Heavy MMA)

About The Author

David Massey
Staff Writer

David Massey studied Humanities and Art History at the University of Central Oklahoma. He first found interest in MMA from the first TUF show and has been hooked ever since. He began posting on mmajunkie then submitting Sunday Junkie entries and that began his interest in writing about MMA. Through twitter David found other MMA enthusiasts and began contributing articles to marqueemma.com. He looks forward to growing as a writer and being a part of the sport he loves.