Since sport began, there have always been rivalries amongst competitors, whether it is rival teams such as Barcelona and Real Madrid in soccer or Finland and Sweden in ice hockey. For the most part, it is when rivalries of this kind are in place that famous moments are produced.

When it comes to combat sports in particular, there is a tendency that the rivalries will spill over into a war of words before, and usually after, the big occasion itself. What’s more, in its relatively short history, MMA has shown that it is likely to follow in boxing’s footsteps in this regard.

There can be no doubt that fans love to get invested in a long-standing feud rather than transparent hype masked as reality. This is one of the reasons that the ill-fated showdown that never was between UFC President Dana White and fighter Tito Ortiz attracted so much attention. Amongst the smoke, it seemed to be a real dispute that needed settling and still to this day has fans casting their minds back to think of what might have been. And all that for a fight for which the premise was to match a promoter against a fighter, something straight out of Vince McMahon’s WWE playbook.

However, a rivalry need not necessarily be contested out of hatred on both sides. Instead, a rivalry can be just as enticing because everyone (including the competitors themselves) acknowledges the immense skills involved on both sides. This kind of rivalry can currently be seen in the world of tennis, where the top of the men’s game consists of Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Andy Murray. Any one of those competitors could well have dominated any other era, but they now find themselves battling it out on a weekly basis, with only minute differences separating a win from a loss.

But as MMA looks to continue its growth, would that growth be best served by rivalries rich in hatred and bad blood or quiet respect and appreciation?

When looking at the rivalries in days gone by in MMA, fans have been vocal in recent times in criticizing the fact that those who instigate confrontation often find themselves ahead of the “quieter” voices, even if it means that those most worthy of recognition aren’t given the opportunity.

The most prominent example of this is the meteoric rise of Chael Sonnen from relative obscurity to the powerhouse figure he is today. His rise is based upon steady results, but the fact that he can push the right buttons in the process only serves to accentuate his results even further. Most notably, Sonnen has been on a one-man crusade against the entire nation of Brazil in recent years. This is perhaps a clever tactic given that the UFC hierarchy is keen to point out that Brazil is the quickest growing market in MMA. So, when Sonnen does or says something to instantly antagonize an entire nation, it will only enhance his own brand.

This is by no means the only example whereby a fighter has exploited the fans’ love for drama. During his UFC tenure, Tito Ortiz loved to instigate tension whenever in close proximity to Ken Shamrock, and it provided Ortiz with the opportunity to get three relatively easy wins over a Shamrock was on the decline.

All of these fights have produced great numbers for the UFC on the basis of the pre-fight hype alone. But when all is said and done, fans appreciate true competition. A fight is always more attractive if the fans truly believe there is a question to be answered.

Some of the greatest fights in UFC history have hardly been the most hotly anticipated. Perhaps the greatest fight—Dan Henderson vs. Mauricio “Shogun” Rua I—was not built upon any bad blood, nor was it built on one fighter working a specific angle to generate interest where there ordinarily might be none. Prior to the fight, there was interest because of what both fighters had done previously, but there was no real expectation that the fight would produce such an amazing spectacle.

Perhaps the only way to quantify how much of an impact a bitter rivalry has upon the sport is to look at pay-per-view buys. However, the problem with utilizing this method is that as any figure quoted is based largely upon informed guesswork than the actual figures themselves.

It is a fair assumption that during his tenure inside the cage, Brock Lesnar was a dominant force in the pay-per-view market. When Lesnar fought, fans tuned in from all walks of life and in doing so opened up the sport to those outside of its usual target audience. This attraction was based not necessarily upon the skill set involved, but more so upon the character that was/is Brock Lesnar. Just as with Floyd Mayweather in boxing, fans love to watch a showman. For all of his technical flaws, Lesnar is most definitely that.

However, if MMA wants to progress, it should look to move away from the boxing model of promotion and instead focus on the quality of the fight, not the quality of the entertainment before the fight. Boxing has been around for generations longer than MMA and it has now capitulated into a sport that is extremely top heavy, to the extent that there remain only one or two fighters of any exceptional market value.

If MMA is to continue its growth, then it must expand and concentrate its efforts to producing consistent talent that can replenish the rosters of the major organizations long after the current crop of stars is gone. This is something that we are currently experiencing as a result of the departure and/or injuries of Georges St-Pierre, Anderson Silva and the notable absence of other key figures.

For all the current complaints about the UFC’s expansion into other markets and the immediate impact this has had upon the talent, in the long term it can only serve to enhance the quality and variety available across the globe.

When all is said and done, there can be no doubt that trash talk and pre-fight hype will always be the best way to increase interest in a fight. As such, promoters will always look to jump on any angle they can to produce numbers far in excess of what they might ordinarily have been. However, this type of quick fix should be more of an afterthought and less of a focus moving forwards.

If MMA is to fulfill the prophecy of UFC President Dana White and become the biggest sport in the world, it must have a production line of talent that fans can instantly warm to and become invested in. One of the reasons that the stars of soccer or tennis continue to enjoy the commercial success they do is that the fans of those sports appreciate the individuals for what they produce, and when it is time for the next crop of stars to emerge, the fans become invested all over again.

MMA needs to reproduce this kind of continuous fan engagement in order to ensure that the future of the sport doesn’t rest solely on the shoulders of one or two individuals. If you are to look at the marketability of the current set of champions, this is arguably a goal that is not being met.

The growth of the sport relies upon those holding the power investing in the needs of the many with the long term in mind, as opposed to pushing a few exceptional individuals for the short-term reward.

About The Author

Greg Byron
Staff Writer

Greg Byron started training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu after his brother introduced him to a local MMA fighter/coach when he was just 16 years old. Greg has trained for nearly a decade in both BJJ and MMA, competing in several grappling events within the UK. In addition to MMA, Greg possesses a law degree and works for a firm in northern part of England.