Welcome to the latest installment of ‘Taking MMA to New Heights,’ an editorial series on the different types of video content that are attracting new viewers to MMA while helping legitimize the sport.

Following our look at animated parody and the press conference, this week our attention turns to the expository documentary series that explores the “backstage” elements behind the sport, the work and preparation that precedes and follows the typical MMA event.

This genre has taken various nuanced forms over the years across different sports. It first came to prominence in combat sports back in 2007, when premium network HBO launched its 24/7 reality series as part of the promotion behind Oscar De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather’s blockbuster pay-per-view bout.

The series became a staple of HBO programming and would eventually transcend to other sports, including ice hockey and stock car racing, following great success in the field of boxing. A residual effect of the series was the propelling of Mayweather’s “Money” persona, which proved to be an instrumental component of boxing’s health over the last seven years.

As a wider commentary on public perception and event promotion, the expository documentary series reflects a change in the consciousness of promoters from preserving the mystique of talents to capitalizing on the natural intrigue for more information and an insight into their daily lives.

In MMA, several different networks and promotions have embraced this format to sustain viewer interest with dynamic content. Notably the UFC’s Primetime, Countdown and Embedded series, as well as Bellator’s MMA Training Journals, appease the more fanatical viewers who appreciate additional content beyond the fights themselves. On the journalistic side of the sport, personalities like MMAFighting’s Ariel Helwani have also adapted to the transition away from blatant promotion to develop the interview genre through more natural, “walk around” interviews. These outlets have helped propel the likes of Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor to stardom in rapid fashion, using exposure to capitalize on intrigue.

The concept of taking an interview into a subject’s home environment has an added benefit for the viewer, who becomes privy to the more private aspect of a public figure’s life. We’re not talking in a lewd, voyeuristic sense here as much as referring to the natural human senses of curiosity and intrigue in seeing events that are not organized specifically for public viewing. By taking the viewer on a journey in the lead-up to an event, these elements underpin the concept of a story narrative that has proven so integral to advertising, marketing and journalistic success over history.

This “trait voyeurism” has formed the basis of the entire reality-television genre. While some mainstream entertainment shows have fallen into unfortunate habits of manipulating organic reality through incessant editing and emotional manipulation, using effects including music and voice-overs, the reality series on offer in MMA makes for a refreshing contrast, grounding itself on the concepts of fight and event preparation. While high-quality production compiles footage in an attractive and engaging format, this editing does not directly affect the message of the content, nor does it distort the truth in a sport that embraces the tagline “as real as its gets.”

Another wide appeal of the reality series is its enabling of social comparison. Through content that probes the preparation of talent and personnel, avid viewers of MMA can compare themselves to others in situations they aspire to be in. Contrary to the other shows that might use this comparative element to indulge the viewer’s insecurity and appease them in their own life by displaying the degradation of others, there is a much more practical benefit to expository documentary in MMA. Practitioners of the sport watching expository documentaries can recognize and embrace new training habits or receive genuine inspiration from professional fighters by viewing them in preparation. This unprecedented insight can engage a viewer’s outlook, routine and emotions, helping them find fulfillment in a positive and healthy way.

By seeing where a subject comes from, where they reside and how they interact with friends and family, we gain a more complete understanding of who they are as a person and how they function in the routine of daily life. The more we know about an individual, the more we invest in them as a fan, endearing us to the sport in an industry where individual personalities are highlighted more than in team sports.

In this organic form, manufactured interview sets are replaced by a fighter’s commentary as they go about the routines of life, from training and traveling, to cutting weight and walking out to the ring. These commentaries take a relaxed, conversational approach embracing a softer cadence than in a typical interview, to parallel the greater time frame a production crew has to record the thoughts and actions of their subject, deviating from the rapid-fire question/answer format that interviews typically entail.

Extracting thoughts from MMA talent as they prepare in a familiar environment also helps put the subject at ease. Relating to the territorial aspect of human psychology, most interviews come with some aspect of apprehension. In an industry where public perception can have an impactful bearing on one’s career prosperity, how a subject presents themselves has an immediate bearing on their earnings and security, creating an awareness of preserving identity, possessions and space.

In the home sphere especially, this guard is lowered as the interviewee has their personal, familial and material aspects laid before them. Adding reassurance, this invites the guest to be more frank and honest in their answers.

In the online medium, where the prospect of a viewer opening a new tab or visiting a different page is all too real due to its ease, the expository documentary series is a complex, unique form of content that embraces the sport’s purest qualities while appealing to the human being’s natural sense of “trait voyeurism.” Honest comments and an insight into the work that goes into preparing for an event stand out among the wave of sit-down interviews and panel discussions that populate the MMA landscape. These qualities fuel the narrative of a fight in a world where stories sell.

Sources

Robin L. Nabi, Erica N. Biely, Sara J. Morgan, & Carmen R. Stitt, (Department of Communication, University of Arizona), Reality-Based Television Programming and the Psychology of Its Appeal, Media Psychology (2003), 5, 303–330

About The Author

Aidan O'Connor
Staff Writer

A native of Maidstone, England, Aidan has been covering MMA in a news or feature capacity since 2010. In addition to writing for The MMA Corner, Aidan also runs the MMAmusing Twitter account and enjoys the sport as an avid enthusiast. A graduate in English and American Studies, he currently works in marketing and public relations.