Fresh off the heels of a momentous 2014, the sport of mixed martial arts appears destined to excel further in the New Year.

Leading promotions around the world have met new and impressive benchmarks, entering new territorial markets like mainland China; securing broadcast agreements with new media outlets; and ultimately becoming a bigger part of the world’s sporting fabric through revolutionary progress like the UFC’s ground-breaking agreement with Reebok earlier this week.

As interest grows and the demand for MMA content follows, more avenues are opening for elite professional mixed martial artists to pursue a career. With the number of opportunities to compete increasing, the MMA talent pool is responding in kind as more talents begin to learn and practice the sport from a young age.

The phenomenon sparks questions about talent scouting and recruitment in MMA, particularly how to separate the elite competitors from the good ones while they develop. Bellator’s signing of Aaron Pico to a pseudo-development deal and its potential implications on future talent acquisition marked one way that leading MMA organizations might adapt. The RFA’s willingness to brand itself as a development league provides another means for top promotions to adapt to a wider pool of talent.

But for smaller organizations with limited financial resources, the dilemma of procuring exceptional athletes from a growing pool of unproven talent remains.

Looking beyond the MMA industry to other sports that have devised methods to measure athletic capability on a large scale, one scouting event stands out beyond all others, the NFL Combine.

The strong correlation between top talent, athletic prowess, and intelligence suggests that general athletic and mental performance tests would be a useful way to filter the wheat from the chaff while individuals hone their technical skills.

Started in 1982 by National Football Scouting, Inc., the NFL Combine has generated substantial interest over time. In the present day it is a must-see media event in its own right among many devout football fans and casual viewers alike, generating at least 25 hours of content per year on the NFL network since 2006 to an audience of over five million viewers.

The combine’s open format allows different interest groups including general managers, coaches and agents, to appraise up and coming prospects in a standardized environment. As an assessment of performance, the combine’s effect on a talent’s reputation, draft status and even salary is a testament to its impact; a sentiment echoes by Rich Eisen in Total Access: A Journey to the Center of the NFL Universe:

“…like, in the case of [Vince] Young, his weird arm angle when he delivers the ball. Or a dreadful Wonderlic score. Suddenly, Young’s breath-taking performance in the Rose Bowl was fading from view.”(p.122)

American Football and MMA share an intensity that requires physical and mental excellence, allowing many of the existing combine tests to directly applied or easily adapted for MMA.

The well-established 40 yard dash and three cone drill would help measure explosiveness and level change speed for takedowns respectively. Meanwhile new tests such as the number of speed ball punches or karaoke steps on an agility ladder in one minute would help ascertain striking speed and footwork.

Whether an MMA combine were to be managed by a particular promotion, or by a neutral body working in the best interest of the entire sport, the benefits of using it as a measure of potential are numerous.

Combine Benefits: For Promotions

Statistical analysis is a huge component of sports, especially in North America where professional football and basketball broadcasts feed a litany of data to audiences who have an ingrained fondness for reading numbers in performance assessment.

By converting athletic capability into a series of new metrics measuring explosiveness, conditioning, reflexes and other variables, MMA promotions receive a host of statistics to promote their fighters with. This could be used as either part of a modernized ‘Tale of the Tape’, or to feed a narrative underpinning a fight such who is the faster of two specialty strikers, or can Fighter X’s takedown speed outwork Fighter Y’s takedown defence percentage? Similarly, the opportunity to interview fighters at a combine event might unearth compelling information about an individual that adds to their promotional value.

Relaying results from a combine into MMA broadcasts appeases the mainstream sports fan, endearing to their existing viewing habits, and empowering them with an ability to weigh in on fight outcomes despite not being educated to the nuances of grappling or striking.

There is also a logistical benefit of assessing multiple talents in one place. Promoters willing to travel to a combine event are spared from attending several gyms or embarking on individual scouting missions. The combine could be an inexpensive opportunity to sample many fighters within a catchment area.

Combine Benefits: For MMA

While many avid followers of the sport will argue that elite mixed martial arts are among the most gifted and well-conditioned athletes on the planet there has not been an extensive study that reflects this notion.

By engaging in notable combine exercises, MMA participants have the opportunity to stake their claim among the world’s best athletes using data comparison as tangible evidence. With dedicated marketing, these impressive results could be used to change the perception of MMA among even the most resentful dissidents of the sport.

Using such widely accessible and comparative data as sprint speed and reflex times, an MMA combine could convert even the most casual viewer into an ambassador of the sport and its athletes; creating a sustainable source of positive publicity in sports fans around the world.

Combine Benefits: For the Athletes

With one of the most controversial debates in all of prizefighting surrounding the relatively low influence that in-ring competitors have relative to their promoters, the combine offers a small degree of authority to individual fighters who are under contract with an organization but wish to advertise their physical abilities without actively fighting or breaching any exclusive competing rights agreement to secure the best income for themselves. If used correctly, this might offer added incentive for contracted promotions to compensate their talent fairly.

The combine is also an opportunity to partially compensate for a sub-par professional record, which many fighters develop in the early days of their career but does not provide an accurate account of their ability. If a fighter can supplement his record with an impressive series of combine results, it may encourage promoters to recognize their potential and take focus away from a less-than-stellar record in some circumstances.

Finally, for free agents, a combine with promoters, matchmakers, coaches, agents and media in attendance would provide a high profile platform that individual fighters might otherwise be unable to generate on their own.

Conclusion

While there is no substitute for active competition when it comes to gauging a mixed martial artist’s abilities, the combine – managed by either a promotion or a neutral party – could be a beneficial resource for many of MMA’s key stakeholders, most notably the sport’s athletes who can raise their stock in a supportive setting.

 

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.