Trading Shots: Can nostalgia for MMA's recent past teach us anything about where it needs to go in the future?

What can one evening of nostalgia for MMA’s past tell us about its present, and maybe even its future? In this week’s Trading Shots, retired UFC and WEC fighter Danny Downes joins MMAjunkie columnist Ben Fowlkes to discuss.

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Downes: Ben, readers who don’t follow you on Twitter may be surprised to hear how you spent your Friday night. With no UFC or other major MMA event going on this weekend, you and your podcast cohost Chad Dundas decided to livestream a PRIDE FC drinking game.

As your blood-alcohol content rose, so did your feelings of nostalgia. Look at that young, bronzed Fedor Emelianenko! What exactly did Tank Abbott just tap out to? Isn’t it fun to say Roman Zentsov?

While watching MMA from 2005 may not be everyone’s idea of a good time, there’s no denying there’s entertainment in it. I wonder, though, if re-watching Final Conflict 2005 helped put things in perspective for you.

The current zeitgeist among many MMA fans in media is that of doom and gloom. Ratings are down, there’s wild speculation on the UFC’s next TV deal, and it feels like there’s an overall absence of star power. Having said that, there’s been a ton of progress. The quality of athlete and fighting prowess has increased tremendously, and for all our talk about over-saturation, isn’t it nice to have MMA readily available more than once a month?

Did any of these things go through your mind Friday night? Was it a trip down memory lane, or did you walk away wishing that things were like “the good ol’ days”?

Fowlkes: It’s a little hazy, thanks to all those strong microbrews you sent us, but yes, I’m pretty sure all that went through my head as I was reliving PRIDE’s glory days. What I also wondered was, what’s it going to be like to go back and watch, for example, UFC 217 in a decade or so?

Because you’re right, a big part of this is nostalgia. The enjoyment of watching a PRIDE event from 2005 was not just seeing those old fights, but remembering those old times. You see a fresh-faced Mirko Cro Cop and a skinny Alistair Overeem and a surging Mauricio Rua, covered in confetti and sitting on top of the world, and you’re reminded not just of their youth but also your own.

I remember exactly where I was and what my life was like when I watched that event for the first time. Sitting through it again is a little like a personal time capsule.

Will I feel that way when I go back and watch the current era of the UFC as a hideously decrepit old man 13 years from now? I suspect that I will. So why is there so much “doom and gloom” surrounding this era as it’s actually happening? I think it all comes down to expectations.

Back in 2005, MMA felt like a sport on the rise. It was finally on cable, with the advent of “The Ultimate Fighter.” The UFC and PRIDE were both putting on great events, competing for fans and talent. The dark ages were over, and there was a sense that MMA was finally going to get a chance to show what it could do.

Now here we are, 13 years later, nearing the end of a network TV deal that was supposed to take the sport to new heights, and we can’t help but admit that that didn’t really happen. After years of rapid growth, for the first time there’s a sense of stagnation. MMA is no longer gritty counterculture finally breaking into the mainstream. Instead, it’s just another player in a crowded sports and entertainment landscape, and we’re struggling to come to terms with that.

In other words, I don’t think the sky is falling. The fight business is cyclical, with stars coming and going, just like in boxing or pro wrestling. But I also feel that the UFC has homogenized its own product in a bunch of different ways, which doesn’t help this ho-hum feeling.

The big feeling I came away with after watching PRIDE Final Conflict 2005 was, hey, remember when every MMA promoter had to try really hard, all the time, just to stick around? Has the UFC lost that urgency? Is this what a certain kind of complacency looks like?

Downes: I don’t know if complacency is the right word. It’s more like a lack of imagination.

When you’re a young upstart, you can go to market one way. Once you’re an established brand, though, you have to change things up. The UFC has been using the same playbook for years now. At a certain point, things start to get stale and predictable. I don’t know if I’ll go as far as Brent Brookhouse in calling the UFC an aging “Gen-X fad,” but he is right that the sport hasn’t exactly changed with the times. Even in Montana, when was the last time you saw an Affliction T-shirt?

But just because the sport seems to be stuck in a lull now does not mean everything was so great more than a decade ago. It’s nice to enjoy a trip down memory lane, but the evil of nostalgia is that we ignore the problems of the past.

A decade ago, many of us thought MMA was going to take over. Probably not going to eclipse soccer as Dana White once proposed, but reach a level much higher than where it currently sits. Perhaps we should come to grips with the fact that MMA is and will remain a niche sport. Ronda Rousey transcended into the mainstream in a way we never saw before. Conor McGregor is a global star. Expecting every UFC champion to be a household name seems unrealistic.

I mean, the fighters don’t have a union and their newly minted “fight-week incentive payment” is a pittance. When was the last time you saw a professional athlete in another sport beg for a few extra thousand dollars or talk about how his kid is playing with shampoo bottles because he can’t buy him any toys?

Whatever issues we may have with the current product, the answer isn’t to look in the past. Bellator gives us some of that now, and while it may be fun, it doesn’t move us or the sport forward. We can’t keep trotting out Cro Cop and Tito Ortiz and expect new stars to emerge. It’s like getting back together with your ex-girlfriend: It might be nice at first, but you’ll end up repeating a cycle you need to break.

But we can’t change this malaise by simply changing our attitude and becoming promotional cheerleaders. We have to call out the problems as we see them. Now that you looked back into the past this weekend, how about you look into the future. Do you see any changes on the horizon, or is it too blurry to make out?

Fowlkes: One thing that struck me even just while watching the opening video package was how, from the look to the music, this event felt not at all different from what we might expect from the UFC in 2018. It was the same nü-metal standard we’ve come to associate with the UFC, which makes sense, since this event aired the year after “Face the Pain” came out, and here we are still using that one today.

As far as the future, I think the UFC needs to come to terms with what it is. Like you said, this is a niche sport. Bloody cage fights are not for everyone, and they never will be. I happen to think that’s fine, but the UFC is still stuck in the mindset of trying to mold this thing into a mainstream product – and losing more and more of its edge in the process.

The talent is there. You see better fighters on UFC prelims now than you saw in some PRIDE main events. But even if some of those old fighters lacked the athleticism and technique of the next generation, they felt more like unique individuals whose stories and careers we were emotionally invested in. They weren’t just an interchangeable cast of Reebok-wearing zombies being fed into the content machine on a near-weekly basis.

There’s a course correction that needs to happen, is what I’m saying. This needs to feel like as much a show as a sport, because that’s where its appeal lies. One way or another, I think the powers that be will figure it out. It’s just a question of how far off-course they’re willing to drift before they stop and look at the map.

Ben Fowlkes is MMAjunkie and USA TODAY’s MMA columnist. Danny Downes, a retired UFC and WEC fighter, is an MMAjunkie contributor who has also written for UFC.com and UFC 360. Follow them on twitter at @benfowlkesMMA and @dannyboydownes.

Source: USA Today – MMA Junkie

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