Written by: Seamus
Written by Seamus M.
After a half decade of steep growth in both financial stability and status within popular culture, the sport of Mixed Martial Arts appears on the cusp of the next chapter its intriguing history. The past six years showed greater acceptance of the sport by mainstream society, leading many to believe that the T.U.F. Era, has positioned the sport to take another tremendous leap forward over the next decade. Two major factors lead to this prediction.
First, American MMA will see a rapid rise in talent level and athleticism as first-tier wrestlers and second-tier athletes from ball sports will enter the world of Mixed Martial Arts in much higher numbers. Secondly, the rise in economic stability of nations with a major market seemingly available for MMA means that higher quality training facilities and higher purses for regional fights will mean prospects that are more talented as well as better prepared. We may, in fact, see a rise in the already considerable number of high level Brazilian competitors over the next decade. In today’s post we will examine the trends that will allow a new level of athletes to enter Mixed Martial Arts.
Journey back 15 years, to 1996, and Mixed Martial Arts was not a place for men looking for fame and riches. At all.
The type of wrestlers who joined MMA were most often typified by aggressive power wrestlers in the mold of Dan Severn, Mark Coleman and Mark Kerr. At this point, “mixed martial artists” in the United States had barely grasped any successful strategy for turning MMA into a career that could successfully support a family and the cost of high-level athletic training. For possibly the most marketable wrestler of that era, Kurt Angle, his post-Olympic career considerations included professional football, broadcasting, teaching, coaching wrestling, and professional wrestling. A man who was perfect for MMA, and would have been far ahead of his time athletically, did not even give it a bit of serious consideration.
Coming from a family with a reputation for street fighting and a poor background, reigning as a World Champion and Olympic Gold Medalist, and with his name value at an enormous high, Mr. Angle does not recount in his memoir even one thought about attempting MMA until much later in his life. He eventually chose the paycheck that the then-WWF provided. Ten years ago, Brock Lesnar made a similar decision before tiring with pro wrestling at trying his hand at other endeavors. (Of interesting note, Kurt Angle has been said to have manhandled Brock Lesnar in an impromptu amateur wrestling match during their tenure in pro wrestling.) Rampage Jackson, who debuted in 1999, recently said that nobody got into this sport for fame and riches at that point because nobody was getting rich and famous. That would have been a terrible reason. Today? I’d wager that Mr. Angle goes to Vegas. Immediately.
The T.U.F. Era, and the rapid rise in popularity that accompanied the show, combined with the Zuffa consolidation of the vast majority of the sport’s top talent under an American banner to create a much larger platform for the athletes to perform on. Though the argument has been made that fighters are underpaid until they reach the very highest levels of the sport, salaries and bonuses have undeniably been on a dramatic rise over the previous decade. The further mainstream acceptance of the sport has become obvious as well. MTV2, CBS, FoxSports, and ESPN have all added mixed martial arts programming with successful results and ESPN.com’s focus on growing their MMA presence make it obvious that large corporate media sees a bright future for the sport.
Even though wrestling is widely considered the best base to begin from when entering modern MMA, less than 20 NCAA champions have transitioned to fighting professionally. This is rapidly changing. Lesnar, Joe Warren, Ben Askren, Bubba Jenkins, Cole Konrad, Daniel Cormier, Phil Davis, and Mark Ellis have all been enticed to make the switch in recent years. Ellis was mentored about the decision by former teammate Tyron Woodley, and inspired by watching former teammate Ben Askren’s success in Bellator. The fact that young wrestlers have carved out a path for a quick success in MMA and are vocally championing the best wrestlers on their former teams to do the same makes joining the MMA much more attractive than it could otherwise have been. One thing that Askren and Ellis share is that they were both training in jiu-jitsu early in their collegiate careers. This, too, contributes to a much higher level of martial artist transitioning to the sport at a very young age.
In addition to high level wrestlers, there is also a second-tier of athletes involved in ball sports that are making the transition to MMA. Matt Mitrione played for a couple of teams in the NFL before leaving the league, while Brendan Schaub was only able to make the Bills football team. Both men have found the strength, handspeed, and footwork they had honed over their years in football to have aided them in entering Mixed Martial Arts. Herschel Walker, Michael Westbrook, Marcus Jones, and Wes Shivers have tried their hand at the sport with more limited results while Jared Allen and Lorenzo Neal are successful in the NFL and use MMA to condition during the offseason (Neal even famously helped Chuck Liddel prepare for wrestlers.)
Could Hershel Walker have been a credible competitor if he had entered the sport immediately upon retirement (age 35), instead of spending time making himself into an Olympic-level bob sledder? If the average NFL career is 3 years, do some athletes venture into MMA rather than hurt their pride by playing football in Canada or in the Arena League? I would argue that the answer to both questions is yes.
Football, however, is not the only sport where a high level of athlete exists with the possibility of a crossover. Freddie Roach, whose opinion is not taken lightly, has worked with Shaquille O’Neal for years and fully believes that Shaq is still enough of an athlete to compete at the highest level of professional boxing. He attributes this to Shaq’s size, speed, and reach. In the world of basketball, many more athletic specimens than Shaq’s current body had far, far worse careers in the NBA. After hearing that, the idea appears to exist of a prototype among athletic basketball swingmen that could fit the mold of successful Mixed Martial Artist. Wes Sims is one example that transitioned from basketball to Mixed Martial Arts. Tall swingmen, often known as “tweeners” in basketball circles, can sometimes find it difficult to succeed in the NBA. Rather than transition to European ball or another career, The UFC now provides a vehicle to fame and financial stability that many of these young athletes have worked their entire lives for.
These tall, lanky athletes would often exceed the disturbing reach of Light Heavyweight Champion Jon Jones, with natural footwork and speed to go with it.
Does basketball prepare you well for fighting? No, not on its own. However, an athlete who was good enough to nearly reach the pinnacle of the basketball world without quite making The Association would certainly come in with the size, speed, conditioning and foot-speed to quickly pick up striking and begin to build a ground game. This hypothetical NBA washout would, like his football counterpart, be a much higher level natural athlete than the norm at the even the highest level of Mixed Martial Arts three or four years ago.
Would a young, athletic, and struggling Shawn Kemp or Ron Artest be athletic (and crazy) enough to make a serious attempt at Mixed Martial Arts if the sport were far more popular than it had been 10 years ago and beginning to provide financial stability? It is at least within the realm of possibility.
With the successful results of the T.U.F. Era, a much higher level of trained wrestlers and pure athletes will begin their transition into Mixed Martial Arts. Tomorrow, we will take a look at the effects of Globalization and recent economic trends on the quality of international MMA prospects.
To read part II, click HERE
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