For the art of fighting? Covering the MMA

Reporting in MMA has come a long way since the days it was labelled “human cockfighting”


UFC President Dana White. Photo: Jamison Hiner (CC BY-NC 2.0)

For those unfamiliar with mixed martial arts, it is a combative sport which makes use of a mixture of various fighting styles to ensure victory. They can include striking arts (boxing, karate) or grappling arts (wrestling, Brazilian jiu- jitsu), which means the end of a fight in a mixed martial arts bout can come in a numbers of ways, including knock out, submission, or a decision on the judges’ scorecards.

Mixed martial arts (or MMA as its commonly referred to) is considered one of the fastest growing sports in the world today — making MMA reporting a promising field for aspiring journalists.

MMA can be said to have begun in 1993, when fight promoters ‘Pancrase’ (Japan) and the Ultimate Fighting Championship or ‘UFC’ (USA) held the very first televised MMA events.

Deemed as nothing less than “violent savagery” and compared to likes of “human cockfighting”, MMA in North America managed to attract its share of both hardcore fight fans and outraged critics.

The UFC took part in a long battle for the approval of MMA to national sporting commissions, due to the violent image attached to it. For example the UFC hosted its first event in New York City in November 2016 (almost 24 years after the first MMA event). In Australia, a UFC event did not take place in the state of Western Australia until February 2018.

In spite of shaky beginnings, the UFC grew in prominence. What was once described as “human cockfighting” eventually found its place among other conventional sports like the NBA or American NFL. Celebrity fighters such as Brock Lesnar, Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor can be directly credited with propelling the UFC from obscurity to the mainstream — and as the sport developed, so, too, did its fan base.

Today, MMA is covered by pay television networks (e.g. Fox Sports 1) and its own news programs (e.g. UFC Tonight). MMA reporting is a significant part of the sport with figures like Ariel Helwani (ESPN) and Luke Thomas ( having become more distinguished than some MMA champions.

Still, MMA journalism hasn’t gotten to where it has without some ambiguity.

For the art of fighting or the entertainment?

For the MMA enthusiast options are aplenty in gaining insight into upcoming events and current gossip. For instance, the UFC’s ‘Inside the Octagon’ (a promotion-owned media source) provides an analytical breakdown of its headlining bouts, while MMA Fighting on SBN’s ‘The MMA Hour’ podcast (an independent news body) can showcase a more personal lead up to an event through live fighter interviews.

As captivating as fight predictions and preparation chat might be, MMA fan also love the element of drama. “The rivalry”, “the underdog”, “ the comeback” — these stories are what seem to distinctly draw fans into fights; which in turn lead to big business for fight promotions. Many MMA journalists understand the effectiveness of these angles and try to exploit, if not instigate, these.

Reporter Ariel Helwani is notorious for his alleged involvement in prompting drama, creating many rifts in relationships between himself and MMA parties along the way. UFC President Dana White along with various MMA fighters have called out Helwani on this approach during various interviews.

During the pre-fight press conference for UFC 158 White responded to Helwani’s unfavourable questions to fighter Nick Diaz saying, “You never usually ask questions first, you usually hang back and wait. You had to get that first question. You knew what you wanted, you wanted to piss him off and aggravate him. Do you have any questions about the fight?”

(Helwani’s questions referred to what was said and done between White and Diaz following a previous media day no-show by Diaz.)

Helwani, himself, has stated his fondness for the “narrative” throughout many of his programmes, but it begs the question: does reporting on the narrative-side of MMA equal good journalism?

When reflecting on narratives of “good guys” and “bad guys” in combat sports it’s hard to looks past pro wrestling, or its main promoters in the WWE.

Like MMA, pro wrestling is commonly referred to as a sport, yet audiences rightly bear scepticism in maintaining this label. As a matter of fact, one doesn’t have to go much further than the name itself which stands for “World Wrestling Entertainment”.

Nonetheless, when WWE superstar Brock Lesnar crossed over to the UFC and defeated the then heavyweight champion at UFC 91, the event set the record for second largest UFC pay per view buys at around 1,010,000 (just shy of the best selling UFC PPV event at around 1,050,000).

Lesnar brought spectacle and fight credentials to the world of MMA — and if you were a fan of either UFC or WWE, you couldn’t go far without acknowledging his presence.

Fixed fights, robberies, and favouritism: the effects of narrative in the game

The direction of the “narrative” has become a preferred promotional tool for the UFC. So it wasn’t long until MMA fighters, themselves, realised that the media was something they could take advantage of.

“The classic rivalry” is a narrative audiences of the WWE have come to expect, with each of its superstars leaning towards the typical caricature of either “the villain” or “the hero”. MMA fighters have adopted this, recognising that it didn’t matter whether the animosity between fighters is real. Most of the time pitching a rivalry can still be an easy and assured way to attract media, and, in doing so, create new opportunities.

Chael Sonnen is a fighter predominantly known for popularising the “pre-fight trash talk”, with his villainous role arguably earning him multiple UFC title shots over otherwise more deserving fighters.

In the build up to UFC 117 Sonnen spent every occasion he had with the media to hurl insults towards the middleweight champion Anderson Silva, and his team. He shocked the world of MMA when he appeared to dominate the champion for close to 5 rounds before getting caught in what appeared to be a fluke chokehold. Fans were already excited to see the rematch. However, after Sonnen’s pre-fight drug tests came back positive following the event, the fight was postponed.

Sonnen eventually returned to MMA after serving his sentence and was quick to be matched with top contender Michael Bisping at ‘UFC on Fox 2’. Going in as the heavy favourite, Sonnen’s win would be, nevertheless, marred in widespread controversy.

Many fans were disappointed in the decision after what appeared to be a superior performance by Bisping. During the lead up, much of the MMA media looked as if they would disregard any chance for Bisping, instead asking questions around the famed history between Sonnen and Silva and the rematch that would ensue.

Controversy would follow Sonnen when after his second loss to Silva, he would be slotted into title contention again, this time against then UFC light heavyweight champion, Jon Jones. Before the match up, Sonnen was heard in the media to be making disparaging comment towards Jones. This would ultimately be a decision that would also prompted heavy criticism from fans, considering Sonnen at the time was coming from a loss and had only spent a brief amount of time fighting in the light heavyweight division.

It’s clear MMA reporting exists as an integrated mechanism of MMA (more-so than one would perhaps admit). When a standard of storytelling can sway the decisions of fight judges and matchmakers affecting the path or outcome of a fighter’s career- the area between “fandom” and “real journalism” starts to get blurred.

Though it’s reached a level of sophistication in the world of sports, journalism in MMA is still a relatively young field, particular when taking into account the age of modern MMA. It is still unclear what MMA reporting may settle into in the future — the only point we do know is its destiny is tied to the thoughts and views of the fans.