9 Ways Fights are "Fixed" in Professional MMA
You could argue that realism is the great thing about MMA ,as opposed to scripted fighting you see in works like professional wrestling. However, some would argue that spectators need scripting.
In his book "Beyond the Lion's Den", former UFC champ and pro wrestler, Frank Shamrock wrote at length about "training" an audience to recognize and ultimately accept the techniques and the drama of pro wrestling, in much the same way that television writers use TV tropes to "train" viewers to readily accept common plot conventions. (eg: a single punch to the face always knocks out an unsuspecting bad guy in the movies, whereas in reality the totally still conscious "bad guys" would most likely just get angry and fight back)
Historically, combat sports have gone in cycles of real fights (shooting) to scripted fights (works) and back again a number of times in the last century alone.
Look at wrestling, for example. From the 19th to the early 20th century, British and American professional wrestling was Catch-as-Catch-Can, not freestyle, not Greco Roman. Catch wrestling was a no holds barred submission fighting sport. It was all real, brutal, and visceral. But it was a fringe sport. It wasn't always exciting to watch. It didn't draw huge crowds of spectators. After the great depression, things started to change, Catch wrestling became more of a carnival sideshow oddity next to the strong man and the bearded lady. With the advent of television and the over-the-top showmanship of wrestlers such as "Gorgeous" George Wagner, pro-wrestling started to draw a mainstream audience and quickly went the way of sports entertainment (scripted & choreographed) instead of actual sport. Promoters and sponsors felt that viewers cared more about the spectacle than the sport itself.
Since scripted pro wrestling still exists with a strong following, don't expect the UFC to become the next WWE any time soon. However, wherever the money is, that's where the organization will ultimately follow. Here's how the money trail has rendered the state of MMA today. While it's a far cry from masked men in tights doing acrobatics off the turnbuckles and pretending to smack each other with folding chairs, there are at least 9 practices in pro MMA (at least 5 in the UFC) that are borderline "fixes"
1. Padding Records:
Promoters like to throw out buzz words like "undefeated" because it sounds impressive, until you actually look at the guys who were beaten and see that often, they were just a step above amateur themselves.
OneFC hosted a match a while back between the legendary Japanese fighter Shinya Aoki and some French guy no one has ever heard of. The promoters hyped up the match as "compelling" because the French fighter had a "similar record" to Aoki. Yes, the number of wins and losses were similar. No, the level of competition involved was not remotely comparable. Some promoters rely on casual fans not knowing the difference between entry level professional and world class professional fighters in order to peddle their product. That was the case here. (An entry level pro is a good enough fighter to look awesome against guys who aren't particularly talented. A world class pro does the same thing against other world class pros.)
I looked up the French fighter's record and watched a couple of his fights and knew right away that he wouldn't make it out of the first minute of round one. If I were a betting man, I would have wagered my eternal soul on it. Sure enough, 30 seconds into round one, Aoki wins via submission, as if he were fighting a small helpless person.
It's kind of sad. Aoki's stellar record already spoke for itself and didn't need any padding. I'm not sure what the promoter's angle was in even letting that fight happen. Maybe to bring attention and recognition to the French fighter in hopes of making him a household name? (Ironically, I can't even remember his name) Nah, this was simply piss poor matchmaking at work.
2. THE COMMENTATORS ARE "TRAINING" YOU HOW TO THINK:
It's all part of the sale.
A number of years ago, I filled in as a last minute replacement for a Martial Combat fight card in Singapore. For some reason, I fought blackbelt world BJJ featherweight champ Leandro Issa. I didn't hold a rank in BJJ, not even a stripe on a white belt. The promoters knew that. It was a horribly mismatched fight for a lot of reasons. But what ended up happening was this:
Suddenly the ring announcer started yammering about what an incredible striker I was: how I was one of the best kickboxers in China, and Leandro Issa would surely have his work cut out for him because of my devastating "knockout power".
I didn't realize until later what they were doing: training the audience in the classic striker vs grappler narrative, in an effort to make a horribly one sided fight seem compelling.
This same thing happens in the UFC all the time, although they tend to be more a lot more subtle and a little more honest about it.
3. NO ONE GETS TO RETIRE WITH THE BELT:
In any other sport, a loss is just a loss, but in combat sports when the champ loses one, suddenly he's finished, and he's on his way out. It's a rough way to make a living in more ways than one.
Veteran champions past their prime are used as stepping stones to sell the public on the new up and comers. There was a time when no one knew Rashad Evan's name. But after he knocked out a much older, much more weathered version of knockout artist Chuck Liddell, suddenly Evans became a household name.
4. Controlling the Fighters:
The following scenario has happened so much over the last 4 years, I'd almost swear it was a national pastime here: a group of full time sanda fighters from a local sports university squares off against a rag tag group of expats with a few months of training. The promoters try to pass these random white guys off as "UFC world champions" (hoping wistfully that nobody in the audience at an MMA show actually watches the UFC.) The expats get KO'd, and the locals supposedly look awesome for beating the alleged "best" competitors from around the world.
Chinese fight promoters often ask me to send them fighters for their shows, and I refuse because it's always the same thing. They want a bunch of tough looking white guys who can put on a good enough show to not get killed in round one, but not good enough to actually win.
On the other hand, trying to find a fight for a talented non Caucasian fighter in China is like pulling teeth. Most local fight promoters don't even want to talk to you if you suggest it- especially if the fighter you're trying to promote is an independent agent and Chinese. They want to control everything that happens in the ring as much as possible, and the easiest way to do that is to keep the outside talent to a minimum. It's severely retarding the sport of MMA in China.
If you took the 10 absolute best fighters in China, flew them over to the USA and had them audition for the next Ultimate Fighter show, there's no way a single one of them would make the first cut right now. Not one.
But wait, didn't they just have a TUF audition in China? Yes they did. Emphasis on "in China", with Chinese fighters only. The talent level to consistently compete internationally simply does not exist right now in the Middle Kingdom.
5. Protecting the Fighters:
6. Carrying a Fighter:
On at least one occasion, I've seen a reigning champ carry the new up and comer for five rounds. (Georges St. Pierre vs Dan Hardy comes to mind) I've had a lot of disagreements with folks about that fight, and I may be completely wrong, but from my perspective, GSP was in position to decisively finish the fight via submission and/or strikes numerous times each round, but chose not to- specifically to make Dan Hardy look good. (Presumably to help Zuffa sell the UFC to a British Audience... because apparently no one wants to watch a sport that your country sucks at) It wasn't a fixed fight per se since both fighters fought to win. But I would be surprised if Dana White didn't pull GSP aside before the fight and ask him to let Hardy have a little time in the spotlight.
Carrying a fighter is probably the least common "fix" in MMA, since most of the fixes happen at the promoter's and matchmaker's level. Then again, carrying is also the hardest fix to pick up on when it's done well, so who knows how many of these matches we've seen?
7. TITLE SHOTS HAPPEN SEEMINGLY AT RANDOM:
From an honest sporting competition stand point, it makes no sense. From a money-making standpoint, it was a potential goldmine. This is another way that the UFC "fixes" fights. Since they did away with the tournament brackets back in the 90's, title shots are based almost completely on which fighters are popular enough to sell the most pay-per-views, regardless of their records.
8. The Power of Sex Appeal vs Talent:
Rousey was set to fight the undefeated Kat Zingano in what would have been an honestly compelling match that no one has seen before. But Zingano got injured so they had to bring in a replacement. It would have made sense to replace Zingano with someone Rousey hasn't already easily beaten in round one, like say, Marloes Coenen (26-5-0) or former Olympic silver medalist in wrestling Sarah McMann (7-0-0)... That would be cool as all get up to have two former Olympians like Rousey and McMann go at it in the cage, but NooooOOO! Everyone knows that a 20-something who looks like a lingerie model (Tate) is going to sell more tickets than the 30-something who looks like a fighter (McMann).
9. Popularity vs Talent:
Case in point: Chael Sonnen. You can't help but love the guy (or love to hate him as the case may be) He's a good fighter, but he talks like a great one. So when many other talented UFC fighters are being cut from the roster after a single loss, Chael Sonnen managed to get 3 title shots in a row in two different weight classes without a single win along the way to show for it. And yet, I'd still buy the pay per view if he got another one because the man has enough charisma outside of the cage to make an audience want to watch. Essentially, Sonnen is doing for MMA today what Gorgeous George did for pro wrestling in 1941.
If you consider yourself a combat sports fan, and you somehow still don't know who Gorgeous Gorge is, google him quick. Or read this article. I'll wait...
Gorgeous George was not only the reason that pro wrestling became popular with the American public, he was the reason Americans started buying televisions. When you've got that kind of power over public opinion, your fight record becomes of secondary importance.