Friday, October 12, 2012

Skill disparity and entertainment value in combat sports

Tomorrow night at UFC 153, Anderson Silva, the greatest mixed martial artist of all time, will fight Stephan Bonnar, a popular and tough fighter but one who has never been in any sort of UFC title contention. Silva is a massive favourite (-1200 to -1000 on most books) and barring a total miracle, is expected to wipe the floor with Bonnar.

Similarly, a few weeks ago in the UFC's last pay-per-view offering, the main event featured light heavyweight phenom Jon Jones defending his title against Vitor Belfort. Jones was about a -800 favourite and after surviving an early submission scare from Belfort, dominated the vast majority of the fight.

People seemed quite excited about both fights, despite how one-sided they were.  Yet this doesn't seem to happen in more mainstream, stick-and-ball type sports. To draw an example from college football, no one would be excited to see Alabama play against Idaho and beat them by six touchdowns. People want to see Federer against Nadal or Djokovic, not against some random unseeded pro. When Canada plays Kazakhstan in hockey, it's pretty hard to find anyone outside of those two countries who cares. And while many Americans tune in to watch the USA's "Dream Team" of NBA superstars dunk all over some overmatched nation in the Olympics, the rest of the world is usually hoping the other country pulls out the upset, if they care at all.

Yet in combat sports, people do want to see these one-sided ass kickings. A couple years back, Silva put on a couple of uninspiring performances over Thales Leites and Patrick Cote. The UFC's solution was to match him with Forrest Griffin, someone they figured (rightly) would continue pressing forward even against a sniper like Silva. The result was one of the most embarrassing blowouts in modern UFC history, ending with this absurd Matrix-like sequence:

Both tomorrow's UFC 153 card and the Jones/Belfort UFC 152 card featured interesting co-main events. UFC 153 has a very close matchup (-120/+110) between Erick Silva and Jon Fitch, and UFC 152 offered the inaugural flyweight title fight between Demetrious Johnson and Joseph Benavidez. The reception to this latter fight was quite interesting.

For much of the fight, Johnson controlled the ring with quality ring generalship and brilliant footwork, getting in range to land combinations on Benavidez while evading the latter's counters. But except for a brief moment in the fourth round where Benavidez locked up a dangerous-looking guillotine, there was never the sense that either fighter would be able to stop his opponent. I thought the fight was not a great fight by any means, but reasonably entertaining. Yet many in the audience seemed to hate it and booed the fight vociferously.

It got me to thinking about what draws people to combat sports versus stick-and-ball sports. Of course, there are numerous great examples of epic fights that are close, edge-of-your-seat nail-biters or amazing come-from-behind miracles (Edgar/Maynard II, Silva/Sonnen I). Any time you get the best of the best putting on a dramatic back-and-forth match, it's a classic, regardless of the sport.

But on the opposite end of the spectrum, I don't know of any really memorable 61-3 football games, 8-0 hockey games, or 6-0, 6-2, 6-0 tennis matches. But anyone who was around sports 15 years ago remembers how Mike Tyson would be the hottest ticket in Las Vegas, uppercutting people's heads off in the 1st or 2nd round. People famously showed up for Tyson fights late (skipping the undercard) only to find out that the fight was already over. Silva/Griffin was such a memorable fight not in spite of, but because Griffin was so overmatched. Both Johnson/Benavidez and even a more entertaining affair in the recent Frank Edgar/Ben Henderson match fell under the radar, but people consistently go crazy when there is an obscene knockout or a dude helplessly takes 30 consecutive punches en route to a TKO. I can name many examples of truly uninteresting fights that people stood up and cheered for simply because someone's ass was being badly beaten.

I am (obviously) not a member of the holier-than-thou crowd which thinks that MMA and boxing are barbaric. I love the combat sports and they are beautiful to me. And I hold myself no better than anyone else: I am legitimately interested to watch Silva/Bonnar tomorrow night because it means I get to watch Anderson Silva do what he does best, which is use his fists, elbows, feet and knees to destroy people in mind-blowing ways. But it is interesting to me that this totally lopsided fight will likely draw more viewers than say, the Edgar/Henderson and José Aldo/Chad Mendes fights from earlier this year which both featured the consensus #1 versus the consensus #2 fighters in the division. When the two best teams in football, basketball, baseball or hockey meet up, you can be sure that fans of those sports will tune in. Yet in combat sports, unless someone is about to be beaten to a bloody pulp, only the hardcores seem to care.

Thoughts? Are people -- and in particular fight fans -- secretly actually snuff fans? Do they really just want to watch someone get pulverized? Or is there more to this?


  1. People want to watch greatness. You don't HAVE to watch Alabama/Idaho because #2 and #6 are playing on another channel (and tbh there's not a ton of noticeable difference to casual fan between #1 and #2), or you can just wait a week and watch Alabama/LSU. There is nobody like Anderson and even the most casual fan can recognize this. Fighters fight so rarely that it's not like we can just change the channel and watch Jon Jones fight or wait a week and watch Andy/GSP.

    Of course it's going to be a 1 sided massacre, but there's going to be about 30 seconds of "Holy shit, did you see that?" I feel like people are more interested in that feeling than the satisfaction of watching a 5 round technical battle.

    1. I like this comment a lot, and I mostly agree with it. One thought:

      "There is nobody like Anderson and even the most casual fan can recognize this."

      So, Silva's dominance is awesome but it's not unparalleled. GSP, Aldo and now Jon Jones are on similar runs. So I assume what you mean by this is that Silva does such awesome shit like Matrix-dodging Griffin, front kick sleeping Belfort and standing back-elbowing Fryklund. I assume this is like the analog to Lebron doing crazy dunks against random ex-Soviet republics in the Olympics.

  2. I saw a photo in the latest Sports Illustrated of a 25 car crash at Talladega. That's got to be a lifetime highlight for racing fans.

  3. To answer your three closing questions, yes, yes, and probably not.