Behind the curtain, away from the cameras and crowd, fighters ready themselves for combat in ways the audience at home rarely pays notice to even when catching brief glimpses of the procedures involved. Hands are carefully taped, then inspected by athletic commission officials, with padded gloves applied soon thereafter to further reduce the damage each individual dishes and takes. Specially crafted mouthpieces (and far less glamorous cups) are put in place. Before even being considered for action athletes undergo medical testing to detect illness, injury, and the possibility of drug use. Ringside doctors sit poised to offer medical opinions and provide care if needed. Referees are taught to keep things entertaining without ever losing sight of the most important aspect to each specific bout; without ever forgetting why all of the aforementioned measures are put in place.
The notion of stressing the importance of health in a line of work where success is dictated through knockouts and submissions seems silly to some, but in reality the concept couldn’t be more important to the recent ascension of the very endeavor that has you clicking on this website. The regulations put in place by Dana White and company to eliminate the original “anything goes” format of the UFC helped legitimize the sport and do away with the general perception the Octagon is little more than home to a caged bar-fight. In reality, MMA owes its current existence to “fighter safety”. And yet, while watching UFC 105 this past weekend, I witnessed two incidents related to the same unnecessary risk every Zuffa athlete takes when they walk down the ramp en route to the Octagon, and I couldn’t help but question how safe things really are in the world’s foremost MMA promotion.
In case you didn’t notice, fans at the event were able to reach out over the railing and remove Mike Swick’s hat as he prepared to compete in the most important match of his career. The same was done to headliner Randy Couture as he walked down to the cage, while also having his towel taken, shirt tugged, and a receiving an overly friendly pat on the head or two. I would love to say the situation was limited to a particularly rowdy crowd in Manchester or was isolated to the one show. Unfortunately, it is the third card where I remember a person in the audience acting inappropriately towards an entering fighter. Kenny Florian’s hat was pulled off before his bout with BJ Penn, and the UFC Lightweight Champion himself was kissed on the cheek by a man during his entrance for his UFC 94 rematch with Georges St. Pierre. The examples may sound ridiculous but in truth they point out a potentially dangerous problem that is no laughing matter.
Don’t get me wrong. One of the wonderful things about MMA is the accessibility of its participants. You will often find fairly recognizable fighters at local events in support of teammates, and the sport in general, who are happy to take a picture with you, shake your hand, and possibly even exchange an anecdote or two. You can often meet them at after-event parties and openly approach them at weigh-ins or press conferences. You can exchange messages with them on Twitter and will often catch them offering their thoughts on internet forums alongside everyday posters. Without a doubt, the camaraderie Mixed Martial Artists share with their supporters is a sacred bond. And though perhaps I’m using a bit of hyperbole to make my point, I’m saying I am genuinely appreciative of those sorts of moments and certainly not opposed to there being up-close meetings between fighters and fans. However, as much as I support the personal encounters between both, I am opposed to the notion people in an arena should have the opportunity to reach over the barrier and give Anderson Silva a “Wet Willie”.
More than that, I’m nervous about the possibilities at play when the PPV lights fire up and our culture of fifteen-minute fame rears its ugly head. You see, while nightclubs and meet-and-greets are one thing, live TV is a totally different beast. Throw a cup of beer on someone at a bar and you might get punched in the face or thrown out on the street. Throw a cup of beer on Ron Artest and you might have a miniature riot on your hands for the media and public pick apart while watching replay after replay of the event on countless cable news outlets.
What is to stop an inebriated jackass from pouring a beverage on an entering competitor’s head in hopes of becoming a YouTube sensation? Or worse, what if someone decides to throw a punch…hell, a beer bottle…at (insert your favorite fighter’s name here)? If you think it is a far-fetched idea, look back to one of the many incidents seen in other professional sports, even WWE, where a fan decided to cross the line in a criminal way. Then, pick a week in all of history and check its headlines if you need convincing there’s no lack of crazy people in this world.
The immediate response from some on this subject might be to forego thought and simply react with a statement along the lines of, “They can just kick the person’s ass because they’re professional fighters.” Is it really a better scenario for the UFC if one of their athletes rips a guy out of the stands and beats him to a pulp on PPV? It might sound “cool” but in reality it would be televised chaos. It would result in the immediate cancellation of whatever bout was scheduled to take place. There would definitely be some sort of involving Zuffa stemming from the incident. It would be a PR nightmare.
What if other members in the crowd decide to get involved once a certain line has been crossed? What if the violent response from a fighter or someone in his corner was in relation to something less aggressive than a punch or glob of spit? What if it’s as simple as having an item of clothing taken? The circumstances may be fictional but in a business as big and important to the future of MMA as the UFC it’s important to pay mind to the hypothetical; to the “what ifs” of the world.
It’s clear the proverbial force field of mildly overweight arena staff surrounding fighters isn’t doing the trick so what is the solution? It’s simple. Widen the aisles. Keep the current security, but also place a row of hired help on each side of walkway barrier’s exterior facing the audience to prevent them from getting too close. If a competitor wants to walk over to the side and high-five a few fans he won’t be prevented from involving himself in the interaction. Rather, he’ll have the option of doing so or instead focusing for a few final minutes before being locked in the Octagon against his opponent.
And voila, you have a relatively inexpensive, seemingly simple solution for the UFC to provide a safer environment for their fighters without taking away from the overall fan experience in the process. If some sort of layout in the individual arena prevents the expansion of the walkway then increase the presence preventing people from leaning in too closely to the fighters. Consider the NFL’s sidelines for a minute. Players can certainly speak to fans if they choose to but there is a clear space between seats in the stadium and the actual field.
I am a firm believer in being proactive rather than reactive, especially when the precedent for predicament is there, the problem is obvious, and the means of fixing things requires so little thought or action. Though I have no indication that the matter is even on their radar, I’m hopeful the UFC brass also recognizes the flaw after the dual incidents at UFC 105 and sits down between promoting “Griffin vs. Ortiz” this week and UFC 107 on December 12th to review the situation. It worries me to think what could happen by waiting for an incident to force the matter of increased fighter security. Frankly, those are issues I don’t ever want to grapple with.