Is Bad Sportsmanship Just Part of the MMA Fight Game

“One man practicing sportsmanship is far better than a hundred teaching it.”

- Knute Rockne

While watching Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone and Jamie Varner attempt to work out their bad blood in the cage during WEC 51, I couldn’t help but think Cerrone’s actions before, throughout and after the fight were aimed at helping him secure notoriety and future consideration for fights.

So my question is; was Cerrone displaying bad sportsmanship or is he simply doing what many before him have done and that’s selling a fight and securing fans (and for that matter promoters interest) in his future bouts?

As the fight came to a close and it seemed the two fighters would agree to disagree and give a respectful touch of the gloves,  there was a final forearm shove from Cerrone. Moments later Cerrone calls out to Varner offering him a rematch in Varner’s hometown of Arizona. Despite it being a standard”rubber match” that might very well have came about on it’s own, I’m sure if Cerrone didn’t keep the bad blood boiling this rematch up would have been on the back burner for a while due to the fact that out side of an explosive first round it was easily Cerrone’s fight to win.

The next two rounds didn’t exactly live up to the ‘fight of the year’  pre-fight hype.

So, this got me to thinking what kind of other “Bad Sportsmanship” can be viewed as possibly productive for the sport and what is constitutes just plain poor personal conduct?

In the last few years alone we’ve seen fighters hold submissions after the stoppage, strike opponents after the bell or after a stoppage, we have seen fighters accuse one another of using PED’s or other illegal methods of gaining an advantage ( i.e. Grease Gate), fighters actually testing positive for banned substances, intentional illegal blows, post fight brawls, post fight rants against promotion sponsors, post fight excuses for a loss, death threats, illegal activities in fighters personal lives, controversial sponsors and or tattoos… and the list goes on and on.

Some of this conduct is  just par for the course and some incidents are very serious offenses and reflect poorly on the sport and the business of MMA. The question then becomes, how much is too much?

The Staff speak their piece and we encourage everyone to join the fray:

What is an acceptable level of edgy personal conduct?

Ray Mercado: For me the answer is pretty basic; be responsible, be honest, have some integrity and respect for the sport and yourself, have some degree of respect for the promotion you represent while still putting your interests, goals and career first.  Being contract employees, fighters have to look out for themselves.

Brendhan Conlan: Talking trash about an opponent is an age-old practice. I wouldn’t doubt if long ago some caveman grunted, “In your face!” to one of his clan after spearing a mammoth in a particularly timely or accurate manner. Life itself is a competition so we’re inherently programmed to treat most things we do in a similar manner. However, there are definitely certain lines that can be crossed when it comes to something as trivial as spewing a little smack. Expressing hope for the mortal demise of an individual is one of those subjects that shouldn’t be breached, especially in reference to a sport like MMA where there are literally life-and-death circumstances at play and individuals have in fact expired as a result of damage sustained in the ring. Other topics that should be left out of pre/post-fight posturing are those related to an opponent’s family and other sensitive issues like rape, race, and sexual preference. Mixed Martial Arts needs to move away from the widespread belief many of its athletes are punks/thugs and being mindful of how its practitioners present themselves publicly is an important part of that process.

Other than that, clearly cheating isn’t acceptable nor is physically attacking an opponent before/after the bell.

TE Halterman: I think Chael Sonnen currently holds the patent on what is and isn’t acceptable smack talk. Sonnen, though he has his problems to deal with at the moment, really knows how to hype a fight and I find his level of smack interesting  in the way the more “manufactured” stuff from promotions just plain isn’t. Of course, talking smack and denigrating someone’s wife or mother is a whole ‘nother ballgame. Not cool.

How to you feel about the level of accountability for the fighters and promotions?

Mercado: For me I look at it like any other job, there is a chain of command and when things go wrong somebody’s taking the blame so not unlike a desk job there is a paper trail or some sort of evidence leading to the guilty party and if permissible he/ she may have to pay the piper.

Conlan: I think fighters are obviously accountable for the words that come out of their mouths but also hold the promotion responsible for how they respond to controversial statements. If you allow one of your employees to continually make racial slurs or break rules then you are not only setting an example of acceptable behavior for his/her coworkers, but you are also showing the public at large you have no problem with said actions. As they say, perception is reality, and as such fighters/promotions should understand not only why it’s important to portray yourself in an intelligent way but the damaging effects of behaving in an ignorant fashion.

Halterman: Money talks and suckers walk would be my rule of thumb. Fighters who leave the promotion of their fights to businessmen are likely to miss out on some economic opportunities, and that’s a shame in my book. Doing the requisite amount of work outside the cage also gives a fighter a chance to control his or her own image, and you can’t overlook the importance of that as a modern athlete and businessman. The hope that a fighter is always going to operate as an effective spin doctor and not cross the line is naive, but that being said, fining fighters for exercising their right of free speech rubs me the wrong way.

Do you think promotions should have a personal conduct policy to protect themselves and their business if they don’t already have one in place?

Mercado: I’m sure the bigger promotions have some clauses and some mention of fighter conduct in the contracts but i imagine it’s hard to enforce a detailed policy being that the fighters are contractors and not full time unionized employees with various benefits and pensions, as long as they complete the services they were contracted to, how can the promotion judge or take action against conduct that may be legal but viewed as tasteless or bad sportsmanship. Bottom line I’m sure a big company like Zuffa have enough fine print to keep them out of any hot water.

Conlan: The UFC already has a clause in their contracts allowing them to sever ties with an athlete based on a loss so it seems reasonable a “personal conduct” policy would also be part of the contractual agreement (as it is in most major sporting organizations). Like any business, MMA-related companies need to protect their image

Halterman: I think most of them do, but it’s buried in legalese inside contracts that fighters probably don’t read. I do think expecting fighters to live like upstanding citizens is probably a bit of a reach. I want to see fighters do the work in the cage, not hand out platitudes, so punishing them too severely for stepping on a few metaphorical toes seems harsh in the extreme. To expect a fighter to do a whole bunch of unpaid work for a skimpy paycheck, then fine him if you don’t like the result, is surely cynical. The fight game is made up of people, and not all of them are Boy Scouts – promoters included. Fighters need to protect themselves in a legal sense, and their managers (if they have them) should be tasked with that as well. It’s a sad thing, but athletes are now expected to be “role models,” and I’m not sure I want them to have to bear that burden.

Do you think fighters are just marketing themselves in certain “roles” that help them sell and package the fight? Do they understand the parameters of what’s good and bad for themselves and the sport?

Mercado: I do think some fighters consciously use these personas or roles the fans or media categorize them in to their advantage. MMA is a sport and like most sports some one has to be the underdog, the bad guy, the fan favorite, the peoples champ, the heroes and the guys you love to hate. In my opinion sports are a form of entertainment and at the end of the day sometimes it takes a bit more than your abilities and skills to truly hook and invest fans to take interest in your product. But I will admit there’s plenty of fighters out there that truly do not have to say much and can speak pretty loudly with there skills.

Conlan: In some instances, yes, and understandably so given marketability’s role in a fighter’s overall opportunities. Kimbo Slice is a good example of a Mixed Martial Artist who as a man is totally different than the image he portrays to the masses. Underneath the thick beard, gold teeth, and street-fighter’s reputation is a soft-spoken, insightful individual. However, his “look” and backstory register on some subconscious level with the public and as a result he’s made more in his short career than some of MMA’s forefathers have in a decade. Even UFC heavyweight champ Brock Lesnar professed to playing up the “heel” role after his win over Frank Mir. Jason “Mayhem” Miller is another example of someone who admittedly acts different in front of a camera than he does in a personal conversation. Quinton “Rampage” Jackson howls and wears a chain; Josh Koschek has said he likes playing the “bad guy”. On the other hand, there are individuals like Nick Diaz and Chris Leben who simply are who they are regardless of what people think. However, both sets are at equal risk for making tasteless comments. After all, everyone’s mental/verbal filter works a bit differently.

Halterman: I hope they do, but they’re bound to crash and burn on occasion and stuff foot in mouth. When they do, a little public slap on the wrist  should suffice. They get paid to fight, not flack, and you have to expect an explosion now and then. Some people are just plain bent on self-destructing, personally and professionally, and as horrible as that can be to watch, it also gives the stew some spice. Being a heavy brings some baggage with it, and if a fighter can handle that heat and it makes them some coin, I say they’re adults, and it’s up to them to deal with the consequences of their actions. What’s “good for the sport” is inevitably going to be of secondary concern to what’s good for the pocketbook.

What are some of the moments that stick out in your mind that poor sportsmanship impacted MMA in either a negative or positive way?

Mercado: Positive – I think Brock playing up the heel role after his rematch with Frank Mir made the fans love to hate him and gave a reason to take a liking to his more humble persona upon returning from illness in his comeback win against Shane Carwin.

Negative – This instance wasn’t stateside (thankfully) but when Shinya Aoki flipped off his opponent and carried on with in ring antics after breaking his opponents arm when the opponent failed to tap to a submission. I don’t blame Aoki for not releasing the hold, that’s on his opponent but I do find Shinya guilty of being a douche bag after the fact. If that happen in the US we would have witnessed an act that set MMA back ten years, Japan…ehh not so much.

Conlan: It’s an interesting question – poor sportsmanship resulting in a positive response. Tito Ortiz’s standard post-fight grave-digging has made me smile on more than one occasion. In truth, there are a number of celebrations I’ve enjoyed over the years that could be construed as poor sportsmanship like GSP’s breakdancing or, for more recent examples, look at WEC 51 and George Roop’s “sleepytime” hand-gesturing after flattening Chan Sung Jung or Jose Aldo’s back-flip off the cage while Manny Gamburyan was still motionless on the canvas. In terms of negative, obviously Paul Daley’s suckerpunch of Josh Koscheck was classless. Mark Coleman celebrating as Mauricio “Shogun” Rua lay there injured in 2006 also stands out.

Halterman: Shinya Aoki was riding the ragged edge with his comments following the Kawajiri fight. “When I grabbed him, I felt that I could finish it. When I caught him and tried to submit him, I heard a loud crackle sound. He did not tap so I thought ‘Ok, this match just became a death-fight,’ and I was going to [have to] destroy his leg. I knew Kawajiri never taps so I could not win without breaking his bone. I was hoping for an open-fracture.” That’s a tad harsh and probably meant to generate a little buzz. It did. Death threats? Nah, not so good either. All in all, I think hype is generally good for the game until is drifts over the line into straight up hate speech. I thought Brock Lesnar’s displays, after the Mir fight and following the Carwin fight, masterfully managed. Hated after the Mir fight, Lesnar managed to generate some sympathy after coming back to win against Carwin, and that’s just nice work in managing his image.

2 COMMENTS
  • Dufresne says:

    How about Nakao kissing Hearing on New Years Eve back in PRIDE? Definitely bad sportsmanship to kiss a guy, worse to punch a guy before the fight, but all in all it absolutely still makes my list of all time favorite moments in MMA.

    Agree or Disagree: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  • MCM says:

    apparently the staff agrees with you Dufresne, as they have put the image of that “fight” up with the story. Way to swing the influence hammer.

    One of the things that I have always loved about this sport is the high level of Good Sportmanship displayed by the vast majority of the participants. Especially when you consider that it is a sport that is designed to completely dominate your opponent in the most physical manor possible.
    No one is trying to get past you to put a ball through a hoop or run past you for a touchdown or spin around more times in the air on a board. These guys are trying to punch and kick each other into unconsciousness. Or grab an arm or leg and bend it to the point it brakes. And 99 times out of 100, no matter what the outcome, they will hug and congratulate each other at the end. I can’t think of a single competitive sport where the opposing players consistently show that much respect.

    The two sportmanship moments I think of are good……
    -The Ultimate Finale fight with Pete Sell and Scott Smith. Although most fighters will “high-5″ after a good crowd pleasing scuffle now, this was the first time it was done. And you could tell by the looks on their faces that they could have been throwing down in someone’s backyard instead of thousands of people, and still would have enjoyed the simple purity of the sport.

    and bad……
    -Brock’s cowboy roping after the Herring fight. Heath had a right to say most of the things he said about Brock prior to their fight. Lesnar was 1-1 in his career and Herring had fought a who’s who of top HW’s for years. Brock said the pointing and laughing was in response to what Heath had said before the fight. I found it to be childish and unprofessional as Brock had just spent the prior 15 min proving to Herring and everyone else that he deserved to be in the cage with the top fighters.

    Agree or Disagree: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 2

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