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by: Bill Thompson
Mixed martial arts is a sport that is growing at an exponential rate. With that growth comes a whole new set of problems, growing pains if you will. Possibly the biggest problem currently confronting MMA is the idea of unification. This idea is ignored by most, glossed over by others, and not given a thought by the rest of the MMA community. However, it is becoming readily apparent that unification in MMA is something that needs to happen. Unification in and of itself is perplexing and what makes it so perplexing to most is that they don’t completely understand what unification means for the sport. Unification in MMA deals with a few different fronts.
The first and biggest problem for unification is the current promotional system that is in place. The UFC exists because MMA currently operates within a system where there aren’t any sanctioning bodies and instead of fighters being able to fight for any event in the world at any time they are restricted to fighting for the organization that currently employs them. This restricts the amount of fights that can take place and it makes it impossible for their to be a clear cut #1 fighter in the world in any given weight class. How can a fighter from the IFL be #1 when no matter how many fights he wins or how high he manages to be ranked he can’t fight certain guys ahead of him because they do not fight for the IFL? The simple answer is that he can’t, at least not logically. I am guilty of keeping worldwide rankings, and I view them as an important part of the sport. But, the truth is that worldwide rankings currently don’t mean a thing and constitute nothing more than a list of names. The promotional system is what stops certain fights from taking place and renders any sort of worldwide rankings meaningless. In this case unification would mean the death of the promotional system. Organizations like the UFC, IFL, and EXC would no longer be around and instead there would be one worldwide sanctioning body. The different athletic commissions would work underneath this body and regulate the sport so that across the board it follows the same guidelines and operates under the same rules.
The next step for unification would be the fighting arena itself. Currently there are promotions that use an octagon cage, a square cage, a ring, or even an open flat mat to present their fights in. This is a problem because each fighting arena brings a different set of variables into play. One may favor the wrestler while the other may favor the striker. What is currently out of favor is uniformity, or one arena used for every fight. There should never have to be the question of how a fighter that has fought his entire career in the cage will fare once he has to step into a ring for the first time. I am not advocating one arena over the other, but rather that in order for there to ever be an even playing field in MMA there needs to be one field of play, period. If this one sanctioning body that I proposed earlier chooses the cage then fights the world over would be contested in a cage. This move would ensure that there was one playing field, one arena so that fighters only had to train for one venue. Fights could be judged on their own merits, not on how different they would have been across the state lines in a ring as opposed to a cage.
Another step in unification would be one cohesive set of weight classes. Currently there are many variations in weight classes depending on the organization. Just look at lightweight, where presently you have organizations that have lightweight classes of 155, 160, 157, and 165 pounds. There are two ways the sanctioning body can go with this. The first measure would be to implement more weight classes, wherein there would be both a 155 and 160 (plus many more, but too many numbers muddy the issue) pound weight classes in every organization. The other way would be to streamline the sport and make it where there was only the 155 pound weight class in every organization, and the next weight class above that would be the welterweight class of 170 pounds. With the playing arena I had no opinion one way or the other, but with weight classes I do think there is a definitive way the sport should go. The streamlined method would be the best option for the sport, all one need do is look at boxing to see why this is the case. Boxing has a myriad of weight classes, and while this may be the best for fighters in terms of cutting weight, it has hurt the sport considerably in terms of name recognition and marketing. Too many weight classes leaves too many champions and top contenders to keep track of. The common fan has difficulty identifying why there is a champion at 132 pounds and another one at 135 pounds. This has hurt the sport, among many other factors, financially and I believe that implementing that same weight class system would only hurt MMA in the long run.
The last step for unification would be a uniform ruleset. In one organization foot stomps are allowed, while in another they are illegal. In one organization there are three five minute rounds while in another organization there is one twenty minute round followed by a final five minute round and so on and so on. The solution to this problem is so simple, yet no one in the sport seems to be willing to address it. That is where the one sanctioning body would come into play. Whatever rules it decides to go with would be the rules across the board. If they decide that footstomps are legal while elbows are illegal then that would be ruleset across the board. If they decide that every fight will consist of five, five minute rounds, then that will be the rounds used in every fight. Much like the use of one arena and one arena only this measure would ensure that the world over fighters operated under one system of rules and one system of rules only. No longer would fighters have to worry about certain things being illegal in one organization but legal in another. Their training would be more streamlined and possibly as a result we would see even better fighters. There would no longer be the question of a fights outcome being different in a different organization because the rules would be the same across the board.
Of course there are dangers to unification. The biggest worry that people have is corruption, that the corruption that runs rampant in boxing would seep into MMA. In that case people need a reality check, because that corruption is already present, and it has been for some time. But, that withstanding there are still dangers. There is the danger that this one sanctioning body could grow too strong and be too resistant to change when the sport needs it. There is the danger that the one sanctioning body could be too weak and too corrupt and end up being the downfall of the sport. There are other smaller dangers, such as weight class system chosen, ruleset chosen, etc, but all of those problems tie into the first two biggest dangers.
The dangers of unification are far outweighed by all the positives. MMA is growing at an exponential rate and for that growth to continue the current system needs to change. Unification would bring that change, and it would bring the sport together. Unification would allow for the sport to grow like it needs to and would allow for the fights that everyone wants to see levied on one playing field under one set of rules in one set of weight classes. There is currently a group, the World Alliance for Mixed Martial Arts, WAMMA, that wants to start the process of unification. They may succeed, or they may fail, but at the very least there are now people within MMA that realize what needs to be done in order for the sport to continue to grow. That, success or failure, is a good sign for the future of MMA.
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