Would you be interested in watching a sanctioned fight between two faded sports celebrities? Of course you would — don’t lie to me. Now, would you pay good, hard earned money in order to see this organized train wreck take place on live television? Let’s be honest with each other: yes, yes, a thousand times yes. There is an undeniable attraction involved in witnessing two inflated, larger-than-life personalities punch each other in the face in order to determine who would win in a fight. It seems that right about now the mainstream MMA world is finally catching on to this trend and is finding new and exciting ways to turn morbid curiosity into cold, hard cash.
Last month, Heisman trophy winner and ex-NFLer Herschel Walker made his mixed martial arts debut to much fan fare at Strikeforce’s Jan. 30 pay-per-view (PPV) in Miami. Ultimately, Walker won his fight against the equally untested Greg Nagy but what’s more interesting (perhaps alarming) for MMA fans is that, as a 47-year old rookie, Walker was not only featured on the main card, he was almost certainly the biggest draw of the whole event.
For weeks leading up to Strikeforce’s PPV, sports outlets, such as ESPN and Sports Illustrated, followed the story of the football-player-turned-fighter but typically left unmentioned the fact that the event was also hosting two title bouts involving seasoned, legitimate competitors. Even Strikeforce’s own commercials for the PPV event frequently focused directly on the debut of a former Heisman trophy winner as one of its strongest selling points. The headline blazoned across the Tsn.ca website which served as a summation of the entire Jan. 30 event simply read, “Herschel Walker earns victory in debut at Strikeforce: Miami.”
Also featured almost just as frequently in ads was the Strikeforce debut of former pro wrestler and human freak of nature, Bobby Lashley. Like Walker, Lashley was going into his fight with relatively little credits to his name to suggest he should be taken seriously in the world of mixed martial arts. He is, however, a giant of a human being and has an interesting back story that includes a run as the ECW champion.
In case the point hasn’t been painfully obvious already, MMA promoters are beginning to find significant financial success in interesting fighters rather than, say, relevant fighters. Mixed martial arts monolith UFC has enjoyed perhaps the most success from this trend over the past year or so. Any hardcore MMA enthusiast will readily tell you that Kevin “Kimbo Slice” Ferguson has no place anywhere near the upper echelon of competition that is the UFC; the only fights he is fit to partake in are more like stunts in nature, having no implication in rankings and certainly not in the title picture. Despite the fact that Kimbo is a slow moving 35 year-old with a one dimensional fight strategy, he is currently one of the hottest commodities in all of MMA.
Slice was a contestant on the latest season of UFC’s reality show The Ultimate Fighter, and, although he’d never proved the supposed credentials behind his hype, the Internet sensation managed to draw the best ratings of the show’s ten season history. Years before ever stepping foot in the UFC octagon, Slice had already become famous for a series of bootlegged backyard fist fight videos uploaded onto YouTube.com. Much like the Strikeforce commercials, UFC’s reality show pulled no punches when it came to adverts; the sales pitch for the show was 90 per cent Kimbo, 10 per cent everything else. The show might as well have been called UFC: Street Certified, as the company tried at every opportunity to exploit Slice’s street fighting angle to the fullest possible extent.
So we’ve got an NFL football player, a professional wrestler and a street fighter bringing in some of the largest buzz MMA has seen in its relatively short history. Once again: interesting fighters over relevant fighters. Whether anyone in the MMA world likes to admit it or not, these promoters are drawing significant inspiration from the same type of pitch model that made Hulkamania possible. Companies like the WWE have made use of personalities like the Undertaker, Big Boss Man, Ultimate Warrior and Rowdy Roddy Piper in order to draw spectators into their show, piquing some sort of morbid curiosity that wants to know what happens when a clown fights an Elvis impersonator.
Speaking of clowns, you’re still interested in that fight between two faded sports celebrities right? Not more than 24 hours after Walker took home a victory on Jan. 30 did ex-MLB slugger Jose Canseco throw down a tweet-challenge.
“I guess I may have to show Herschel Walker who the real bad boy of the sports industry is,” said Canseco via Twitter.com. “If the powers that be are reading, I want in.”
Nowadays Canseco is known more for ridiculous stunts than he is for his former professional career. The last time the Cuban native was seen inside the ring, he was getting punched into the fetal position by a seven-foot tall Korean kickboxer — not the kind of outing that typically inspires more interest. But that’s just the thing, I am interested; I would love to see Canseco go toe-to-toe with Walker just as much as I would love seeing Razor Ramon take on Bam Bam Bigelow in a no-holds-barred cage match. What we are witnessing here is an evolutionary phase in a business that is both lucrative and ludicrous — but also fun to watch.