You Can’t Have MMA Without Wrestling (Rebuttal to Michael Schiavello)

Posted on May 18, 2010

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Michael “The Voice” Schiavello recently gained a lot of attention for an editorial he wrote titled “Is Wrestling Taking the Martial Arts Out of Mixed Martial Arts?” for Heavy.com (link). In it, he argues…

…well, I’ll be honest, I’m not one hundred percent sure what he’s arguing.

I guess he’s saying that to call the sport “Mixed Martial Arts” is a misnomer, because it incorporates things like boxing and wrestling, which aren’t really martial arts. At least, that’s what he ends up saying, although it seems that his real problem is that he doesn’t find wrestling to be all that exciting and that the wrestlers in MMA are dragging down fight quality and subsequently stifling the sport’s popularity.

But here’s the thing: if you don’t like the wrestling aspect of MMA, there’s this great sport called kickboxing that you can give a try. Oddly enough, it’s never taken off in this country despite it containing all the exciting aspects of the stand-up games and various martial arts disciplines, but none of that poisonous wrestling.

Okay, that’s a little unfair, but it gets to the crux of my point: if you can’t at least appreciate the wrestling, let alone sit through it, then you’re not really a fan of this sport.

Chastising the wrestling tactics employed by various fighters is like complaining that there’s defense in the NFL. Not every game is going to be an exciting nail-biter, but that’s the risk you take with sports.

Granted, combat sports are a different animal than what we consider more traditional (re: team) sports. In MMA, much of the game is in its promotion. While organizations like the NFL, the NBA, and Major League Baseball do pool much of their money and resources towards promotion, it’s more promoting the sport as a whole or specifically an entire post-season, rather than any individual match-up (with exceptions such as the Yankees/Red Sox rivalry). In MMA, you can have brand recognition, but the key component is the promotion of a single fight to carry an entire card.  In that sense it can almost be as much entertainment as it is sport.

However, once that bell rings, all of the control exerted by the promotional machine behind the fight goes out the window. Sometimes the fights deliver on the exciting hype and sometimes they don’t. When it doesn’t, is it really going to drive fans out of the sport? Sure, it might turn off some casual fans, that’s for certain. But those aren’t the people that are going to come back to buy the next pay-per-view, or the one after that.

I do and don’t empathize with Schiavello. Being an MMA fan since I started buying Pride shows on bootlegged VHS tapes in Chinatown during my weekend excursions to New York City in the early 2000s, I’ve certainly seen my share of boring and uneventful fights. On the other hand, I’m one of the few people I know who actually enjoys watching the Jake Shields of the sport do their thing.

When Schiavello says Mixed Martial Arts isn’t really about Martial Arts, he’s right. But that’s the problem with his entire argument: MMA hasn’t been about “martial arts” for the better part of the last fifteen years.

The sport that you watch now isn’t what the Gracies had in mind. They really wanted to put men of different disciplines in an Octagon in an effort to prove that Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu was the superior martial arts discipline in terms of practical application. But as the sport became regulated and rules and equipment were added, it morphed into a combat sport with its own approach and, in many ways, a fighting system and discipline in and of itself. When the New Jersey State Athletic Commission adopted the rule changes, I’d argue that it didn’t just make MMA as it was understood safer. It radically altered and transformed it into an entirely different combat sport that is what we see today.

Which is why coming at any argument regarding MMA from a martial artist’s standpoint can be (though isn’t always) a fool’s errand. Schiavello’s rant reads like a karate student going on the offensive against MMA because his specific style, for the most part, doesn’t lend itself very well to the sport. The thing is, though, that it doesn’t really matter, because MMA isn’t about Martial Arts. Karate isn’t more or less effective than wrestling, it just isn’t a fit for the specific sport that MMA has become.

Which brings me back to the point of educating yourself about MMA.

Wrestling isn’t going anywhere. Rule changes have been adapted for years to prevent the abundance of grappling, even to the point of creating over-zealous referees that can stifle a Jiu-Jitsu expert’s submission game with premature stand-ups and warnings. Neither is wrestling going to ever truly dominate with the sport having no shortage of stand-up specialists who now how to defend against a takedown. It’s no more or less dominant or prevalent than boxing or Muay Thai.

It also doesn’t necessarily have to be as boring. If you can learn to appreciate the finer points of a sport like football or baseball, where many fans develop a greater appreciation for things like statistics and strategy through patience and analysis, then one can also develop an appreciation for the ground game, takedowns, guard passes, and a ground and pound offense just to name a few elements that wrestling brings to the sport.

I can’t put enough emphasis on that word: sport. Because while it may be different from the kind of sport most in the mainstream are accustomed to, it is still a sport. There’s no denying it, and we can’t lay claim to the title unless we also concede that we’re not watching it for pure entertainment value.

Besides, with all due respect to K-1, I’ve sat through those cards and even the ones with a multitude of stoppages and knockouts can be a  real chore to watch if you don’t have a real passion and appreciation for it. To bring it further, you can find examples of boring fighters of every discipline in MMA itself. Hell, some of the worst fights I’ve seen have involved guys like Brandon Vera and Tim Sylvia, for whom neither can list wrestling as a strong suit.

Wrestling is a key integral of MMA, and one has to either accept its presence or move on to something else. Pure entertainment value will only take the sport so far. You need aspects like wrestling to make it something more than a spectacle. Take away wrestling and you basically have the Arena Football version of MMA. And although they may say otherwise, it’s been tried and people will not watch or get behind it.

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