Reaction to Rashad Evans at UFC 114 Highlights Need to Educate Fans

Posted on May 31, 2010

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Rashad Evans used -gasp- WRESTLING to win! C'mon boys, grab your pitchforks and torches and lets get 'im! (photo from MMAFighting.com)

The reaction to Rashad Evans on the internet following his victory at UFC 114 has been disheartening for those of us who have decried the anti-wrestling sentiment that’s been so prevalent in the MMA community over the course of the last several years.

As soon as the fight was over, fans took to internet message boards to start threads decrying Rashad Evans’ route to victory, as if him using evasion tactics and superior wrestling to win the fight was somehow a cowardly or insincere means of winning. It exacerbates a continuing controversy over fan perception of the sport and the role of wrestling in North American MMA.

Quinton “Rampage” Jackson fueled the fire further in the post-fight press conference Saturday night. During what was a rare appearance by the loser of a main event in a press conference, Jackson responded to questions about his performance by praising Evans for having a solid game plan and sticking to it. However, he also blamed his own ring rust, then added that Evans “didn’t win a fight…he won the match, but it wasn’t a fight.”

Which is exactly the attitude we need to drop.

Mixed Martial Arts isn’t street fighting. As ad-hoc advocates of the sport, fans have been fighting that perception for years. The “street fighting brawl” mentality is pervasive amongst political opponents of the sport, and is the very thing keeping it from being legalized in New York State. It’s frustrating to read statements from politicians that paint it as such.

And yet, those same fans who are so quick to correct that misconception are the very same ones with Quinton Jackson’s mentality.

This isn’t an attitude exclusive to MMA. In fact, much of the criticism directed towards Evans is reminiscent of what you see after every Floyd Mayweather fight, where Mayweather’s natural skill and athleticism is overlooked because he somehow wasn’t “man enough” to stand still and let the other guy hit him. It’s perplexing that the same audience and pundits who espouse boxing as the “sweet science” suddenly drop that approach once somebody actually applies that “sweet science” in route to a convincing victory.

For what it’s worth, I think they’re wrong. As a fan of the sport – and not of knockouts – I actually enjoyed Rashad Evans’ performance, just as I’ve enjoyed watching Floyd Mayweather compete. I thought that Evans wrestled beautifully and mixed it up quite a bit. He didn’t just take it to the ground and grind Jackson into the mat; rather, he used various clinches, takedowns, side mounts, great cage awareness, masterful footwork and counter-punching to keep Jackson guessing as to where he’d go next. There wasn’t any of the lay and pray that you often see when wrestlers dominate using wrestling. As much as one could attribute Jackson’s loss to “ring rust” (the real reason is that Jackson ballooned up to over 250 pounds and in the process of getting back down lost a significant amount of muscle mass in his upper-body which took away from his strength), it was a masterful performance by Evans and he deserves praise for his approach.

Additionally, it was the only sensible approach for Evans to take. Columnist Ben Fowlkes (as usual) took the words right out of my mouth hands:

“The pre-fight hype seems to have had a strange effect on some fans, and even some members of the media. They got so drawn in by the animosity narrative they briefly forgot that this is still a sport, and the men involved still professionals.

What, did they think Evans hated Jackson so much he’d abandon good sense and try to brawl with a superior power puncher? Did they think anger might turn Evans dumb, or that Jackson’s smack talk would make him forget that he knew how to wrestle?”

-Ben Fowlkes, MMAFighting.com

Fowlkes goes on to say that he wasn’t disappointed by the fight at all, and asks if he’s in the minority.

It’s hard to tell. Certainly he’s in good(?) company with yours truly and Kid Nate over at Bloody Elbow. If you’re to judge by internet message boards, you’ll probably think we’re vastly out-numbered, but it’s hard to tell when a loud minority discourages reasonable discussion. If six guys are at a bar acting like a-holes and espousing their opinions, the lack of anybody approaching them to say they’re wrong doesn’t mean they’re right. It just means nobody wants to deal with those a-holes.

I’m not saying you’re an a-hole if you hated Rashad Evans performance. I am saying that you can’t judge anything by an internet message board.

Some like Fowlkes put the blame on expectations of what the fight would be. He definitely has a point. It’s almost as if people expected that all the trash talk and animosity would somehow make these men forget they competed in a sport and they’d just grab each other by the back of the head and start pounding away a la Frye/Takayama.

But I’d extrapolate on that point and say it’s a problem of fans simply not being thoroughly educated about or fully exposed to the sport. A lot more people are into MMA now than they were even a year or two ago. Unfortunately, Chuck Liddell let them in through the side door, and now that they’re seeing the finer points of MMA they don’t know how to process it. They’re not the group that came into the sport watching VHS tapes of Pride, where competitors would grapple in front of a completely silent crowd.

I’m not trying to adopt an air of superiority with that last statement. However, it may explain why guys like myself, Ben Fowlkes, Kid Nate, and many of the people I know who are MMA fans could cheer for Evans’ performance on Saturday evening while the rest of the bar booed and called for him to drop his game plan. The ones that booed are the ones that came in watching clips of knockouts on YouTube and “UFC Unleashed” specials on Spike, where you rarely see a masterful wrestling performance highlighted.

For what it’s worth, I honestly think most of them will come around. There’s always going to be bad crowds, but we’ve also seen some that have cheered good wrestling and/or jiu-jitsu. But it’s also on us to continue espousing this as a sport and not decrying good, solid wrestling.

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