Modern mixed martial arts is not quite 15 years old, so it’s still a relatively young sport in terms of its development.
That may seem like a long time to someone who fits into the sport’s leading demographic age of 18-34, so it requires a little perspective to understand that MMA is really still in its infancy.
Fifteen years after the 1920 founding of the NFL, the Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Redskins were each less than three years old. The Chicago Bears’ Bronko Nagurski was the sport’s biggest star and Vince Lombardi was still a college student, more two decades before he became Green Bay Packers coach.
The game has changed dramatically in the 74 years since.
So, it’s not unreasonable to expect MMA to similarly change over time. The NFL didn’t really become the powerful entity it is in the U.S. now until at least 1958 and perhaps not until Super Bowl I in 1967.
That bodes well for the future of MMA, though I’m not buying UFC president Dana White’s prediction that the sport will eventually become more popular than World Cup soccer.
It doesn’t even have to come close to matching soccer’s worldwide popularity, though, to be an enormously popular sport.
MMA will be 25 in 2018, the age at which the majority of major league sports have matured and stabilized their rule set, begun to build their popularity and established the game as it is known today.
That begs the question of how, if at all, MMA will be different in 10 years when it celebrates its silver anniversary.
It’s obvious that international growth will head the list of changes. The sport is based primarily in the U.S. and Japan now, but in 2018, regular MMA cards will be held on every continent.
The UFC plans to promote a card in the Philippines within the next year, as well as moving it to continental Europe. White has spoken of staging a card in Brazil, while UFC chairman Lorenzo Fertitta has had talks about locating on in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.
The UFC’s emphasis on international expansion will benefit the sport as a whole and lead to promoters running shows around the world on a regular basis within 10 years.
“I put shows on in England eight, nine, 10 years ago and we were lucky to get 700 people to come out,” said Monte Cox, one of the sport’s leading manager and the man who has promoted more shows than anyone in history. “Cage Rage came along over there and they got a lot of people out, but that was just the tip of the iceberg.
“The UFC has been very successful with their shows over there and I think it’s a matter of time before that starts mushrooming. There is just as much interest in this sport internationally as there is here and so it has this unbelievable growth potential.”
UFC lightweight contender Kenny Florian agrees, because he believes people are drawn to the fight game and they can understand it more readily than sports such as American football.
The NFL is far and away the dominant sports league in the U.S., but its attempts to market the game worldwide largely have flopped. Part of the reason for that is that fans simply don’t understand the concept of the game.
Such is not true in the fight game, Florian said.
“There isn’t a lot of interpretation that needs to go into explaining a fight,” Florian said. “It transcends cultural and language barriers.”
The sport’s expansion is going to lead, inevitably, to more television coverage, both domestically and internationally. The sport has largely thrived on in-arena ticket sales and pay-per-view sales in its first 15 years, but in 10 years, expect that to change dramatically.
The sport was perceived as a barbaric, no holds barred free-for-all when it debuted in the U.S. in 1993. But it’s evolved into a highly regulated sport with a near-flawless safety record.
The rules won’t change dramatically in the next decade, largely because of that, said one of the sport’s top regulators.
“Let’s be honest, it’s a dangerous sport, but the track record when it comes to safety is so good that I don’t think you could dare tinker with the rules in any meaningful way because of that,” said Keith Kizer, the executive director of the Nevada Athletic Commission. “Because of the great officiating we have and the great set of rules we have, our serious injury rate is so low.”
As that point becomes more commonly known, there won’t be the objection to MMA that there has been in its early years. That will then lead to more television coverage, both on cable and on network television.
Affliction promoter Tom Atencio believes the television coverage will be the most significant change in the next decade. The sport will be available in more forms on more outlets than could ever have been imagined when the UFC struck a deal with Spike TV in 2004 to air “The Ultimate Fighter.”
“I think this is going to go the way of HBO and Showtime,” Atencio said. “And it’s going to really be prevalent. There will still be room for pay-per-view, but the entire business isn’t going to be based around pay-per-view like it has been.”
Affliction has a pay-per-view show planned for Oct. 11 in Las Vegas, but will broadcast its entire undercard on the cable channel HDNet. While HDNet currently doesn’t have great clearance, Atencio believes that in the next 10 years, both broadcast networks and cable networks will embrace the sport.
Children who watch a sport on television often try to compete in that sport. And when televised boxing began to disappear from networks and basic cable and became the domain of premium cable, fewer and fewer children were starting to box.
The added television coverage will fuel the next generation of MMA fighters, who will be younger and more well-rounded than fighters today.
Many of today’s elite fighters are in their 30s and have gotten into MMA after successful careers in other fighting disciplines such as wrestling, judo or jiu-jitsu.
The quality of the fighter will increase dramatically in the next decade as young men begin to train in MMA from the start.
They’ll be stronger, faster and better able to transition from one discipline to the other. Atencio said the next generation of fighters will be “a hundred fold better” and said more and more fighters like UFC welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre will emerge.
Even competing promoters agree UFC welterweight champ Georges St. Pierre is the model for future mixed martial artists.
St. Pierre has black belts in both karate and jiu-jitsu, is a good enough wrestler that he was considering trying out for the Canadian Olympic wrestling team and has become a dangerous striker.
“GSP is the perfect example of what you’ll see coming,” Atencio said. “We’re not far away from the time when you quit thinking of a guy as a wrestler or a jiu-jitsu guy and you see them as mixed martial artists, because they’ll have learned MMA from the start.”
Florian concurred and said he already sees evidence of the change. There are purely MMA gyms which are open now, which allows youngsters to learn the sport as one instead of going to one gym to learn to wrestle, a second to learn how to box, a third to learn jiu-jitsu and a fourth to learn how to combine them all effectively.
The disciplines are being taught in combination now, which wasn’t the case on a large scale as recently as five years ago, and the result will be that in 10 years there will be some amazingly good fighters.
“You’ve started to see these mixed martial arts gyms popping up over the last five years and that will be the norm going forward,” Florian said. “The kids are starting out much, much younger than we started and they’re getting all of their information and all of their techniques at one place.
“It’s going to be better for them, because it’s very difficult for someone who has worked in one sport for years and years and years and has learned that sport’s fundamentals and has its own way of doing things, to kind of pick up the other disciplines that have very different techniques.”
A wrestler, for example, tries to take an opponent down and control him from the top. But a jiu-jitsu fighter is comfortable fighting off his back.
“It’s very new and very awkward for a wrestler after all those years of those wrestling drills to feel comfortable fighting off of his back,” Florian said. “It’s going to be new and not natural to him. Learning the striking game is new. Throwing punches and kicks. Just learning each different discipline is a whole new idea.
“But then there’s the whole idea of putting that into the whole concept of mixed martial arts. So, it becomes, ‘Great, you know how to wrestle now, but do you know how to take someone down when they’re trying to hit you in the face? Do you know how to time a kick? Do you know how to setup your takedowns with a punch or a kick?’
“There is a lot of adjusting and adapting you need to do with each art and you really have to put it in the concept of mixed martial arts,” he said. “That’s something a lot of fighters still struggle with now, but when they learn this all from the beginning, it’s going to be as natural as a shot is for someone who is a trained wrestler.”
There may be other minor adjustments to the sport, like the addition of weight classes and changes to the way bouts are scored. Cox would like to see the 10-point must system scrapped. Under that system, the winner of a round gets 10 points while the loser gets nine or less.
Cox said it’s a fine system for a 10- or 12-round boxing match, but it often leads to unfair results in a three-round MMA fight. He suggested either going to a 20-point must or allowing judges to give half points.
He also said MMA fighters are going to be more in the mainstream and expects to see them hyping the same kinds of products that icons like Tiger Woods and Peyton Manning do now: Soft drinks, watches, television and the like.
“I remember a few years ago, when (ex-referee) Big John McCarthy was on ‘Friends,’ that was a big deal for us in this sport,” Cox said. “It’s pretty commonplace now, but the next thing will be when Nike goes after one of our superstars – and no, I don’t mean Kimbo (Slice) – and signs him to a lucrative deal. I think that day is very quickly coming.”
There will be a lot of minor changes to the sport in 2018, compared to today, but it will all mean one thing:
There will be better fights and more of them.
And that just means I can’t wait until 2018 arrives.