It is a confession of fight fans and fighters alike that there may not be amongst them a very high level of knowledge on sports outside of fighting. It can be downright humorous to hear fighters have to read ads on podcasts or try and comment on other sports – Chael Sonnen is a favorite of this writer when football is at bat (see what just happened there?). Remember that time Conor McGregor fearlessly took that near half-court basketball shot at MSG and made it? No, no one was fooled into thinking he had ever played an actual game before. He is just that guy.
As much as UFC President Dana has spoken about MMA rivaling more mainstream sports, you might think there would be more similarities. Not so. Can you say 'Reebok deal' (is debacle too strong a word here)? One area where combat sports is most disparate in comparison to other sports is how the levels of talent are gauged. While it is impossible not to respect the bigger promotions' matchmaking and it is very rare where two fighters are heavily mismatched, there is still an odor or hint of arbitrary in the process for better or worse. Sometimes it is an outright smell – ahem – Ngannou's next opponent, anyone?
Aside from the issues relating to fairness, this brings up questions to be sure. Maybe even more questions than answers. As rare as it is to have two fighters completely lack parity, there are times when that lack of parity is exactly what is expected and there is big surprise. For example, how many fighters can say they lasted with and were not dominated by 29-0 retired champ, Khabib Nurmagomedov? Somehow, a short-notice fight with number 11th ranked Al Iaquinta has aged pretty well over time as he was one of the few who accomplished just that and not many would claim to have been able to gauge Al's ability to do that in advance. In the major sports league drafts, it is pretty clear that the top college athletes are probably capable of competing at the highest level. In baseball, players can be in the minor leagues, move up to the majors, and then back down to the minors in very short periods of time and with frequency.
The somewhat educated fight fan can see the difference in an experienced pro fighter's skillset and maturity and someone who may be just coming up from either the amateurs or a smaller/regional promotion. For the most part things will become evident even within a specific fight. Things such as fighters being overzealous, punching themselves out, relying too heavily on a given technique while the fight gets away from them, hunting for the knockout, etc. can show the level of green a given fighter might be. It remains to be seen if, as the sport of MMA progresses, the levels and skills will be as clear as they can be in other sports. As of now, it is pretty much solely in the hands of matchmakers to determine who gets called up from the proverbial minors or when a number 11 fights for a vacant title like Iaquinta did. Best for us to keep that pesky "M" word (ssshhh, it's meritocracy) out of our mouths and just appreciate that for the most part the oligarchs who deliver great cards have been pretty good at it. But fair warning (if that qualifies as a pun, it was unintended) if MMA is growing on you. The discerning fan will see more and more that all is not always fair in love and MMA. Something crazy like a professional wrestler (or two) might come in and get to fight on main cards in the big leagues or something. Oh, wait...
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