I’ve been involved in MMA for 12 years or so now, dating back to my first pro fight in 1998 right after my 18th birthday. I, like most MMA fans, have seen the game dramatically change from its inception in the early 1990’s. MMA, or NHB as it was affectionately dubbed during the pre-ZUFFA era, was an “odd” sport to say the least. For the common viewer, it was human cockfighting—two guys savagely beating each other for money.
Fast forward to 2010. Mixed martial arts is now a widely accepted sport, understood if not embraced, by more than just the rabid fans. It has been called the fastest growing sport in the world, and the scary thought is that we haven’t even reached the top. Dana White has alluded that we haven’t even scratched the surface. Perhaps that is more accurate still. In this sport of potentially unlimited growth and with fighters receiving better paydays than ever before, MMA is becoming a viable career path.
There was once a time when a high school athlete had to decide which sport he wanted to pursue. This was more than simply a question of scholarships and accolades, but oftentimes a calling to fulfill a dream. To pitch in the World Series, hit the game winning buzzer shot, or even feel the roar of the home crowd as you propel your team into the Super Bowl—all these dreams begin years before SAT and entrance exams, but the pivotal decisions were usually made right before college.
An athlete would look at his favorite sport and endeavor to choose a school where he could have the best chance of being seen, making noise, and reaching that dream. Until recently, those sports were arguably baseball, football, basketball, and perhaps hockey or soccer. All of these sports offered the athlete a proverbial lotto ticket to fame and fortune. On the other side of the fence, a talented high school wrestler could have all the accolades of any hometown hero; however, the dreams of grandeur were often interred once college ended. A Division I champion, 3x All-American wrestler from Iowa could only hope for a chance at Olympic fame perhaps, and then even that is a long shot.
Enter MMA. With the notoriety of the UFC, Strikeforce, and the likes, a calling as a mixed martial artist is a viable one. We have seen time and again the dominance of wrestlers in the sport, from Dan Henderson and Randy Couture to the new breed of athlete in GSP. From the billboards to the TV spots, MMA athletes are finally getting their due. And the kids are noticing. What once was a lunchroom cafeteria filled with the clamor of 7th graders deciding who the best pitcher in the AL is, has subsided for talk of, “Did you see GSP smash that guy?”
For any sport to grow, there must be an appeal for youth. After all, they are the next generation of athletes and for a lucky few…legends. The Ruth’s, Gretzky’s, Ali’s, and Jordan’s are still out there, but now they are able to chose a new path and ask the question, “Should I become an MMA fighter?” This question is one that still plagues meas an adult. It’s difficult to walk away from a sport that shaped you as an individual. How many times has Brett Favre retired, or Randy Couture for that matter?
Should I fight? Can I be competitive? Can I make a career out of this? On a weekly basis, I am asked these questions by friends in the industry who have the urge to fight. Be it the BJJ phenom who just won the Worlds and had a nasty habit of choking everyone who has stood in front of him, or the 19-year old that has been doing Muay Thai since he was 6. Everyone in combat sports is drawn to MMA. It’s engrained in our DNA, it’s visceral. Hunt or be hunted. Fight or flight.
While there is not easy answer when I a masked this question, I generally respond, “No.” Not because I don’t think Bob Striker or John Wrestler is badass enough, it’s deeper than that. If this was 1999, I’d almost instinctually give their number to a promoter friend and ask if they wanted me to corner them. I say “No” because the game has changed so much. We are seeing a huge influx of grammar school and high schoolkids who now wants to be MMA fighters. There are MMA classes teaching 8-year olds sprawl-n-brawl, BJJ, and wrestling.
In my opinion—to be more than competitive—to be lucrative and win enough fights to get the big paydays and endorsement deals, you just have to know. You have to know deep down inside that you were born for this. You can only go so far as a 26-year old striker who is going to start training wrestling, or a BJJ stud who now needs to work his hands (Marcelo Garcia anyone?). This sport is an unforgiving one.
I’m not saying not to fight, I’m saying that turning pro requires more time, dedication, blood, sweat, and tears than 99% of the population can endure. It’s a sacrifice of magnanimous proportions. The decision to make a career out of fighting should be made early in life and not taken lightly. Get into a good wrestling program, join an MMA gym, box, have a few amateur fights. If you don’t have the burning passion, if you aren’t 100% committed, step aside and let that 9-year-old kid in the TapouT hoodie wow you as he becomes legendary. The sport needs athletes, but athletes need fans too.