Selling MMA, UFC A Lot Easier If Fighters Don’t Die

The TORONTO GLOBE AND MAIL recently called MMA, albeit plaintively, “the miracle of sport marketing in the early 21st century.” It’s hard to argue. Even as recently as a year ago, EA Sports refused to believe MMA was a sport; now they’re fighting for a share of the burgeoning market. And now, with UFC 100 in the books, nobody doubts the staying power of the sport.

Marcus Galvao KTFO
(Fortunately, Marcus Galvao eventually woke up.)

But perhaps the confidence is all premature. After all, the one hurdle MMA has never had to clear here in its heyday is its most inevitable, logical conclusion: death.

Longtime MMA fighter Kimo Leopoldo reportedly died yesterday. He had retired plenty of years ago, and his last UFC event was UFC 3, which almost seems like a punchline about Jesus’ Social Security Number. As MMA MANIA notes, Leopoldo had struggled with chemical dependency and steroid use, and his death was due to “complications from a heart attack.” All the same, he was a veteran of the sport, and he’s dead at 41. Sheer mathematics dictate that Leopoldo will be far from the last figure from MMA’s past to die early.

In the WWE, it’s hard to say when the tipping point was. But as more and more young figures from the sport died early in a wide variety of fashions - Rick Rude, Kerry Von Erich, Dino Bravo, Eddie Guerrero, Davey Boy Smith come immediately to mind, though there are plenty more - the notion of wrestlers as invincible figures or even wrestling as a legitimate, safe activity was dispelled. Today, though the WWE remains popular, it’s only as a sideshow aimed at children and fools, the ones whose income flows most readily to merchandising.

Further, wrestling suffered with the concurrent rise of “backyard” wrestling leagues where moronic things like this happened:

An incredibly foolish and isolated incident, to be sure. But it’s also a testament to the lure of imitation. These two kids probably knew perfectly well that wrestling was “fake” but believed they could recreate the stunts they saw on television and still walk away like the pros do. Likewise, what happens when “backyard” MMA catches up with the mainstream product?

Or worse yet, what happens when a death happens in the ring? MMA usually takes steps to avoid the catastrophe, which usually leads to fans angrily decrying a quick KO call. But referees can’t stop instances like this:

During one match, fighter Dan Henderson knocked opponent Michael Bisping unconscious and then - “Just to shut him up a little,” Henderson said later - raised himself on his toes before dropping down to lay another blow on Bisping’s still body.

And though it probably felt good and right to Henderson, one ill-placed blow on a defenseless man can have catastrophic side effects when it comes to the heart, ribcage, spine or skull. It doesn’t take much more than rotten luck, sometimes. MMA has avoided it - so far.

So then what happens if a fighter takes an elbow to the temple and never gets back up, or the repeated punches to the head cause a man’s brain to swell. Does UFC - nay, does Dana White have the ability to recover from the shock and trauma? Do fighters start wearing those soft sparring helmets? Do more rules crop up to further limit the violence?

Or does White eschew safety measures that he may find “overprotective” and not in the spirit of UFC in favor of keeping things the same for fans, only to see another fighter die by similar (or hell, even completely different) means shortly thereafter? These are plausible, if not precedented events. And for once, UFC and MMA in general will have to answer - to the fans, the families, and the advertisers - for the extreme endgame of their sport.

*UPDATE*: MMA JUNKIE reports that Leopoldo is actually still alive.