MMA Turning into Striker's Game: The Evolution of a Sport

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As a religious mixed martial arts fan, it's hard not to notice the new trend in the sport to keep fights standing up or "on the feet." The last few UFC cards, most notably UFC 121, have featured almost exclusive Kickboxing/Muay Thai and toe-to-toe brawls with very little ground game or wrestling involved.

This sport is one that is always evolving over time, but now it appears the direction of the evolution of the most dominating MMA style is moving more toward boxing and striking than ever before. It is increasingly important for fighters not only to win, but to "put on a show" for the crowd, the promoters, and the TV viewers in order to get people talking and generate popularity that will help each previously-unknown fighter rise through the ranks.

This is not exclusively a UFC issue, and it might not be a bad thing for the sport if the typical MMA match soon becomes more of a brawl than a stylistic chess match. The crowd is often a huge motivator in even top level MMA matches and in all leagues and venues. The way they cheer or jeer can sometimes drive the fight. Sometimes even the broadcasters jabbering about who's doing what can't drown out all the booing and catcalling at referees and fighters from a restless crowd when the action is slow.This reality simply makes for better fights and encourages both guys and gals in the fight game to keep their matches exclusively on the feet, favoring striking with elbows, hands, knees, and feet over rolling around the mat with opponents.

Slugfests also make good highlight reel clips, and it gets people talking more about the sport. Case in point: Cain Velazquez's victory over Brock Lesnar in the main event of UFC 121. Lesnar showed he has an issue with reach and punching power. It seems he always lands the better punches in his battles when he's in the top position, towering over an opponent and dropping relentless hammer fists. Velasquez is a more natural striker, hailing from Mexico where boxing is a staple. He was the only fighter on the pay per view card who ended his fight early, and he put on a classic boxing clinic and muay thai expose to boot. The crowd loved it, the internet was abuzz with the news of Brock's defeat, and viewers at home got to see a Tyson-esque performance from Velasquez, which was exciting and invigorating for MMA itself.

During a recent interview with Ferrid Kheder, a mixed martial artist who's tangled with plenty of UFC veterans and started out as a world class Judo player, he emphasized the pressure on fighters now to finish fights. He advocates a scoring system that would never leave it in the hands of the judges where all full fights end as a draw. While this might seem like a drastic and strange step to take, it would no doubt have a great effect on how fighters compete and how hard they work for submissions and knockouts. Maybe it would have too much of an effect and would be too controversial, but it's worth it for an upstart small mma league to try the approach and make it a true to life experiment. 

Already the UFC has a bonus system in place that may often have an effect on how fighters approach particular opponents. Fight of the night, submission of the night, and knockout of the night awards can be the difference between an average pay day and a jackpot victory. MMA is evolving more every day, and fighters are given every reason to go all out and finish opponents, not just to fight smart and strategically. Although true fans and afficionados love a great wrestling and jiu jitsu battle as much as a toe-to-toe whirlwind of action at the center of the cage, every crowd and viral video viewer tends to want to watch the more violent stand-up confrontations over and over again. They never get sick of seeing that and always want more.

As this trend continues, the top mixed martial artists will still use all the tricks and tools they have outside of striking, but they will go out of their way to put the show before the strategy if that's what it takes to move up the food chain. I don't see any sign of this striking insurgence fading away anytime soon, and the sport itself is becoming more exciting and more mainstream as a result.

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