Note: This post was written after the events of UFC 260. Don’t read ahead if you would like to avoid spoilers.
Mixed martial arts lends itself to some of the most compelling and dramatic narratives found in the world of sports. MMA has seen a huge increase in popularity over the last decade – notably due to breakout stars like Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor – and prominent fighters are finding themselves becoming household names. But the rise of MMA is not only fuelled by larger-than-life personas and adrenaline-pumping action; it also stems from the sport’s immense potential for narrative and storytelling.
The Inherent Drama of Fighting
Professional sports is drama, but featuring real-life stakes. The agony and ecstasy aren’t performative – they are very real. It’s war without the unfortunate realities of death, diasporas, and large-scale suffering. It’s a soap opera, but with real emotional pain. As well as being a physical and mental contest, sport is a performative ritual and act of theatre. This concept is embodied best of all in mixed martial arts (MMA) – a deeply individual sport that boils down to a very simple human concept: fighting for survival.
In psychological terms, tennis is often mentioned as a mentally gruelling sport (to the point where entire books have been written about it) – the pressure is squarely on you. Your reactions, your weaknesses, your mental life is exposed in front of thousands of viewers. There are no teammates to help cover your mistakes, and there is no way to escape a match if it’s not going your way. It can be too much for some people to handle.
Professional fighting is similar, except in tennis – like most other sports – the worst thing that can happen is that you lose. It’s embarrassing, infuriating, but ultimately just a loss. In terms of fighting, the worst possible outcome is death. Deeply rare, but not off the cards entirely. More likely is the very real risk of CTE, of permanent damage to your body, of the need for reconstructive surgery, as well as the emotional impacts of being knocked out: the blow to your confidence and mental health that stems from being disconnected with your consciousness in front of millions of viewers.
The visceral nature of mixed martial arts creates a sense of dramatic tension in itself. A split second is the difference between a seemingly insurmountable warrior and a defeated foe, drained of all their strength. It lends itself to drama. It’s a game of tactics, skill, and physical problem-solving with an infinitesimal margin for error. One wrong move and it’s not simply a point against you; it’s not a setback you can bounce back from. It’s over. You’ve lost.
The Inevitability of Taking Sides
By definition, sports are based on competition. It wouldn’t be much fun watching a football match in which 22 people helpfully assist each other in their shared goal of kicking the ball into the same net. The 1990s would have been radically different if Shaq had gently lifted Michael Jordan to the hoop on the way to a respectful 100 – 100 draw between the Lakers and the Bulls.
Sport is fuelled by rivalries and contests. Two local football teams who, based purely on mutual proximity, hate each other’s guts will imbue a game with more tension and more meaning than an encounter between two neutral parties with nothing at stake. Two competing athletes who are both vying to be the best will bring out the best in each other, and can’t avoid their participation in an ongoing narrative. Think Messi vs Ronaldo, or Nadal vs Federer. This idea is played out in its fullest form in a mixed martial arts contest: two parties enter and quite literally do battle. It’s sport as a substitute for war in a very pure sense.
Many people go into an unfamiliar sports match with no preference as to who wins. After it’s over, very few people emerge as neutral as they were beforehand. Humans are programmed to pick sides. Maybe Athlete A looks cooler, or Athlete B plays with a unique and crowd-pleasing style. It could be that the home team wears a striking orange colour, or that their smooth teamwork makes them more appealing than their rivals’ aggressive physical play. It’s in our nature to pick a side, to develop biases. Are you Team Godzilla or Team Kong? Do you hear Yanny or Laurel? Kobe or LeBron?
The UFC in particular is excellent at recognizing this. The organisation consistently builds interweaving narratives, full of drama and pathos, full of characters with internal motivations and unique struggles that make it nearly impossible not to pick your fighter. It goes right down to the matchmaking process. A young prospect with success on the horizon will be paired against a grizzled veteran who has one final chance to stay relevant. A champion who has failed to get the respect he deserves fights a contender with half of his credentials but twice the support. A Trump-supporting fighter with a controversial history of race-baiting statements battles an outspoken supporter of Black Lives Matter.
No matter the outcome (something matchmakers can’t fully predict), the storyline of the ‘division’ – the greater landscape of the microcosmic fight itself – continues to develop. Who reigns, and who challenges? Who rises and who falls, and what does that mean?
The Rise of Digital Storytelling
The UFC ‘Embedded’ series on YouTube is a simple concept, but executed to near-perfection. It gives viewers a glimpse into the inner lives of the athletes in the week leading up to the fight itself. Prior to this weekend’s UFC event (UFC 260), if you’ve watched Embedded, you knew who Stipe Miocic and Francis Ngannou were; you knew their history, their motivations, and their personalities. In this case, both very solid men – figuratively and quite literally – who would be fighting in the main event for the heavyweight title.
Miocic, despite being the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world (officially) and ‘the baddest man on the planet’ (unofficially), is not the bombastic figure you might expect from a fighting world champion. He works full-time as a firefighter, and the closest thing you’ll hear to a boast is him reluctantly admitting that he works very hard and is pretty good at what he does. You’d have an easier time getting trash talk from a brick wall.
Ngannou, while resembling a colossus made of muscle and stone, a child’s concept of what the strongest man on the planet would look like, is not too different. He’s similarly soft-spoken, respectful of his opponent, even gentle. Again, you’re not going to get a three-minute clip of braggadocio and trash talk out of him.
This is where the UFC as a promotion comes in – Miocic doesn’t need to market himself. Neither does Ngannou. In terms of content marketing, the fighters are the content. The UFC does the marketing. The Embedded series takes you into their lives, and shows you who they are: Stipe is not the stone-faced and slightly dour mumbler on stage at the press conference (wearing a suit and talking to crowds does not appear to be his idea of fun), but a happy-go-lucky man. He loves his family, is deeply religious, proud of his Croatian-American roots, and treasures his friends. He likes fart jokes and acts goofy, giving off the overall vibe that he owns at least one pair of white New Balance sneakers. But that’s not where the narrative ends.
Setting the Stage: Character Development
Miocic is a champion. Undisputed. More title defences than any other heavyweight in the history of the sport. Yet he goes into the fight as an underdog – a fact the UFC’s promotional material in the lead-up to the fight is all-too-happy to remind the viewer of. People aren’t talking about how amazing Miocic is – they’re talking about the challenger, as usual. The betting line indicates that the champion is expected to lose the fight. He is generally expected to lose most fights, despite his nasty habit of consistently winning.
An emotional investment is key for the audience – whether that’s the reader of a book, or a person who’s paying $70 to watch grown men fight each other in an octagonal cage. Miocic is positioned here as the underdog: a blue-collar guy who doesn’t get the respect he deserves, and is fighting against the odds to keep the position he’s worked so hard for. It’s easy to root for the underdog, and in lieu of any other obvious selling point, ‘the underdog’ is the easiest way for the UFC to market a champion who has otherwise been described as being ‘’dead air’’ on the mic.
Ngannou, on the other hand, is positioned as a behemoth. A goliath, even in terms of professional heavyweight fighters. The word used – by commentators, analysts, interviewers, and the UFC President himself – is ‘scary’. He’s a scary man. The UFC has promoted his strength as being similar to being hit with a Ford Escort. Each jab has the brutal impact of a rhinoceros on a skateboard. He’s a monster. He’s destined for greatness, and despite coming up short in his first fight against Miocic, he appears to be an inevitable champion. It’s prophesied by fate that Ngannou will – eventually – triumph.
Originally from Cameroon, Ngannou has a story that could come straight out of a movie, but is all too real. Crossing the Mediterranean sea illegally over a decade ago in search of a better life and economic stability, he was imprisoned by Spanish authorities, found himself homeless on the streets of Paris, and eventually pursued his dreams of becoming a professional fighter. Now he’s here, in front of millions, challenging for the title once again – after falling short three years ago.
There’s no need for hyperbole – all the UFC has to do is tell Ngannou’s story. And rest assured that they do. He’s cast as a proud representative of the African continent as a whole, a triumph of the human spirit and perseverance, as well as an absolutely terrifying contender. All of it’s true, but again, it’s not something you would know without having previously been told. And the UFC is incredibly good at telling you.
The Eye of the Beholder
You could have seen a lot of things at UFC 260 on Saturday night, depending on your perspective. Maybe you saw grotesque violence and changed the channel. Maybe you saw two men with technical skills and qualifications beyond what many people could achieve in a lifetime. Maybe you saw bittersweet scenes as an underdog champion, who never quite got the respect he deserved, was knocked out cold by a gentle giant who completed a remarkable journey that seems stranger than fiction.
Maybe you saw redemption.
No matter what you saw, ten minutes after the fight, the narrative had already mutated into its new form, shaped by the events that just unfolded. Francis Ngannou is the new champion. In the next year, he will spearhead the push to hold the first-ever UFC event on African soil. His challenger? It’s not the only other heavyweight to defeat him, Derrick Lewis, but Jon Jones – a headline-grabbing fighter from one weight class lower, who’s moving up as part of his own journey for greatness. Stipe Miocic’s own personal narrative also developed, with another defeat; another chip on the shoulder of the man who – for now – is still referred to as the greatest heavyweight champion of all time.