The UFC was born a spectacle, in 1993. When it was acquired by ZUFFA in 2001, UFC President Dana White spent years moving the promotion from spectacle to sport, the world's fastest growing.
But SI's Jeff Wagenheim sees signs that it is feeling a pull in another direction.
In 1986 Henry Kissinger wrote an article on how the different playing styles of the major soccer powers reflect their nation's personalities. The English are traditional to a fault, the Germans are meticulously trained and planned, the Brazilians are passionate and improvisational, and so on.
Pro wrestling, being scripted, offers an even more vivid window into the heart of a nation - the promoter can do nearly anything to tailor the content to the tastes of the audience. Japanese fans admire stoicism, so Japanese Puroresu features more genuine violence than do their counterparts internationally. It was by design not happenstance that masked luchadors entertain a Latin American audience moved by mystery and magical realism.
And what about America? American's love drama, so 'rasslin' always had baby faces and heels. But Vince McMahon's genius was to turn it into a soap opera, with story lines that can unfold across a season, or years. Skills on the mic are as critical to achieving breakthrough success in the WWE.
Waggenheim sees in the UFC now the tug of an audience that loves drama, villains, heros, and talk.
The mixed martial arts game is entering a brazen new world. Just as the days when a skinny jiu-jitsu black belt from Brazil could choke "Uncle!" out of musclebound man mountains eventually gave way to an avalanche of multidimensional athletes who can hurt you in more ways than there are sides to an octagon, now we're transitioning to an era that to sports purists like me feels less like an era and more like an error. It's not what you do or what you've done that matters, goes the thinking of today's UFC, it's the way you say what you're going to do. Fighting words aren't just idle chatter anymore. They're the last word.
It's as though Chael-ing is the game's new martial art.
The biggest talker has been Junior dos Santos, which is surprising because he's always been the quiet type who lets his thunderous fists do the talking. The Brazilian recently found time to bluster a bit about two other large men: Alistair Overeem and Wladimir Klitschko.
Overeem took a page out of Sonnen's self-promotional tome a few months ago and nearly talked his way into a title fight, going on and on about how Junior supposedly was scared of him. That's a claim The Reem is in no position to back up, however, being under suspension following a drug test in May. And Dos Santos used that as a jumping-off point in turning the table, Sonnen-style, calling Overeem a fake who is undeserving of a title shot ... but who is in for a beating should they eventually meet.
"Don't be scared, homie!" came the challenge the other day on Twitter. No, it was not being issued by the originator of that MMA catchphrase, Nick Diaz. It actually was being directed at him by Josh Koscheck, one of the few UFC fighters who would seem to not need a lesson in trash talking from Chael Sonnen.
Twitter has had its share of 140-character pontification this week about the possibility of Michael Bisping and Vitor Belfort fighting on the UFC's January card in Brazil.
If I had to guess, I'd say Belfort is in and Bisping needs some convincing. Michael has Anderson Silva on his mind, and he's even heard his name mentioned by Silva's manager, Ed Soares, who seems to be unable to pronounce the name of another top-of-the-heap guy, Chris Weidman. The unbeaten New Yorker has meritocracy on his side, having smashed top contender Mark Muñoz in his last fight. But Bisping has the most lethal weapon in MMA at his disposal: a mouth. And he's been using it to call for a Silva fight. Is he willing to take a detour in the direction of Belfort?
Both Bisping and Diaz, in fact, have voiced the same desire to step into the cage with "The Spider." But now Nick instead appears to be in line for Josh Koscheck. Michael might be getting Vitor Belfort. The question for them to ask themselves: What would Chael do? Well, let's just say that when Sonnen set his sights on Jon Jones, he got his man, even though that man is the champion of a different weight class. Neither Diaz nor Bisping is in Sonnen's league, in terms of mouthiness.
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