Why Mayweather-McGregor could distract from MMA’s efforts to get mainstream to take it seriously

The sport is booming, especially here in Asia, but cross-code bout is nothing more than a circus act

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 June, 2017, 8:46am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 June, 2017, 8:46am

There’s always a sense of danger when the circus rolls into town. It’s the fear of what might go wrong.

So it is with Mayweather-McGregor.

We’re talking about its impact on the image of mixed martial arts. Boxing long ago descended into farce, with shady backroom deals and dubious decisions blighting both the professional and amateur sides of the sport.

There’s hope for a resurrection among the faithful, fanned by the rise of unified champion Anthony Joshua and a heavyweight division that might just be getting serious once again. But for the most part boxing long ago became its own worst enemy, offering cattle-class service for a the price of a first-class ticket.

There’s distinct irony in the fact that MMA has spent a good deal of the past decade trying to get the mainstream to take it seriously, to cast off the image it originally had of being a freak show (often with mismatched, cross-martial arts bouts that backed that theory up).

The worry for MMA now is that things go back to where they all began.

Led by the likes of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and Asia’s own One Championship, the sport has rightfully laid claim to be the “fastest growing in the world” as it has cleaned up its act. It has tapped in to a wealth of talent – and characters – from the various combat codes across the globe. It’s made itself arguably the most savvy sport going around, both in the way it presents its product in such spectacular fashion, and in the way it connects with the fans who feed it.

Conor McGregor has battered his way to the top of the UFC tree through sheer force of his personality and sheer force of talent. There’s no denying that inside the Octagon, he’s a champion and that his press conference preening and displays of bombast have helped fill stadiums – and the bank accounts of the powers that be.

But for many around the world, McGregor has become the face of MMA. The fear might now be that the sport will have to take the bad along with the good that has come from that fact, and from the farce that will surely descend around his bout with Mayweather.

That’s especially the case out here in Asia where the MMA’s battle to be taken seriously – and as a legitimate sport – has lingered. Some governments – China and Thailand included – have previously held off on the support for the sport. But in the past 12 months, they have started to come to the party, supporting events and establishing national amateur MMA organisations.

Mayweather-McGregor is a freak show bordering on something you see in WWE, not a legitimate fight

The UFC has also been back in the region this week, with Fight Night 111 in Singapore that showcased 10 Asian fighters on its 12-bout card, including China’s biggest MMA star Li “The Leech” Jingliang and the wildly popular South Korean “The Stun Gun” Kim Dong-hyun, as well assorted emerging talent from as far afield as the Northern Mariana Islands.

Later in 2017, Tokyo will get a slice of the UFC action, while New Zealand hosted Fight Night 110 last week. The Australians have been promised an event, too, as well as one other Asian destination, yet to be announced.

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Roll the clock back to May and the whole world was watching in as the wonder woman of Asian MMA, Angela “Unstoppable” Lee, defended her One Championship crown on a Dynasty of Champions card, also in Singapore, that was packed with a selection of the region’s top talent.

The rolling One machine has its next event in Yangon on June 30, another locked and loaded for just across the pond in dear old Macau, come August 5, and further dates this year as far afield as Surabaya and Shenzhen. Both these major organisations have also promised Hong Kong is firmly in their plans going forward.

The hard work is being done to provide a constant selection of high quality events and just this week – also in Singapore – the fledgling International Mixed Martial Arts Federation (IMMAF) was hosting its inaugural Asia Open Championship.

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That organisation is working closely with not only the UFC but the International Olympic Committee to formalise the amateur side of MMA, to train both fighters and officials and create a pathway towards professionalism.

Smaller local organisations are also getting their acts together, as witnessed in April when the Hong Kong-based IMPI group filled the Southorn Stadium and put on a IMPI World Series Asia 6 in April, show that was broadcast on Now TV.

The plan, says Impi, is to discover and nurture talent on the way – and to “unite the communities of the various [martial] arts to achieve one unit with shared values: Respect, Honour and Integrity.”

The hope is that Mayweather-McGregor will be seen for what it is – a sideshow freak that shouldn’t detract from the main event.